Trigger warnings and troublesome knowledge
Writers wade around in troublesome knowledge when they are drawn into contentious topics – which pretty much describes all of us – because as academics and writers we are often drawn to researching social issues that we want to improve or change. The problem is though that troublesome knowledge can trigger a negative response when the reader has reaction to the content. Perhaps the reader is suffering from post traumatic stress or they have strong political beliefs that are challenged when they engage with a narrative that they perceive undermines their own point of view.
Since completing my studies I have discovered that publishers also have ‘triggers’ and they might reject your work solely on that ground – not because the work isn’t written well.
There isn’t a lot a writer can do about this. I discovered long ago that my story isn’t for everyone although I’ve often been pleasantly surprised when people I thought would respond negatively have done the opposite and engaged in a positive way.
And then of course there are people who don’t.
I first met Sally (not her real name) on a flight from Cairns to a southern state where a writers conference was being held. We had a lot in common. We were both writing memoirs about our experiences living in tropical Queensland and we were both PhD candidates. That we hadn’t met before wasn’t unusual given that we were studying at different universities.
Sally and I hung around together at the conference. I introduced her to my writing buddies and she introduced me to hers. Over lunch on the second day we floated the idea that we might write a paper together for a conference the following year.
On the third and final day Sally and I joined the other attendees of the conference to listen to the key note speaker, a well respected and widely published author. The topic of his talk was climate change and he began by saying that he had consulted an expert on the topic in order to prepare for the talk. He went on to say that many parts of Australia were at great risk including the Great Barrier Reef. He claimed the reef was ‘dead’ ‘gone’ and could not recover. He said that while we couldn’t save the reef, we as writers had a duty to report on this travesty and ‘tell it like it is.’
Come question time I lifted my hand. I challenged his facts. I told him that the reef wasn’t ‘gone’ – it was under threat, yes, and we couldn’t be complacent, but there was a great deal of research being conducted and parts of the outer reef were actually in good condition. I heard a sigh of relief near-by and several people in the audience came up to me afterwards to thank me for speaking up. Heartened and reassured I made my way to collect a coffee from the buffet table, but Sally blocked my way.
‘I totally disagree with you,’ she said.
‘That’s ok,’ I answered. ‘You are entitled to your opinion. I don’t have a problem with that.’
‘It’s not an opinion it’s science.’
‘I don’t agree,’ I said as calmly as I could. ‘I know many of the scientists who are conducting research on the reef. I’ve talked to them about their findings and I’ve read their papers.’
‘Well I know for a fact that the whales have stopped coming up the northern coast and there aren’t any dugongs anymore.’
‘There are dugongs and whales, I’ve seen them myself.’
‘where?’ she asked sharply – and then loudly, ‘WHERE?’
Stunned I didn’t answer. Sally turned and fled. She didn’t speak to me again, not for the rest of the day, nor when I spotted her at Cairns airport collecting her luggage.
I am not sure what happened to Sally, whether she finished her thesis or published her memoir. I have finished mine and I am out there ‘telling it like it is.’ Not everyone will be happy with what I have to say or will agree with my version of events in my memoir. I am ok with that.
Image: water colour
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