Sebold speaks on writing: Embrace chaos

For her keynote address at the start of this year’s Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, writer Alice Sebold titled her talk, “Guts, Glory and Absolute Confusion: Embracing the Chaos of the Creative Process.” She just as easily could have called it, “Godzilla, Nerds and Trauma,” for that was the territory she strayed into.

After Kachemak Bay Campus director Carol Swartz introduced her, Sebold said before the conference she had asked Swartz if keynote speakers ever played fast and loose with their address titles. 

“This does address chaos. It does address the creative process, and it also addresses a lot of things along the way,” Sebold said.

Like Godzilla.

On her mantelpiece, Sebold said she keeps a rubber statue of Godzilla, the iconic post-World War II Japanese monster that has seen more than 30 film incarnations.

“Godzilla and her beasts were released by explosions from the abyss — literally, the ocean depths — but also the ocean depths of trauma,” Sebold said.

Sebold talked of seeing an exhibit in New York, “Little Boy,” that showed the obsession of some Japanese for things like Godzilla. A celebration of Japanese pop art associated with otaku, the slang phrase for Japan’s nerd culture, the exhibit showed things like scale models of Godzilla. Otaku also do things like sketch detailed anatomical drawings of the inside of imaginary monsters.

“These drawings of the villains struck me as primal,” Sebold said. “What is more frightening? A monster, or a monster whose innards are like your own?”

“Otaku” means “little boy,” but the name also refers to Little Boy, the American name for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

“Adults are not little boys. Anyone who is grown up is not a little boy. The name assumes anyone who isn’t traumatized makes sure they were,” Sebold said. “It also acts as a way to shame those who need and want to express themselves through art.”

In her writing, Sebold said she sees as a primary theme the exploration of trauma both personal and general.

“The single event was being raped in a park at the age of 18,” Sebold said. “Eventually, out of this experience I would make two Godzillas, one a novel and one a memoir.”

The novel, “The Lovely Bones,” her first published novel about a girl who is raped and murdered, brought Sebold fame and a bit of fortune. Her memoir, “Lucky,” tells the story of her rape.

The trauma of her rape, and trauma in general, has been the fuel that fires Sebold’s writing. Like Tim O’Brien, the Big Read author and Vietnam War combat veteran who visited Homer a few years ago, a horrifying experience has given her a life’s work.

“The trauma of war and rape invades the psyche because it never lets go,” she said. “It can lie dormant and never let go.”

Sebold said at one point she tried to write about trauma in the whole of it.

“It was akin to trying to jam a round peg into a square hole, because there is no universal war veteran, no universal rape victim,” she said. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder, the psychological effect that can lead trauma survivors into depression, substance abuse and suicide, also can lead to art.

“I think PTSD can lead you to freeze or, if you embrace it, allow you through your own peculiar doorway with work in hand,” Sebold said.

In college, while her rapist was on trial, Sebold said she tried to write a poem that would show a parallel between the trauma of combat and being raped.

“Rather furiously, my teacher told me I should stick to what I knew,” she said. “That was me trying to embrace the chaos of my life and make something out if it that held meaning.”

Later, when one of the conference students asked why that professor had been so upset, Sebold said he had been a World War II veteran and wrongly assumed she had not had any experience in life. The professor later read of her rape and apologized to her, she said.

“You make meaning by making art,” Sebold said. “You decide what your life is about. You embrace it in all its hoary glory, because you have to, because the act itself is what keeps you going.”

Sometimes people don’t want to acknowledge the horrible. Sebold mentioned a woman who introduced her talk by referring to Sebold’s rape as “a terrible event from which she recovered.”

“I had worked so hard, but she was afraid to use the word,” Sebold said. “I asked everyone to stand up and say the word ‘rape’ aloud, not just once, but as they shook hands. I realized that completely accidentally I had created a world of chaos from this. For an hour or so, the world became a culture of connection, which to me is all.”

After the events of Sept. 11, Sebold said she saw a world where trauma had become more universal. More than 10 years later, she said she had to admit she was more thrilled than frightened by Sept. 11.

“After 9-11 happened I sat at tables and bars and heard them lost and clueless. I was suddenly excited to have my world like others,” she said. “I wanted to pound on a table (and say), ‘Let’s build a Godzilla. Let’s build a Godzilla.’ … Sadly, instead of embracing chaos, we wore T-shirts that said, ‘Bomb Saddam.’”

Sebold said she admitted a fascination with the songs of William Shatner. In one song, Shatner repeats the words, “You’re gonna die.”

“The point of the song is, we all know this is true, so why don’t we carry that truth to live our lives?” Sebold said. “There also will be, no matter how much we keep it at bay, chaos and trauma. To embrace it is to understand we are only powerful when we admit we are powerless. That is how I go about writing and living.”

In writing, there are guidelines, not rules, Sebold said.

“The most wonderful thing about the creative process and no less frightening in its wonder is that there are no rules,” she said. “OK, I have one rule,” she added. “Kill the judges in your head, or the very least, tell them to stand down.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at

Tags: ,