15 September 2012
Writing About Trauma: Getting Started
“Art is the compulsive search for truth. . . .And art throws those thoughts of man into the exploration of truth, into all possible forms through which art can be illuminated to others. For art is the mirror of the mind in the journey into that truth. . . .Art is the great shadow of man.”
Diana Beresford-Kroeger from The Global Forest
Any writing teacher or book about writing is only going to be as useful or worthwhile as the level of dedication and commitment the student brings to the process. As a college professor, I’ve worked with thousands of students over several decades. Occasionally, people come to me requesting collaboration on independent study projects, usually ideas for books or even books already in progress. Recently, one such student was gently resisting my continued advice as to where to focus a particular chapter of a memoir–specifically I was asking the individual explore traumatic childhood memories. We know roughly what happened, but the writer simply had no way of accessing her experiences. She explained to me quite clearly that there are keys to unlocking certain memories, and for her those keys no longer exist. They had been lost to the passing decades; the memories might as well have happened in another lifetime or to someone else. Quite literally, she told me if the keys could have been produced, we might discover a vault of hidden memories, but they don’t exist anymore. I would say to her, “what about this or what about that?” She would reply, mostly with a look, “lost keys, Marc–lost keys!” This anecdote is not so much a metaphor, but a very real experience for many writers, especially those seeking to explore traumatic experiences.
I believe the wellspring or source of your creative energy is housed in the many mansions of your soul. If you can access any or all of these mansions, you will find the treasures within, but you will need keys (if you prefer metaphors) or methods to open doors. The treasures you may well discover are not often negotiable in modern day currencies, but they are precious to you and your life’s journey. They are the currency of your voice–the missing parts of your soul that when gathered together bring wholeness to your artistic and human experience. By wholeness I mean integration; you are no longer a captive of your shadows. Your story is no longer being written and directed by someone else, for that powerlessness is a great impediment to writing. In the end, you must re-claim this wholeness; the best someone else, a writing teacher for example, can do is to facilitate the process. But there is something very powerful about this process and the effects on others as you share the journey, and that energy is palpable when storytellers and writers connect intimately with their audience.
The biggest roadblock to (and greatest inspiration for) writing is often pain. When undertaking such work, how does one get to the point of catharsis without re-traumatizing oneself? Have you ever told someone a story of something terrible you went through and felt better? Have you ever recalled a painful event and felt the pain all over again, as if it were still happening? How could you account for the difference?
One particularly gifted writer and friend of mine expressed her experience with writing about trauma this way: Her first impression is that writing is like a mirror–it shows you what you feel about yourself, and she didn’t particularly want to see herself go through all that pain again.This particular writer always felt like she had a neon sign over her head saying Abuse Me. In fact, she experienced dramatic sexual and physical abuse as a girl. The abuse began when she was about eight years old and continued for several years. At some point in her teens, she began feeling the need to write about her experiences, first in a journal or diary and later in a longer, more organized manuscript along the lines of an autobiography, which she eventually finished some five-hundred pages later. She expressed her motivation for writing succinctly and directly to me saying, “I could express with words what I couldn’t express with my body.” The pain she had been dealt had literally stayed within her physical body, and as a teenager she began to take strong, heroic measures to eradicate it like a cancer; only problem was her methods were as harsh as chemotherapy to the cancer patient–she developed severe eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, and later even cutting herself to release stress.
Severe trauma has often been studied through the workings of the brain, but the brain within the body, for me, holds more promise toward understanding and healing. In this case, the memory of her pain was literally trapped in her physical body and she attacked it with the most easily accessible tools at her disposal–eating disorders. Her writing, however, evolved into a different type of experience. She said it morphed into a two-way mirror where she could see herself, of course, see quite literally what happened to her, but also see within herself, and at that point some subtle shift of energy occurred. Writing eventually engulfed her other passions for physical self-destruction and helped move her life in a healthier direction. She said of the experience:
"With the paper as my medium, I didn't have to consider how someone would react to me, nor if anyone else might find out. At last, I was able to discuss extremely painful times in my life that I could never have verbalized to someone without fear of not being believed or worse, blamed. Even a decade later, I can't even think of talking about what happened with my 'father', I can only let my writing speak for me. In that sense, I can say that writing about my life gave me the chance to reclaim my own voice and myself, creating a safe environment where I didn't have to worry about anyone else's opinion about what I should feel or say, although doing it was equally painful due to the experience of re-traumatization, which is both physical and emotional.”
So, how do we go from the intensity of a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder nightmare to the cathartic release of trapped and toxic energy through words? How do we avoid re-experiencing the pain while still moving the energy? The most powerful impediment to seeing writing as a means to wholeness after trauma would be the idea that I will be reliving everything all over again if I start thinking and writing about what happened to me. This notion isn’t without truth, and I understand it as a legitimate concern, but the condition is only temporary.
Another writer I know has told me reliving everything is inevitable to some degree; she said “as I write, I feel the darkness in my spirit.” But is feeling the darkness so terrible? Does it cease to exist of we do not feel it? This is natural and something all writers have to address. But is there a way simply to accept what has happened? Could we look at our experiences simply as, well, experiences, and remove our emotional attachment to them? Interestingly, this person has also remarked that writing was also something she immediately associated with healing. Again, she suffered childhood abuse and many years of struggling with addictions as a direct result of the abuse, yet giving voice to her experiences was one of her key motivations for recovery: “I remember one day in the middle of summer in my NYC apartment, with a needle in my arm and sobbing, thinking that if I could only get better, I could write about it. So yes, I did think that I would write about the bad things.”
Perhaps the discomfort, even despair, of reliving the events is necessary and not to be feared—it doesn’t last forever, and the benefits of the process may very well outweigh the risks. Is it not OK to feel sorrow about something sorrowful? Not OK to acknowledge that suffering is merely a huge part of the human condition? Why not integrate that suffering instead of compartmentalizing?
“I seek support so I can let go to my depths”
–Susun Weed from Healing Wise
My work with World War II veterans illustrates many of the same themes. I spent a great deal of time during the late 1990s interviewing combat veterans from World War II. My interest stemmed from the fact that my father, who passed away in 1993, had been a Marine Raider in World War II. He fought in some of the most historic and terrible battles of the Pacific theater, including Guadalcanal, a legendary campaign among Marine Corps history. Yet my dad never spoke of the war. Occasionally, he would talk about the Marine Corps or some of the many exotic places he had seen, but as far as the actual events he witnessed, there was a huge black hole. No information volunteered and no one inquiring.
It is difficult for me to imagine how so many people of the World War II generation could experience so many extraordinary things and so few ever spoke or wrote about their experiences, but when you look closer, the reality is very easily understood. While often romanticized, perhaps more than any other war, World War II was the most significant, horrible, and catastrophic event in human history. The war truly spanned the entire globe as very few countries were spared some involvement. The horrors of the concentration camps soon become known, and the only use of nuclear weapons in history also occurred. Approximately 60 million people died during the war years from 1931-1945, and the overwhelming majority of the deaths were civilians–that means people who simply had the great misfortune of living in an affected country, many of whom probably had few if any options for emigration and simply had to deal with whatever happened in their hometowns.
Take the situation in the middle-east or Afghanistan today and multiply it world-wide. To sum it up–inexplicable human suffering and trauma occurring on a daily basis seemingly without end. Doesn’t really seem like anyone involved would be bursting with joy to reveal what they had done and seen. So the opposite response becomes the norm. Just don’t say anything and get on with your lives. The idea that talking about it would disrupt their return to normalcy as I’ve indicated was well founded; however, the only flaw in that thinking was that normalcy could be attained once again.
In World War II or any war for that matter, the people who experienced the war were not the same people after having gone through the experience, nor could life be exactly the same with either the realization of what had gone on or someone’s actual experience in the case of those directly involved in combat. Still the question always haunting me was again how could they bottle it all up? Act like it was all a dream, and now they had awoken to real life once again.
I once had the opportunity to interview a terrific doctor who in his retirement volunteered some of his time at the Veterans Administration hospitals in California and Oregon. He was a forward thinking psychiatrist who worked with only the most difficult cases at the V. A. Hospitals. He was known to have success with combat veterans suffering from the most severe cases of PTSD and other service-related mental and physical illnesses. I once asked him in an interview about how the process of opening up works:
“Others will get in a group, and they will accept their wounds, their psychological wounds, and talk about where they are and what they are experiencing, and I think that can be healing, as opposed to denial of who they are, what they’ve experienced, how it affected them, because that’s going to come out in some form of behavior–a lot of avoidance– and some will use a lot of alcohol and drugs to avoid, others will just work hard and kill themselves through work, others just cannot relate to others, family even, because they’re so busy trying to keep this ‘other’ what we now call PTSD under control. . . .[all the good programs] try to get people to confront the demons if you please, confront that part of themselves they’ve formally denied, make peace with it and say sure it is part of me. . . .”
The idea of confronting the part formally denied is crucial to wholeness. In most of the cases where people feel blocked or inhibited about writing, there is a strong sense of denial and refusal to acknowledge all parts of oneself. People have many reasons for this denial. In the case of combat veterans, they may not want to recognize all the parts of themselves that emerge during combat, parts they needed to access in order to survive. Of course, the irony is that the troubling aspects of what they experienced are only really closely examined when they have down time or have returned to the United States. This is a cruel trick to play on these men and women, and one likely to inhibit their free expression. In the heat of the battle one’s training takes over, but afterwards one must examine the implications of what war actually involves, and the weight of all this reflection is often carried by the individual, instead of shared with the policy-makers and civilians who’ve benefited from the war in some way. The soldiers carry this burden every day for the rest of their lives, one which writing can perhaps lighten. Again, they’ve got to be prepared to bring these hidden aspects to light, often among a civilian population that may not appreciate the details.
To bring to the surface something formerly hidden.
Look for the darkest parts of yourself—all the stuff you’ve not really wanted to see and write about some aspect of your life you’ve denied simply because the realization is painful.
To get started you will need to write without judgment – judgement of the experience or the people who hurt you or even of yourself. You might try to write as if you were describing the plot of a movie – something happened to a character called by your name but not necessary to you personally.“This is just what happened. . .” If you're stuck or just not feeling this exercise, you might write about the experience as if it were a dream. We all have dreams, but we don’t judge usually them. We don’t get arrested for or injured by things we do in our dreams. Use this imaginary safety net and see if that frees something up.