Writing and trauma
I recently spoke to a group of writers who had experienced trauma. Most of them were unable to write, but they still gathered in their writing group regularly, just to be in touch with creativity and keep the door open for the healing balm of a story, the warmth of a connection.
I was invited to speak about writing, but I realized how my usual “stump speech” on creativity wasn’t applicable to this situation. All of my perspectives on things like writer’s block, overcoming creative obstacles, setting a goal and a deadline, and writing with abandon, seemed like they might only not help, but they might do harm.
Trauma is a bull. It is big and burly and overwhelming. It smashes its way through your psyche and shatters all of your assumptions about how the world is meant to be. You’re left alone, stranded, suddenly in an unfamiliar and unwelcoming world.
The bull is unrelenting. Flashbacks, nightmares. You strive to connect to what used to be, but trauma has created a fractured world. You live a second life. As you pour your morning coffee, you’re still trying to escape from harm or understand what has happened. Your body tenses. You’re ready to fight. Or run.
Our brains are wired for connection, but trauma rewires them for protection, as the saying goes.
The creative process gives permission to explore the unspoken.
I haven’t experienced true trauma, not the kind of trauma that wrecks and debilitates. But I have experienced moments of emotional pain and anxiety when I was unable to write. These moments might be better described as “creativity wounds.”
The first time I experienced this, it was at the hands of another writer, a renowned author who I took a writing class from. My hopes were ridiculously high. I wanted her to recognize my talent, to affirm my prose. I was young, and I walked into her class as if I was a puppy dog expecting to play.
When I turned in my story for her feedback, not only did she not recognize my talent, but she eviscerated my story. She might as well have used shears. “No shit!” she wrote in the margins of one page. I met with her in her office hours to ask her questions and hopefully make a connection, but she was equally cold and cutting, offering nothing that resembled constructive critique, just the pure vitriol of negativity.
She said my story was boring and pretentious. She said my dialogue, which others had previously praised, was limp and lifeless.
That was the first time in my writing life that I felt truly defeated. I was utterly unable to pick up a pen to write anything. I’d been critiqued in many a writing workshop before—severely even—so I wasn’t a naive innocent. But I’d never experienced such slashing and damning comments. I’d always been resilient and determined in the face of such negativity, but this time I lay on the couch watching TV for several days afterward, my brain looping through her scissoring comments again and again.
This must be a small version of what must happen with trauma: your thoughts dig into a painful loop as your brain tries to process the pain.
The act of naming
I heard a psychologist once say that unless we name trauma, we are powerless to transform it. It remains an antagonist, an enemy. The reason to try to write is that our creative urges help us explore, shape, and make sense of trauma.
Creating can feel counterintuitive, though. It can feel impossible to be creative in such intense moments, and you might not even be able to find the slightest impulse to put pen to paper.
A memoir instructor told me once that you have to be very careful with writing and trauma because sometimes the writing triggers the trauma, and sometimes a person needs to recuperate more before naming the trauma.
Wounds can open when least expected. Sometimes a wound never truly closes. You can stitch it closed, but the swelling puss within it can still break the stitches back open. It’s always vulnerable to infections, resistant to salves. Time heals . . . a little, but not necessarily entirely.
The question is how to begin again, how to recover the very meaning and joy that we found in our first stories—to recover the reason we write. The hope is that the process of writing will help open a doorway to a new world. When you create, you unconsciously look for openings. The creative process gives permission to explore the unspoken, to express with depth and abandonment.
I keep thinking of the group I talked with because I had so few answers for them. In the end, I didn’t give a speech. We talked of stories we’d written in the past. We talked of different writing challenges. We talked about our dogs and our kids and our favorite books. We ended up doing one short writing sprint.
I think they were dealing with their trauma in the right way. Making the world warm and nourishing again through the act of gathering. Letting their creative connections work in mystical ways.
A big part of the value of meeting was to simply maintain their belief in creativity. Somewhere within them, they trusted their stories would someday follow. Trauma can take away that trust, so we have to recreate it anew.
“Art is a wound turned into light."
Because I’d love you to read one of my books
I write this newsletter for many reasons, but mainly just for the joy of being read and having conversations with readers. This newsletter is free, and I want it to always be free, so the best way to support my work is to buy my books or hire me to speak.