“Let’s rip it off quick!” My grandmother pointed at the Band-Aid on my knee.
At four, I equated Band-Aid removal with peas, waiting my turn, and going to bed. Still, I loved and trusted my grandmother, so I let her yank it off. After a momentary flash of white-hot pain, I experienced an exquisite relief. Soon after, I adopted “rip it off” as my motto.
Three decades later, during my master’s in counseling, I discovered James Pennebaker’s research on how writing about difficult events improved your health. The trauma survivor in me saw this as a dream come true. So, I began a memoir.
My initial drafting plan combined Pennebaker’s research with Grandma’s sage wisdom. If ripping off a Band-Aid created some relief, churning out one hundred pages of “look what terrible thing happened” would elevate my health and happiness to the Oprah Winfrey level. Bottle that and I’d become the world’s greatest writing coach.
Except, the exact opposite happened. Writing about endless pain depressed me. Eventually, I avoided my writing desk. When I did show up, an essential part of me cried, “No, no, no.” If I forced myself to write anyway, the work felt flat and superficial.
To write sustainably about trauma, you must P.A.CE. yourself.
- Proactively engage in self-care.
- Activate your internal wisdom.
- Choose wisely and keep it contained.
- Explore your stories with curiosity and compassion.
P.A.C.E. is an integrative approach to writing about trauma that combines proactive self-care, mindful awareness, and targeted strategies that help writers discover insights and resilience inside their painful experiences.
Activating your internal wisdom (the A in P.A.C.E.) helps you to assess what you should write, when to get started, and how to manage the process before working on painful material. The process can also help you if you’re feeling stuck.
But before you assess, you need to know the difference between journaling and storytelling.
Journals are private places where we record what’s happened to us. Sometimes we share entries with safe people like close friends or counselors, but they’re not meant for everyone. While you might delve deeper into certain topics, there are no rules to follow and no bar to meet when it comes to the quality of your writing. Journaling is a safe way to bear witness to your experiences and develop insights around them—especially if you’ve never shared these moments with anyone.
Memoirs and personal essays are curated stories about transformation that have gone through extensive revision. They’re tailored for a specific audience who will glean wisdom from them. That means you must reveal lessons learned in addition to writing dramatic moments well. Getting these projects to a publishable stage requires critical feedback from writers and editors.
Assess your readiness
If you’re interested in writing personal essays or a memoir about traumatic events, you might have some work to do before your project is ready for a critical eye, let alone the public. Many trauma survivors associate being seen with danger—either because something painful happened when they were seen, or they were not seen in some fundamental way, especially early in life. Wounds around being seen can make workshops and publications feel like a walk through an active minefield.
If you’re interested in writing a story, ask yourself why this experience needs an audience. If your goal is to show others what happened to you, it’s likely you need to journal for a while. This is a normal and healthy part of trauma writing. Early on, we need someone to attend to our wounds. If this is the case, the best audience is a counselor or other mental health professional—not a workshop or writing group. Workshops are designed to help writers improve their storytelling skills. Most writers, no matter how compassionate, aren’t equipped to help you make sense of your pain.
Assess your energy bank account
Whether you choose to journal or work on a formal project, you must manage the limited funds in your energy bank account. Rest, self-care, fun, and supportive relationships deposit energy into this account. Everything else draws from it. Illness communities talk about energy levels in terms of spoons. If we feel great, we might wake up with ten spoons. Experiencing a relapse? Cut that number in half. Our job is to use these spoons wisely by selecting the day’s most important tasks.
As a writer, replace spoons with pens. You’ll spend most of your pens on daily living. A tiny fraction are for your writing life, so use them well. The more emotionally intense the topic, the more pens you’ll need. If you’re writing about a highly traumatic event, allot at least three to five pens, and an additional pen or two for the recovery time you’ll need after you write.
For some of you, this is all you’ll need. But if you take pride in a high pain tolerance and an ability to write about hard things no matter what, there are a few stop signs to watch out for.
Assess your timing
You don’t need to wait for the perfect conditions before working on a tough story, but there are times when writing about trauma won’t serve you. Here are just a few.
- It’s too soon: While you can journal any time, stories require enough distance from an event to know what it means—a phenomenon called psychic distance. The amount of time needed to develop psychic distance is relative. For some experiences, all you’ll need is a few days. But if you’re planning to write about a buried-never-spoken-of event, fifty years might not be long enough. Before writing publicly about buried events, work with a trained professional.
- Part of you doesn’t want to: Motivated writers love to see their work in print, but that doesn’t mean the wounded part of you is ready. Trauma frequently involves a lack of choices or coercion. Forcing yourself to write about painful things can re-enact the trauma you’ve experienced. This can make you hate writing or give up. If part of you is saying no, ask what it needs to feel safe before proceeding.
- You’re going through a major life transition: Many writers want to capitalize on the extra time a job loss, divorce, maternity leave, surgery, or pandemic had granted them by writing a memoir. But major life changes—even happy ones like a new baby—are stressful, and that stress requires more pens. Your tough times aren’t going anywhere. At these critical junctures, focus on happy times and joyful activities that replenish the pens lost to transition stress.
- This is your first writing rodeo: If you’re a beginning writer, start with material that has a low to moderate intensity. That way you can focus on developing new skills around scene writing and dialogue rather than how you’ll deal with the pain of reliving a difficult moment.
- Your writing time butts up to important tasks: Perhaps you write directly before work or before the kids return from school. Writing about traumatic events requires both pens for writing and a recovery period where you’ll rest and regain a full sense of the present moment. If your current writing schedule doesn’t contain any recovery time, rearrange your calendar to create some mental, emotional, and energetic room for your emotionally intense writing sessions.
When it comes to writing about trauma there are no gold stars. No one will give you a trophy for writing about unending pain. But you can make yourself miserable and stall what could become a valuable project. Your stories have too much healing potential to treat them like Band-Aids. Proceed gently and P.A.C.E. your writing process.
Lisa Cooper Ellison is an editor, speaker, and coach with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and a background in mindfulness. She has spent the last two decades helping clients and students turn difficult experiences into art and currently teaches courses in memoir, creative nonfiction, and mindful writing practices. Winner of the 2022 HippoCamp edition of the Lancaster Story Slam, Lisa’s essays and stories have been published in HuffPost, Hippocampus Literary Magazine, Kenyon Review Online, and the Keepthings, among others. Visit her website for a free copy of Write More, Fret Less: Five Brain Hacks that Will Supercharge Your Productivity, Creativity, and Confidence.