In 2016, I attended a conference breakout session facilitated by a charismatic speaker who’d written magnificently about her abusive childhood. During the Q&A, a writer shyly picked up the mic and said, “I tried to write about my childhood, but after fifty pages I had to stop. I need to finish this story, yet every time I try, I can’t. Can you tell me how to finish my book?”
The speaker emphasized self-care and told the writer to keep showing up.
The following year another writer asked a different speaker a similar question and received an analogous response. Self-care. Keep showing up. Trust the process. If it’s too difficult, write about something else.
In my last post, I wrote about the importance of preparing yourself to write about trauma. But preparation is meaningless if you don’t know how to navigate the triggers and tripwires you might encounter as you write about distressing material.
When coaching writers, many hope I’ll share some magical tips that will allow them write powerfully about their pain without having to feel it. Unfortunately, that’s not an option. Writing well requires an open heart. That means you must relive a small portion of the incident as you write about it. When it comes to trauma, that can be a real challenge. Traumatic experiences can be so intense they hijack the brain. Some defy language. Sitting with them for too long can trigger responses that feel a lot like pots boiling over. Do this often, and you might snuff out the passion fueling your project.
To write sustainably about trauma, you need to operate more like a tea kettle that lets a small, steady stream of feeling pour from you—a process that requires moderation.
Traumas frequently involve crossed boundaries that leave us feeling frightened, confused, and powerless. While you might confront these feelings as you write, you can create boundaries around the process by moderating the content you choose to work on. To do this, make a list of potential scenes then rate them on a scale from one to ten.
The best writing takes place between four and seven—the place where we have feelings about a situation, but those feelings aren’t powerful enough to boil over. Anything rated as an eight or above probably belongs in therapy first. Seeking help before you write is not a sign of weakness. Having a guide counteracts the loneliness and the voicelessness emblematic of our deepest wounds.
When you’re ready to write, limit the number and duration of your high-intensity writing sessions (that’s anything rated at a six or above) to no more than thirty minutes, no more than three times per week. If you have additional writing time, work on low intensity, lighter material.
Focus on meaning
Trauma is a response, not an identity. To write well about the episodes that elicit these responses requires three steps:
- Bearing witness to what happened.
- Assigning it a meaning and a place in your life.
- Letting it rest or letting it go.
When it comes to the harms we’ve endured, writers are frequently encouraged to “get it all out,” in hopes of feeling better. While you might feel some temporary relief after writing a cathartic draft, catharsis is only the beginning. Stopping at this point without making meaning from your experience can reinforce the trauma narrative living in your body and brain.
When I refer to meaning making, I’m not talking about some Pollyanna romp through your material that helps you find the merits of your rape or discover how a brutal attack was actually for your highest good. I’m talking about confronting the misperceptions you’ve held onto, like believing it was your fault, and then uncovering the ways you’ve grown either in spite of or as a direct result of what happened.
Psychologist Richard Tedeschi coined the phrase posttraumatic growth (PTG) to explain the positive changes that can arise from adversity. These positive changes are as common as the negative ones, and can include increased empathy, a recognition of personal strengths, and a shift in priorities. If we continue with the example of an assault, perhaps the attack itself was meaningless and unjustified, but in healing, you now have empathy for other survivors and the courage to speak out around the injustices that cause them.
Once meaning has been made, it’s important to let these events go. That’s how you keep from over-identifying with your traumas and instead make room for the revision that will help you turn something terrible into art. It’s also how you’ll help your readers learn vicariously from you.
There are many ways to find meaning in our stories, but most include considerable butt-in-the-chair time where you’ll sit with and explore those difficult moments. To keep from getting lost inside them, you need a process that allows you to go in, get the work done, and then go on with your day.
The bookend technique
Because traumatic memories can be so visceral, it’s easy to get stranded in our memories and then struggle to find a way back to the here and now. The bookend technique embeds your writing time inside a self-care and community check-in sandwich that’s designed to help you choose wisely and remain in control of even the most challenging writing sessions.
It’s purposefully infused with rituals. When used regularly, rituals prime the brain to work in certain ways. That’s why so many writers drink cups of tea, take a few deep breaths, or light candles to invoke their muse. Rituals can also be used to close out an event. Andre Dubus famously wrote “thank you” in his notebook at the end of each writing session. Hemingway jotted down what came next. Some writers go for walks, ring bells, or snuff out those candles.
If you want to bookend your writing sessions, here are the steps:
- Assess your energy bank account and the amount of time you have available to write.
- Choose a scene with an intensity that aligns with what you learned in step one.
- If you plan to write about something rated at a six or higher, connect with a writing buddy. Tell them the level of intensity you’ve chosen and the length of your writing session, then ask to schedule a post-writing check-in to discuss your self-care plan or to simply talk about something else, like your plans for the rest of the day.
- Perform a quick ritual or do a short meditation like a body scan.
- Set a timer for 20 minutes.
- When the timer sounds, check in with yourself. If you’re doing okay, and the intensity isn’t too high, give yourself an additional 10 minutes. If not, stop.
- Complete an ending ritual such as going for a walk, drinking hot tea, or stretching to end your writing session.
- Check in with your writing buddy as a final way to connect with the here and now.
- Rest and do something soothing to recharge before continuing with your day.
These are just a few of the tricks that can help you write about trauma. Practicing them regularly can turn a story you need to write into one that’s not just finished but also settled.
Lisa Ellison is an editor, writing coach, and speaker 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. Her life story and essays have appeared on NPR’s With Good Reason and in Hippocampus Literary Magazine, Kenyon Review Online, Huffington Post, and The Guardian, among others. She’s currently working on a memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped her survive her brother’s suicide. To learn more about Lisa’s work and writing, check out her website or follow her on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen.