Writing Through Trauma

This week we’re discussing writing through distraction, and I thought I’d put my memoirist’s spin on the topic: writing through trauma, which is, in a way, very similar.

The heart of succumbing to distraction often comes down to avoidance, and it just so happens that avoidance is also a key component of post-traumatic stress disorder. Those with PTSD sometimes go to extreme lengths to avoid situations that remind them of the triggering event. Say, for instance…writing about that original trauma. Oh the irony of memoir writing!

When I was writing Caged Eyes, there were many days I wasn’t able to type a single word; I’d do anything but force my brain to relive those memories and find words to capture them. Then I’d feel badly about my terribly slow progress, and the guilt would only make matters worse.

But somehow I found a way through. The only explanation I can come up with is persistence. The day after avoidance defeated me, I’d put my behind back in the chair and try again. I know many other memoirists who also struggled to push through avoidance as a symptom of PTSD, and perhaps knowing I wasn’t alone in the struggle helped as well.

Writing memoir has to be a balancing act. On one hand, obviously you’ve got to eventually make progress. But on the other, you need to honor the reason behind the avoidance: self-protection. We avoid so that we can protect ourselves from re-traumatization. If you ignore those inner needs, you are bound to make it harder for yourself in the long-run. [tweet_dis]Sometimes you have to give yourself permission to take a day off[/tweet_dis], or a week off, or even a year off (I did!). Or sometimes you have to go for a hike rather than finishing that chapter (Did that too!).

The second part of crucial self-care for memoirists is to keep yourself grounded when you are writing. For instance, make sure your work environment is set up to be a nurturing as possible. I’d often light a candle, or pull a cat into my lap, or let myself wear my comfiest clothes. Surprisingly one thing that helped me was to set up a second monitor so that I could watch a movie while I worked. I’d often put on something soothing like Planet Earth (pro-tip: fast-forward through the hunting scenes) or ski flicks (like Warren Miller! or my all-time favorite Paradise Waits). Ironically when I openly gave myself permission to avoid, it made it easier to work. I’d write a line or two, then let my eyes drift to images of polar bears in Antarctica…then write another sentence…

Bottom line: find what works for you so that you can stay grounded and connected to the present while you write.

There is so much more to say about writing through trauma. Two books that I think do a great job with the topic are Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir by Sue William Silverman and Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma by Melanie Brooks. The latter won’t be out until February 7th (also happens to me my pub date!) but trust me, it’s awesome.

And while I’m giving you reading homework, if you haven’t already, check out Crystal’s post from Monday or our guest post yesterday. That’s right, we had a guest post on a Tuesday! Amy let her dog spill the beans on all of her procrastination secrets. Be sure to read them because humor is another great way to practice self-care when you are working through the hard stuff.

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Lynn Hall is a memoirist, activist in the movement to end sexual violence, ultra-runner, and crazy cat lady. Her memoir, CAGED EYES: AN AIR FORCE CADET’S STORY OF RAPE AND RESILIENCE, was published by Beacon Press in February 2017. Her writing has previously appeared in the New York Times, The LA Times, Hippocampus Magazine, The Sexual Assault Report, The Manifest-Station, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, and elsewhere. In the summers, Lynn copes with publication anxiety by spending too many days in the Colorado mountains, and in the winters, with pans of brownies. She lives in Boulder with her partner and their 23 cats. Just kidding…she only has five.

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