A while back, someone asked me a question on Facebook. She wanted to write about some traumatic experiences in her life and was looking for advice on how to write through the pain. She wanted to know how I did it.
I didn’t have a great answer for her then, and I don’t have a great answer now. What I do have is a little more experience with it and I can at least give her and others an idea of what they might be getting into.
People who want to write about their own traumatic experiences have challenges that go beyond constructing an interesting sentence or getting dialogue just right. If anyone thinks they’re going to stay snow white while rolling around in the dirt, I’m here to tell them they’re kidding themselves.
Memories Bubble Up At Inconvenient Times
A few months ago, I was cruising down the road, singing along with Taylor Swift (What? Don’t pretend those songs aren’t catchy…) and this image of my sister packing up her doll hit me with the force of a thousand End Times preachers. Now, I’m not a weepy person or anything, but I cried my way through the rest of the song and then tried to pull myself together before picking my kid up from school.
Why did that happen? Because memories unlock more memories. The doll thing wasn’t some deep, repressed memory or anything like that. It’s just something that happened and I haven’t thought about it since it happened. Right now, I’m writing about that time period, so all of my memories from that time are spread out on the desktop of my brain, all nice and easily accessible. And sometimes the contents spill out a little.
It’s not a bad thing necessarily. The doll memory went into my draft and it feels like an important scene to have in there. But if you aren’t prepared for random memories and sporadic weepiness, it can make life a little difficult.
You’re Going to Get Angry
Well, I get angry at least. Sometimes I’m following along on my outline and I get to an episode that just really gets my goat. So I just go on ahead and write my “Who the fuck do these fuckers think they fucking are?” draft to get it out of my system. I don’t even go back and read most of these drafts (most of them are handwritten and mostly illegible anyway.)
I use anger as a defense. If I’m angry, then I don’t have to feel anything else. After I get the fuckitedy-fuck-fuck-fuckers draft out of the way I can peek under that blanket of anger to see what emotions are really there. Insecurity. Shame. Loneliness. That’s what I need to write about because that’s what’s real.
It Can Be Hard to Transition Back and Forth
Have you ever watched a movie with a sad ending or finished a book that left you feeling sad? And when you walk away from that book or movie, does that feeling sort of linger for a while sometimes?
That’ll happen if you write about your own life too. When you get past the initial anger, when you tap into one of those memories, when you start writing the words you were meant to write and touch those old emotions, they’ll linger even after you step away from the keyboard.
It can be hard to transition from writing an emotionally charged scene and your present day life. I have to write when my kids are out of the house. It’s impossible for me to tap into the emotions I need to explain what it was like to sit around and wait for a murder attempt while my kid is pestering me for just one more handful of chips.
My best advice here is to give yourself space. Sandwich writing time between things you love to do, or things that you know help pull you out of an emotional funk.
Sometimes You Have to Live to Write Another Day
I was working on a chapter today that should have been pretty easy to write. While some bad things happen in it, it’s not nearly as bad of an experience as some of the things that happened in earlier chapters. But it’s turned out to be a difficult chapter to write.
I got to about the halfway mark and felt myself getting just a little too wound up over the whole thing. I could have pushed through (and likely wound up with a second half full of me dropping the f-bomb into every sentence), but I decided to just set it aside. Obviously, I need to process those events a little more before I can write about what happened the way I want to. Maybe I’ll do better with it tomorrow. Or next week.
I think it’s better to walk away temporarily than to sacrifice my mental health to hit a daily word count goal.
You Can’t Expect Other People to “Get It”
Writing about past trauma is straight up emotionally exhausting. To me, life in general is pretty emotionally exhausting, so I’m just doubling up on it. Basically, my job right now is to re-live my own life (actually, mostly the worst parts of my own life.)
Even for the people who know what I’m doing, I can’t really expect them to understand why I start crying about Taylor Swift all of the sudden. (Like, how do you explain you’re crying over a doll that got packed up 16 years ago?)
Nobody else can see the memories that are playing out in my head. Maybe I’ve just written about a particularly frightening thing that happened and my emotions are especially raw. And then someone does something extra obnoxious right after that. It can be hard to remember that the other person has no idea what kind of emotional whiplash you’re going through.
You Might Find Unexpected Things
I thought I knew my story. I lived through it, after all. But writing about it has given me perspective. That goes beyond just the facts of what happened.
What happened was wrong. And it was frightening. And it was traumatic.
But that’s not my whole story. There’s also love and beauty and forgiveness there, and I didn’t expect to find any of those things.
Before I started writing this book, I knew I’d been stalked. I knew my life had been threatened. I knew I’d had to leave my life behind and start over. That was my story.
Now, I know it’s not just my story. It’s our story. I don’t just mean my family either. It’s a story that everyone who was involved shares. It’s the church Elder’s story. It’s the police officer’s story. It’s my friends’ story. Yeah, the things I’m writing about happened to me, but I wasn’t living on some desert island at the time (though, that probably would have made it harder to stalk me).
The difference between my story and our story might not make a lot of sense to anyone, but it’s a profound shift in the way I look at it.
If you write about your own life, you can expect to find your own surprises.
Writing in the Mud
Writing about painful experiences is dirty business. It’s hard. There’s no getting around that.
And sometimes it feels like all you’re doing is scooping mud, shifting it from one place to another.
And people might walk by and ask, “Why would anyone want to sit around in all that muck?”
But I hope if you do choose to move mud around, you’ll look down one day and see some patches of green. Because you were never just moving mud. You were gardening all along and how could you expect a garden to grow if you aren’t willing to get a little dirty?