Trauma Writing

“Write Well, Feel Better” is the title of a talk I gave in 2012 at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, a title at the heart of what I do and teach.

Twenty years before that talk, my newborn daughter had almost died after a birth injury, and my journey into writing about trauma began. Creating a record of what happened, I realized that I wanted it to be accurate, and also good–what started as journal entries turned into a personal narrative. I also found that I couldn’t write anything else until I finished writing this story.

I’d been teaching a summer memoir workshop in Iowa, and, considering the work participants had been doing, and the work I was doing, I re-branded the course as “Survival Stories.” We would learn from each other. How could we write stories that were as compelling to the reader as they were for us? We’d find commonalities in our stories of difficulty and refine strategies to make them work. Along the way, we would write what we needed to write, creating a bridge from who we used to be to who we had become.

As I wrote my own story, which would develop into my first book, Near Breathing, I read widely in a genre that hadn’t been defined: true stories of difficulty. Those stories kept me company. I found them in literary journals and various sections of bookstores, and whether the stories were about illness, identity, loss, poverty, being struck by lightning, or whatever the writer had contended with, they became my text models because they were good.

While “good” can be hard to define, I looked for certain characteristics:

  • Their story was structured well.
  • Their narrative perspective showed self-awareness as well as keen observation of people and the world.
  • They told the truth as the writer experienced it, with precise, evocative language.
  • Their story was original–in its language, maybe, or voice, its subject matter, or perspective, or form.
  • We’ve all been writing about the same things since the invention of writing, but these writers made me see and understand in a fresh way.
  • And they were present on the page as narrators, living guides to what for many was an archetypal journey to the underworld and back.
  • In the end, their stories delivered insight. Quietly, loudly, subtly, or boldly, however these writers led me along the path of their story, I followed and was rewarded.

I collected 22 of these early findings into an anthology called Survival Stories: Memoirs of Crisis, representing an array of voices and writing strategies that were helpful to me, and I hoped would be helpful to other writers. I’ve been working with trauma writing ever since, giving talks and workshops, and working with individual writers one-on-one.

The experience of trauma is universal. Writing your story is one of the best ways we have to deal with traumatic experience. Psychologist James Pennebaker has found that writing about traumatic experience helps us heal—especially if our work is creative and exploratory. Having a story isn’t as helpful as constructing a story. And it’s important, Pennebaker found, that we are receptive and improvisational as we write about difficulty. We need to dive deep into our own authentic, individual experience. In other words, to some degree what we think of as “good writing” is also the writing that can help us heal.

We carry our stories with us, inside. And while writing about hard experiences may not solve or resolve any of life’s difficulties, it may help restore a sense of coherence, connection, and meaning to your life. Your story might keep someone else company, too.