Yolande House is a bisexual, disabled writer whose essays have appeared in literary magazines such as The Rumpus, Grain, Joyland, and The Fiddlehead. Her writing has made it to the finalist round at Creative Nonfiction three times, and her Entropy essay was selected as one of the magazine’s “Best of 2018.” She can be found online at www.yolandehouse.com, on Instagram (@healthruwriting), and on Twitter (@herstorian). She is currently working on a childhood memoir, as well as an essay collection about invisible disabilities.
How to Write About Trauma in a Safer Way
When I first wrote about childhood physical and emotional abuse in 2006, I did almost everything wrong.
I wrote for hours at a time, scrunched over my computer, interspersing angry rants amidst spare details of memory, tears streaming down my face. Meals were takeout and junk food was my constant writing fuel. Exercise was a short walk to the café where I continued to rant-write with friends, timing ourselves to see who could write the most words in a given amount of time, what we called a “word war.” I usually won.
It was National Novel Writing Month, where enthusiasts aim to write a 50,000 word novel. I crossed the finish line on day thirteen, my friends blinking their astonishment. By November 30th, I’d doubled my word count, clocking in at just over 100,000 words. Triumph!
Two weeks later, I rushed to the ER with severe chest pain similar to a heart attack.
My father held my hand as we waited for a doctor. “How did this happen?” he asked, shaking his head.
“I think it’s from writing about my childhood for NaNoWriMo,” I said, eyes lowered. “About Mom. I was crying every day, not sleeping well, not eating well…” His face cleared and he nodded. Of course.
Test after test, the doctors found nothing wrong. Finally, I was diagnosed with severe acid reflux—so severe I could only drink water and swallow a little bread for the next week. My naturopathic doctor told me later that if I hadn’t followed her strict, low-acid diet, I would have developed an ulcer.
I threw my memoir manuscript in a drawer and slammed it shut. When I read it again a couple years later, I thought, No wonder I got sick! Grief burned through the thick stack and distress etched each page. My stomach clenched. I shoved the papers back.
Now, twelve years later, my writing is much more emotionally processed. I’ve learned to explore painful memories with an aim toward healing. But I still find myself needing to tread carefully in the rushing waters of remembered trauma, finding toeholds and grabbing onto tree branches to stay upright through the thunderous tide of resurfacing pain.
I’ve come up with some guidelines for writing about painful events in a more balanced way. I still mess this up, but when I do my best to live these out, both my body and my writing are lighter, happier, healthier.
- Don’t push. If you don’t feel ready to re-visit trauma, then don’t. A fiction writing friend once told me, “You’ve been writing this for seven years now, right? You should be done by now.” My creative non-fiction instructor said, “We’re making art. It takes as long as it takes—usually years, maybe decades.” My childhood memoir has taken eleven years so far. When I made a push to finish it early in 2018, my stomach issues returned. Now, it’s on the back burner again. It’ll take as long as it takes.
- Listen to your body. Tune in when it says no. Do you know how your body says no? Is it a tightening in your gut? A feeling of dread and dragging feet? Procrastinating by playing online games? Overworking? Your body is a compass to your emotions and your limits. Stop when you need to.
- Stay in balance. When writing about difficult subjects, think of yourself like a see-saw. Counterbalance challenging stories with subjects that make you happy. Write about your gratitude for something a difficult person taught you. How did you grow from the experience?
- Take long breaks. Vary difficult writing with submissions to literary journals, revising stories on other subjects, free writing, or critiquing stories for others. If you need to put a subject aside for months or years, do it. If you suddenly realize, “I don’t ever want to write about this,” trust and honour your limits.
- Practice more self-care than you think you need. Eat nourishing food you enjoy. Devise a daily or weekly exercise goal, (one year, mine was to play Pokémon Go every day. A friend gets chased by the undead with the Zombies, Run! app). Give yourself naps, an early bedtime, the gift of sleeping in.
- Take a class. Following a step-by-step process with feedback and support from a trusted mentor is helpful when I’m struggling to approach a subject or am otherwise not feeling well.
- Get support. You need an outlet for the intense emotions resurfacing as you write. Talk to a friend or therapist about how you feel.
- Keep a writing process journal where you record your feelings about what you’re writing. I haven’t tried this yet, but I’ve recently started The Artist’s Way, and my three stream-of-consciousness morning pages have helped me feel productive even if I’m only recounting my shopping list. When I explore emotions on the page, my other writing tasks seem to flow more easily afterward.
- Start a writing group to support writers like you. You could begin with a meditation and then do a few short exercises before each person gets twenty minutes to talk about how their writing is going, how they’re feeling, and what old emotions and memories are surfacing.
- Add a new relaxation technique to your routine: meditation, yoga, trauma releasing exercises, colouring, journaling, bubble baths, evening walks.
It’s essential to not only honour your process, but to discover and develop one that works for you, whatever form it takes. And it’s an ongoing lesson, one that teaches me new things all the time—even with this article!
I wrote half of this piece in a couple of hours. Then ongoing stomach issues slowed me down, and it took me another two weeks to put together the second half. But I kept at it, telling myself I was writing this because I need these guidelines as much as anyone else. Now that it’s done, it’s a gift from my well self to my ill self. Both of them deserve to tell their story and stay safe while doing it.