“Writing Trauma” by Louise DeSalvo
February 27, 2010
There are times in every writer’s life when they come upon a book that changes the way they think about their work. Like many other writers who think about their creative process, I am continually searching for such a book. Sometimes, though, I come upon one unawares.
This happened years ago when I was shopping in a bookstore and I stumbled upon James W. Pennebaker’s Opening Up, a work about the healing – physical and emotional – effects of writing about trauma. Pennebaker wrote about his experiments with groups of university students who were asked to write about something they hadn’t often discussed. Pennebaker divided the writers up into three groups. The first were told to simply discuss the event. The second were told to discuss their feelings about the event. The third were told to connect a troubling event to the feelings the event elicited, and to reflect upon what happened. All the writers wrote for twenty minutes only over a period of three days.
Pennebaker discovered that virtually all the writers chose to relate something of enormous consequence that they hadn’t “opened up” about before. The divorce of parents. The death of a grandmother. An act that had difficult negative consequences. Many of the writers became very emotional as they wrote.
After, Pennebaker and his team of researchers assessed the health of his subjects by studying, for example, how often these students visited the health clinic. Later experiments by Pennebaker and other researchers refined the protocol still further by taking blood samples from the participants to determine their subjects’ ability to fight infection. In another, people with arthritis and asthma were instructed to write about something troubling, linking feelings with events; after, doctors who did not know these people were participating in the study judged them to be far better than they were before they had.
Pennebaker and his associates designed their experiments to determine whether repressing thoughts and feelings about traumatic events damaged health and whether expressing them improved health significantly. Their conclusion – supported by a number of follow-up studies, each, more sophisticated than the last – was that expressing thoughts and feelings about traumatic events could significantly improve our health. No health benefits seemed to accrue to the writers who wrote only about events or those who write only about feelings. Only the writers linking events and feelings were healthier.
Initially, though, those writers reported painful feelings. That is, they felt worse than they did before the experiment, though those feelings resolved in time, and they later reported having come to some kind of resolution about the event they described through writing about it. That’s because initially they might have been starting to feel pain about the event that might have been repressed. In time, though, the event seemed to become redefined through the act of writing because the writers witnessed what they survived, expressed their feelings, linked their feelings to the event, and reflected upon the act of writing in this way. Many writers stated that they’d never told anyone about the event described although it might have occurred several years before.
Pennebaker’s subjects were not writers: they were students. And Pennebaker’s subjects wrote for only twenty minutes a day, for three days running. I wondered whether famous authors had ever discussed the healing power of their writing. I wondered, too, about whether the act of writing could ever be harmful. These questions led to years of research, culminating in my book Writing as a Way of Healing.
I learned that, yes, writers as diverse as Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf, Isabel Allende, Dorothy Allison, Junot Diaz, Janet Frame, and James Ellroy, to name just a few, described how the act of writing was healing for them.
But we all know about writers who seem to come to harm regardless of the fact that they write. Perhaps even because they write. Sylvia Plath is the most obvious example. What about them? What went wrong with their process?
I’ve always believed that writing about extraordinarily difficult material necessitates that we have a support system of some kind. I’ve always had the advice and good counsel of a psychotherapist as I went about my work. Still, as bell hooks reminds us, not everyone can afford therapy, and so, for many of us, writing remains the most important way – perhaps the only way – of easing our pain.
Through the years, I’ve learned to stay alert as I write to one significant factor. Is my writing helping me retell the event. Or is my writing making me relive the event. That is, am I retraumatizing myself by writing? Anyone who maintains that “just writing” is healing, I believe, is all wrong. Writing “real” can invite us to time travel back into the event itself; we can feel we are “there.” All well and good – if this leads to a detailed recreation of the event. But if the writing elicits, in us, not just painful feelings (for our feelings will necessarily be difficult if we’re writing about traumatic material), but elicits feelings, say, of being out of control, of being terrified, of being detached, of feeling fragmented, of wanting to abuse substances to deal with our pain, then we must back off our work, let go of our work, write something altogether different, before we try to approach the material again at some later, perhaps far later, time.
I’ve been asked how I manage to write about painful moments and whether I’ve ever needed to back off from writing about an event in my life.
First, let me say, that I’ve chosen never to write fully about my sister’s suicide in a memoir that I might publish, although I have written many diary entries, using Pennebaker’s formula. I know that I might never write a book about her. Though her death is decades in the past, it’s not one I’m ready to write about at length. Whenever I’ve tried, it’s not overwhelming sorrow that’s stopped me. It’s rage. My rage at her for taking her own life, for the consequences of her death to our family. Whenever I’ve started to write, I’ve monitored my reaction to writing this material, and, every time, I’ve deemed it too risky to continue. Perhaps I haven’t found the way to tell this yet; perhaps I never will. But although I know that writing can heal, I also believe that it’s my responsibility to determine whether or not I can proceed. And in this case, I can’t. At least not yet.
But I have, however, written about many other painful parts of my life – my husband’s adultery, for example (in Adultery); my father’s violence (in Vertigo); my asthma (in Breathless). And I’ve learned a great deal about what works for me, which might not work for another writer.
For me to break into traumatic material, I’ve learned, I have to ease into it slowly, in small bursts of writing (a few minutes, say, and never longer than twenty), over many, many days, often, with breaks of days, weeks, sometimes months, in between. (This replicates, I think, how difficult material is often dealt with in psychotherapy – not in one fell swoop, but in small increments over a long period of time, with the traumatic material being returned to again and again and again.) Pennebaker himself conjectured that the twenty-minute writing sessions in his studies worked so effectively because the time writers were expected to devote to a painful subject was limited, and so whatever surfaced was unlikely to be overwhelming.
I often write the material in the third person on the first round – using “she,” not “I.” Sometimes, as in Vertigo, when I relate a childhood depression, and when I describe an instance of abuse, I’ve chosen to keep the third person in the published text. But sometimes I don’t. After some time has passed, I take the third person recounting, and recast it as first person. It seems, for me, that going at the material using third person the first time around provides me with the kind of distance I need to get at the material. It also provides a kind of artistic distance and reminds me that I’m writing, not a confessional, but a work of art, and so, keeps me from reliving. Retell not relive seems to work for me if I write in third person at the beginning of the process. (One caveat: if using third person stirred feelings of depersonalization in me – one effect of trauma – I’d back off.
At first, I might not be able to link many feelings with the event and then reflect upon them – Pennebaker’s ideal model for a healing narrative but from the very beginning, I try, no matter how primitive my recall or insights might me. In fact, often, with trauma, feelings are frozen, are inexplicable. So I just let myself conjecture what I might have been feeling until I’m well enough into the writing to begin to see what was really going on. But my end stage ideal (accomplished, I’ve learned, only in the very last drafts) is to link feelings with events, and to reflect upon them.
I let myself take up to perhaps eleven or more drafts of such an event for the piece to “sing.” In fact, I think that returning to the event again and again over time in the creation of a memoir helps me write traumatic material because. Each time I circle back over an event, it seems to be more and more one I’m telling and less and less one that traumatized me even though it did. Frankly, by the end of the process, I get so annoyed by needing to write at it again, that the potency of the event itself seems to have lost its traumatic impact.
Most significantly, through all the research I’ve done, I’ve learned never to ask the question “why” about a traumatic event, as in “Why did this happen to me?” But instead, to ask, “How did I get through that?”
At the beginning, I also tend to choose past tense. This tells me that the event is over. (I’m not reliving, I’m retelling). This keeps the event at a safe distance. In successive rewritings, I seem to switch, at some point, to present tense. Present tense, if used from the beginning, I think, would be too difficult: it might invite “reliving” rather than “retelling.” There is always a point in the revision process where I have to decide whether the published account of the traumatic material will be in the present tense, in the past tense, or some combination of both.
I love that kind of revision: switching the tense of one sentence, then another, then another. I seem to like a narrative that’s composed of both present and past to clue the reader that these events are in the past, but that their effects continue into the present. On those days, when I noodle with tense, when the work of recounting becomes focused, not upon the trauma, but upon the art of presenting it on the past, I know that the act of writing is doing its work.
Often, when I’m playing with tense, I’m so lost in the creative act, so lost in the wonderment of how powerful a device the use of tense is as a memoirist, I know that the event is on its way to becoming subsumed into a work of art. I know I’m close to finished with the retelling, and that I’m close to finished (for the time being at least) with the power this event has had over me. Virginia Woolf once said that she knew she was finished, that the event she was writing about was behind her, when she spent the day putting in commas and taking out semicolons, then taking out semicolons and putting in commas. Such is the transformative power of writing – it is the semicolon, the comma, the tense that begins to matter more than the event the precipitated the writing.