How many times have you heard people say in the aftermath of a traumatic event: “I just can’t talk about it right now.”  They describe themselves as being “lost for words,” as if the right words have not yet been invented to pinpoint feelings with precision. Some people eventually find their voice by writing poems, essays and memoirs, or keeping a journal.  For those who are visually oriented, the voice may speak through a painting or a photograph.

The body tells us when we’re ready to unpack and codify feelings, to put words or other artistic expression around experiences for others to hear and see. For some, the impulse to jot down notes or keep a journal is a continuous, or discontinuous, process. For others even the mental recollection of the experience can stay tucked away for years and emerge long after, perhaps during another life-changing event that dredges up old memories. A Vietnam War veteran once shared that he didn’t speak about the war he experienced until years later when his son was about to be deployed to the Desert Storm conflict in the early 1990s.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks – my son might be about to experience the same horrors that I had witnessed. I had to start talking, sharing my own experience, after twenty years of silence.”

Sometimes the burden of owning the story is so great that there is a need to fictionalize and tell it as if it happened to someone else. It can take months or years to become comfortable with the telling.  Whatever the starting point, be kind to yourself and acknowledge that, while writing may help in the healing process, it takes time, reflection and repetition to arrive at a sense of well-being and comfort. Some people wait years – decades – to begin writing. Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir, said that, “Tove Ditlevsen’s Early Spring …was first published some forty years after some of the events it describes and demonstrates an extraordinary insight into childhood – one that clearly required many years of reflection before it could be written.”

I began writing about my husband’s death in Vietnam thirty years later by starting with a fictionalized play. It was easier to cast another young woman in the role of myself. Eventually I was able to tell the true story in an essay and finally in a longer memoir. But even a project that has simmered in the mind and on the page for many years does not pop out of the oven overnight as if it was magically spun into a cake of gold by leprechauns. Once the writing commences, starting with words, sentences and finally scenes recalled moment by moment, there is a deepening and reciprocal process that takes place during the long discipline of continued writing. As the volume of writing increases, the need to structure the story and make sense of what happened begins to build. There are no rules that dictate the order of events. There will be a beginning, middle and end, but these elements need not occur in chronological order. The eventual architecture of your particular story will emerge through reflection and rewriting. Writer and essayist Sven Birkerts says in The Art of Time in Memoir, that, it is the way the story is told that leads the reader through the healing process of the writer. The writer’s then and now stir to life the reader’s sense of past and present.  The writer’s bonus is that she discovers herself.

If starting is difficult, begin with two words, I remember, and see what emerges. Let your pen roam free on the page without censor. You’ll be okay. Nothing can happen without your consent. You will discover the island of your own true story, with its wildlife and landscapes, and live there like Robinson Crusoe as long as necessary until you’re ready to invite others, readers, as your guests.