Words, Words, Words!

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 experience a muteness, as if the right words have not yet been invented to pinpoint their feelings. Some eventually find expressive relief by writing poems, essays, memoirs, keeping a journal or even describing what happened on Facebook.  For those who are visually oriented, they may speak through the creation of a painting or other art project. There are no rules or even guidelines for self-expression at the boundary of trauma but many who have been through the experience say that describing it -somehow- to another person does help.

The Process of Healing

Our body tells us when we’re ready to unpack and codify feelings, to put words or other artistic expression around painful experiences. For some, even the recollection of the experience can stay tucked away for years and emerge later, perhaps when another life-changing event bumps up against old memories. A Vietnam War veteran once shared with me that he didn’t speak about the war he experienced until years later when his son was about to be deployed to Desert Storm 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.”

Owning the Story

Captain David R. Crocker, Jr., and members of Alpha Co 2/22 Infantry shortly before his death in the Vietnam War, 1969

Sometimes the burden of owning the story is so great that there is a need to fictionalize the story and tell it as if it happened to someone else. It can take months or years to become comfortable with the telling.  Whenever the time to write becomes compelling, be kind to yourself. Acknowledge that writing may help in the healing process but it takes time, reflection and rewriting to arrive at a sense of well-being and comfort with what you’ve written.  Judith Barrington describes in Writing the Memoir 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.”

In 1998, I began writing about my husband’s death in the Vietnam War in 1969. I started  with a fictionalized play. It was easier to cast another young woman in the role of myself. At first, making fiction protected me from the reality of what I was writing about. But soon it was not enough. Eventually I was able to own my story in a series of personal essays and finally in a memoir in 2014.

The Writing Process

But even a project that has simmered in the mind for years does not pop out of the oven overnight as if it was magically spun into a cake of gold by leprechauns. For myself, once the writing commenced, the boundaries around my privacy, that had been so important earlier, started to feel like obstacles to understanding what had happened to me. A quest for precision and depth became new needs. The questions changed. Now I wanted to know: Is this completely honest? What’s the best way to focus on this  experience? Something in this excavation process moves the writer to reframe the powerlessness wrought by the original trauma. Perhaps this crossover from feeling powerless in the wake of a traumatic experience to managing the memory of what happened is the cornerstone of writing as healing.

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 a true story on the page will emerge through reflection and rewriting as the writer zooms in and out scene by scene.  Sven Birkerts says in The Art of Time in Memoir that the way the story is told 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, as she digs into her experience, her life begins to have coherence.

Getting Started

Let’s assume that writing is healing. For beginning writers, if starting to write is difficult, begin with 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’ll discover the confines of the island of your own true story, with its wildlife and landscapes. You can live there like Robinson Crusoe as long as necessary until you’re ready to invite readers in, as your guests, to listen.

And don’t be surprised to hear them say how much your story made them think about  their story.

Join Ruth W. Crocker from July 29 – August 2, 2019 at Castle Hill Center for the Arts for a week-long workshop on the Art and Craft of Memoir.