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 are mute, 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.  Those who are visually oriented 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 to another person does help.

Finding the words

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 recollection of the experience can stay tucked away for years and emerge years later, perhaps when another life-changing event dredges up 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

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. Acknowledge that, while writing may help in the healing process, 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 my life fictional 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 published in 2014. When my memoir received a Silver Medal from the Military Writers Society of America, I realized that my need to tell my story was part of a movement of survivors who professed the healing aspects of writing about experiences with war.

Patience with the 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 me, once the writing commenced, the boundaries around my privacy that had been so important earlier started to feel like obstacles to understanding myself and what had happened to me. A quest for reflection and depth became new needs. The questions changed: Is this completely honest? What’s the best way to focus on this experience? Something in the writing process enables the writer to overcome the powerlessness wrought by the original trauma. Perhaps this leap from powerlessness to deeper understanding of oneself, along with sharing with others, is the cornerstone of writing as healing.

The benefits of staying with the writing

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 on what happened.  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, life begins to have coherence.

Meeting others on the road to healing

Let’s assume that writing is healing. For beginning writers, if starting to write feels 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 helped them to understand their story.

Ruth Crocker at the Eiger in Switzerland with her memoir about Capt. David R. Crocker, Jr.

Ruth W. Crocker is the author of Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War and People of Yellowstone. She teaches workshops on the writing process and is an Ambassador to the Military Writers Society of America.