Write about Trauma
Hunter College professor of English Louise DeSalvo,
the author of Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling
Our Stories Transforms Our Lives (Beacon Press, 1999), reports
on applying her expertise in the classroom after the World Trade
It is a little more than a week after September 11, and I am
sitting in a circle in a Hunter College classroom with thirteen
of my students, all aspiring writers. I have asked each to talk,
to say whatever needs saying in response to that day's events.
There is clearly nothing more pressing than having these conversations
on our first day back. A few tell us of family members and friends
who have died. One student tells how he stood on the roof of
his apartment and saw the towers fall. Another tells how her
father, who worked there, hadn't been heard from for several
agonizing hours. Another tells how these events forced him to
recall a summer of terrorism in the country from which he emigrated.
Another student nods; she tells how these events brought back
what living with violence in the country from which she emigrated
to the United States felt like. "Now,” she says, "I
feel that there is no place to hide.”
I recognize the signs of grief, of trauma in my students and
in myself. I know that this is a time of collective trauma,
which is especially hard because all are affected. There is
no strong friend or relation to turn to for solace, for all
are grieving, all are stricken. I tell my students this, but
I tell them, too, that we can come together in our pain, and
we can use the act of writing to forge a sense of community,
even as we try to heal.
The signs of trauma are obvious, and we talk about them. We
haven't been able to sleep, or we fall into a "sleep of
the dead,” as one student phrased it; we can't work, nor write,
even simply concentrate. We readily, repetitiously tell our
storieswhere we were, what we saw, what we experienced,
who we know who was more seriously affected than we were but
our narratives seem strangely disembodied. Most of us seem listless,
lacking in energy, some readily susceptible to outbreaks of
We, at Hunter, have been encouraged to help our students process
what they have experienced, by providing a safe space for our
students to speak. And this, clearly, is essential. But, because
I am a writer who has studied the power of writing to help us
heal from trauma for more than 20 years, and because I am aware
of how writing about trauma encourages us to integrate these
terrifying experiences and to heal from their harmful psychological
and physiological effects, I want to encourage my students to
begin writing about their experiences immediately, even if they
believe it is too soon to do so.
As their teacher, I want to say, "You'll
be better off if you start writing immediately, in your jour
nals, if you relate what has happened in elaborate detail, if
you link the feelings you are having to what has happened, and
if you reflect, too, on the significance of this event in your
life at this moment.” But I decide, instead, to begin by asking
them to think and write about how this event will change the
writing they had planned on doing, how it might change the writing
they will do in the future. And if they can't write about that,
they can write about how they can't write right now and why.
My students had begun writing memoirs before September 11, and
on this day, as we go around the room and discuss the impact
of this event upon our work, many express the pessimistic belief
that they will never write again, never work again. One student
says that she has heard that estimable writing is produced well
after trauma, in tranquil times; how then, she asks, can she
be expected to write this term?
However, I decide it is important
for my students to understand that many works of art have been
penned under very difficult circumstances. Sensing their need
for models of such troubled times, I tell them about how, during
World War II, Virginia Woolf wrote Between the Acts as
German airplanes flew overhead during the Blitz, often releasing
their bombs in the water meadows just beyond her writing cottage.
I also tell them how, during her confinement in an Egyptian
prison for political reasons, Nawal El Saadawi wrote her account
of life in prison on toilet paper and cigarette paper with the
stub of a pencil. This was eventually published as Memoirs
from the Women's Prison.
I tell them how Alice Walker, suicidal and
depressed, picked up her pen and wrote To Hell with Dying,
about an old guitar player who continues to sing despite ineffable
pain. I tell them that, for some people, there can be no tranquillity,
but this certainly does not mean there can be no writing.
Writing through Trauma
- Write in a private, safe,
and comfortable environment.
- Don't write in a state of crisis.
Do not use writing as a substitute for acting
or as a substitute for therapy or for getting
medical care. You can write later.
- Write about what happened. Write,
too, about feelings about what happened.
- Don't worry about correctness,
grammar, or punctuation as you write.
- Try, eventually, to write an
extremely detailed, organized, coherent, vivid,
emotionally compelling narrative.
- Don't become overly intellectual
in your writing. Don't use writing as a way
of complaining or as a way of staying mired
in bad feelings. Use it, instead, to discover
how and why you feel as you do.
- Don't get lost in your writing
and let it take over your life. Make sure you
retain your social ties as you write.
- Write twenty minutes a day over
a period of four days.
Their efforts were shaky at first, but, sooner than I imagined,
they began turning in more pages than assigned. By semester's
end, each successfully completed a memoir. And though not every
student chose to write about the events of September 11, the
event was inevitably often mentioned.
But they all grappled with a significant aspect of their lives
that had heretofore remained unexamined: a moment, for example,
when identity was irrevocably challenged and changed; a country
emigrated from irretrievably lost; a relative who harmed rather
than protected; an uprising lived through in childhood, forgotten
or repressed until now; the deep tangle of racism harming a
more dark-skinned family member; a yearning for a mother more
nurturing than circumstances allowed. Before September 11, these
students did not believe their lives worth recording. After
that day they realized that they, too, lived in an historical
moment, and that their personal vision wasissignificant.
I believe the work of these student writers proved so successful
because they allowed themselves to write from the very difficult
emotional space they were then inhabiting. Courage is what each
had, though none, I think, would be willing to admit to such
a virtuethey are humble, these students. Because of their
writing, each became unutterably more themselves. Through acknowledging
their pain, came understanding and, yes, even grace.