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February 2002
CUNY Responds: Rebuilding New York
CUNY Alumnus/Prize-winning Journalist Reports from Islamabad, Jalalabad, Kabul
City Tech Students Envision Rebuilding St. Nicholas Church
U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins Mulls Emergency Service of Verse
John Jay College and FEMA Address Urban Hazards
Helping Students Write about Trauma
Biography of a Life Cut Violently Short
CUNY Law Practice In the Public Interest Since 9/11
Graduate Center 9/11 Digital Archive
Windows on the World Chef Returns to City Tech following 9/11
Walt Whitman Sums Up “Human and Heroic New York”
Inaugural Conference on "Women and Work"
For Alzheimer’s Patients Life’s a Stage
Kingsborough Center Incubator of Global Virtual Enterprises
Governor Proposes State Budget
White House Urged to Support Pell Grant Increase
President Jackson Named to Schools Board
Fine Way To Learn About Steinway

City College Scholar-Director Chosen Cultural Affairs Commissioner by Mayor

Claire Shulman Honored by QCC

CUNY Counsel Elected Legal Aid Society Chair

Law Dean Glen Honored by State Bar

“American Art at the Crossroads”—
April Symposium at Graduate Center

Challenging Summer for Students in Vassar/CUNY Program

 
 

Helping Students 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 Center attack.

Louise DeSalvo
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 stories—where 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 weeping.

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.

A Primer for
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.
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.

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 was—is—significant.

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 virtue—they are humble, these students. Because of their writing, each became unutterably more themselves. Through acknowledging their pain, came understanding and, yes, even grace.