A Pocket Guide to Writing Through Trauma

Network & Knowledge

Writing about or through traumatic experiences can be incredibly difficult. We’re so grateful to Winnie M Li who has created this pocket guide on this hugely important topic, filled with valuable tips.

For many of us, the act of writing is an important tool in making sense of life.

This is especially the case when we are dealing with lived experiences of trauma. Violence, abuse, bereavement, illness, wartime, even an accident or natural disaster — all of these leave a lasting imprint of horror and sadness in our lives. But as dark as these experiences are, they can also yield powerful, authentic works of writing, which can then go on to inspire readers facing similar situations.

While it may somehow seem necessary to address trauma through writing, it can also be daunting — a strange balance of doing something you love (writing) around a topic you might rather avoid. You may worry that the writing itself could reawaken old wounds and force you to relive the emotional pain.  But don’t let this put you off.  The writing you create may end up being life-changing for yourself, and your future readers.

Still, there are a few things you can do to make writing through trauma more manageable. Here are some useful suggestions:

Write for yourself. Don’t worry about what others will think.

First and foremost, you are writing for yourself, not for anyone else.  Somewhere down the line, this piece of writing may become a published memoir or a novel, a poem or play or more.  But don’t think about that just yet.  For now, this writing serves one purpose and one purpose only: to allow your own self-expression about this topic. If you get too caught up thinking about the end product — and the fear of how others might react — that might stifle your initial creative process. What matters right now is yourself and the words you write.

Write whatever comes into your mind.

If you feel stuck or anxious, try very freeform writing exercises, like free association (Write the first thing that comes into your head, followed by a constant stream-of-consciousness flow after that ) or a free write (Write non-stop on a specific topic for five minutes straight.  Don’t even let the pen lift from the page).  These approaches can yield very raw, but authentic writing, which you can later shape into something more coherent.

Write Using Distancing Techniques

As the emotions around your trauma can be strong, it’s very important to write in a boundaried way. This means employing specific techniques, which can help give you a sense of distance or mastery over the emotion. These distancing techniques can prevent the trauma from overwhelming you, while also presenting a creative challenge to you as a writer.  Ultimately, decisions about the craft of writing may enable you to approach the experience from an angle that is unique, interesting, or redemptive for you.

For example, you can try:

  • Writing in third person, instead of first person point-of-view. Or even experiment with second person.

  • Writing in an unusual verb tense. If you tend to write in past tense, try present tense. Or even future tense.

  • Writing from a new, unexpected perspective — maybe not as the person who’s lived through the trauma, but as the grown child of the victim. Or a passerby who glimpsed what happened. Or a tree that has lived for decades on the spot near a crime.

  • Choose one metaphor or object to symbolise the trauma, and expand that upon it. What do you do with that object? For example, if a brick represents your childhood memories of being bullied, what do you do with that brick? Hide it under your bed? Drop it into a lake?  Try to smash it up with a hammer?  Or do you set it on your desk and use it as a paperweight?

  • Write the trauma purely in dialogue, as an imagined conversation between characters.

  • Write what happened as a folk tale or fairy tale, as if it happened in an unspecified time immemorial.

These are just some suggestions.  Don’t be afraid to be experimental or abstract — a fresh artistic approach can help to counterbalance the distressing subject matter.

Practice Self-Care

Writing about trauma can bring a lot of emotional exhaustion, so it’s important to practice self-care and look after yourself.  You can do this by creating boundaries around your writing time and acknowledging the emotional impact writing will have.

  • Set yourself a manageable pace.

    When you start to feel tired from writing, stop.  Maybe return to writing the following day. You can even plan to write in small, manageable chunks. For example, start with 15 minutes a day, and gradually increase that if you feel you can.

  • Give yourself breaks and small rewards.

Plan your self-care in advance, and gift yourself with small rewards, so you have something to look forward to after a writing session. A cup of hot chocolate, a walk in a park, an episode of your favourite TV show — even these small things are a way to switch off, while recognising the hard work you’ve put into writing about this topic.

  • Create your support network

Writing is a very solitary activity, and this can be doubly so if you are writing about a personal trauma.  If you think it will help, arrange in advance to spend some time (on the phone, online, or in person) with a close friend or loved one, after a writing session.  This kind of human (or animal) company can provide a nurturing peace and help take your mind off the heavy emotional labor of writing.

Above all, remind yourself that the trauma itself is largely in the past, and by choosing to write about it, you are exerting some kind of agency over what happened.  Memories of trauma can still be painful; now you are transforming them into something new, possibly redemptive.  And you should be proud of that act, both as a writer and as an individual.

For further reading, I recommend checking out these links. They give an insight into how other writers have addressed different forms of personal trauma in their writing, either through fiction or memoir:

Myself (Winnie) in conversation with Daniel Mella, about writing fiction based on lived personal trauma. From the recent BookBound 2020 online literary festival: https://youtu.be/i8HnQ64rwWQ

Melissa Febos on writing about trauma as a subversive act: https://www.pw.org/content/the_heartwork_writing_about_trauma_as_a_subversive_act

A panel talk with Eileen Myles, Ruth Ozeki, Porochista Khakpour, Anna March & Alexandra Kleeman on writing about bodily trauma: https://lithub.com/writing-the-body-trauma-illness-sexuality-and-beyond/

Rahna Reiko Rizzuto on writing fiction inspired by trauma: https://electricliterature.com/how-writing-fiction-helps-me-give-shape-to-the-chaos-of-trauma/

Kelley Clink with more tips on writing about trauma: https://www.writersdigest.com/write-better-nonfiction/7-tips-for-writing-about-trauma

Winnie M Li is an author and activist. Her debut novel Dark Chapter is a fictional retelling of her own rape from victim and perpetrator perspectives. Translated into ten languages, it won The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize, and was nominated for an Edgar Award and the Best First Novel Award. A Harvard graduate, Winnie has an MA with Distinction in Creative and Life Writing from Goldsmiths and served as a Guest Tutor for the Arvon Foundation and a judge for the 2018 SI Leeds Literary Prize.  She is a recipient of grant funding from the Royal Society of Literature, Jerwood Arts, and the Arts Councils of England and Northern Ireland.  She holds an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland in recognition of her writing and activism. http://winniemli.com

Published 29 June 2020