Defeating Writer’s Block by Writing about it
I’d been thinking a lot about what I wanted to write for today. I’d made a few attempts at things to write, but as I’ve faced many times in the last few months, and written about a few times, I’ve had trouble coming up with ideas. And trouble translating what’s in my head to words on the page. Today is the day we’re observing Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. A lot of people are writing about that. But as a white person, my job is to amplify Black voices and to actively work to dismantle racism. Everyday, not just today, but today even more than any other. Today, more than any other day, isn’t the day for me to talk about what I’m doing about racism, and so that wasn’t happening.
It’s Tu B’shevat, the birthday of the trees, so I could write something about Judaism and holidays and faith. But I didn’t really have anything in mind to write about as far as that goes. Even so, my Jewish life and my Jewish experience was definitely something that I’d been thinking about in the last few days.
“Every Day the Paperboy brings More…”
I spent Saturday reading and thinking a lot about what was happening in Colleyville, Texas. A rabbi and three of his congregants were taken hostage during shabbat services. As I read about this and watched the news unfold the feelings were familiar. I was angry that this was happening again and frustrated that it keeps happening, over and over again. I felt fear–that it could happen closer to home, fear that all the things we already do like armed security and requiring that people be buzzed in aren’t enough.
I worried about how to talk about it with my children–it’s a hard conversation no matter how old they are. It’s not I’ve never experienced antisemitism in my own life either. And yet when I tell the stories, I know that some of the ones I tell are stories I tell with humor–the hospital bringing me pork chops and mashed potatoes after the birth of my first child when I’d been certain to request a Kosher meal during Passover. Or the time someone asked me: “If you’re not afraid of going to Hell, how can you be a good person?” (She was absolutely serious and totally incredulous at my explanation of Judaism’s views on afterlife and Hell.)
Writing about Trauma
Later that night when I was on the phone with Adam, our conversation wandered into trauma again. Two different kinds of trauma, actually. And as we were talking, I told a story that I hadn’t really told at all before. I raged for a moment about the story. I commented that there was probably a poem in there somewhere.(Working on it.) And then laughed about how easy it was for me to talk about the trauma of sexual assault while finding the the other topic we’d covered (abusive interpersonal relationships) so much harder to talk about.
I keep coming back to that feeling–the way that trauma itself can be hard to talk about and yet my experiences with predatory men are so common, so familiar that the discomfort I might have had talking about them has faded a great deal, even when I’m talking with people I don’t know well, or even know at all.
So today rolls around and I still don’t have anything finished for tonight. I’ve got some unfinished things, in various stages of completion, some more raw than others, some that I’m more interested in finishing right now than others. I’ve got some poems I really do want to finish, but they’re definitely going to need more work before I’m interested in sharing them. Today was one of those days where there was this flashing neon sign telling me that I needed to talk about trauma, but how? I didn’t want to write another tragic story–I wasn’t in a mental place to do it, and I prefer not to spring those on Adam to edit without warning.
Not This Again…
Between Saturday’s synagogue story, a Black-ish rerun (Season 2, episode 16) and the story about Gal Gadot and Joss Whedon, I couldn’t keep turning away from writing about trauma today. Writing about trauma means really checking in on my own mental health though, and while there are a lot of options I had, it’s really important that I take care of my own mental health–just as important as taking care of the physical stuff.
Writing about Difficult Things
Over and over again, I’ve written about difficult things. About trauma, About depression. About disability, and illness. I write about my queer experiences and about my sexual assault. I write a lot about these difficult things. (I give Adam a lot of credit for having the patience and the resilience to keep editing these things, too.) I think about these stories I tell often as I sit down to write. I think about it as I make lists of potential topics for pieces to share here or notes for future poems.
No matter how much I write this stuff though, I worry about my writing. I write what I know–the world as I experience it, my own true stories as I live them. That’s one of the first and most often repeated pieces of writing advice you’re given–”write what you know.” I write about trauma. I honor the place it has in my life, the way it shapes the choices I make, the things I do and the way I look at things, but I don’t want to get stuck in that place. I want to make sure I have a view bigger than trauma in my life.
Owning my Space as a Writer
The thing is, I’ve learned that I really do know how to write about trauma. Somehow, I can tell these dark stories (whether I tell them in essays or in poems,) much more easily than I can tell the joyful stories, happy stories and especially the funny stories. One issue that comes up is that the funny stories are often about cute things my kids have done. I don’t tell a lot of stories here about my kids. I want to protect their privacy as much as I can, as they get older. I want them to learn how to control their digital footprint more. And they’re also at an age where they’re less comfortable with my telling their stories online.
A Writer Respects Their Children’s Privacy
That last part is really important–there are stories that are clearly theirs to tell, there are stories that are clearly mine to tell and there are stories that belong to both of us and that I have to think carefully about whether or not to tell them, and about how and where to tell them. I have some great stories about my kids–heroic stories about the way they’ve really made changes in the world, really funny stories about things they did, and really incredible ones about their kindness, insightfulness and wisdom. As a writer that’s what I do–I tell stories. If I’m making a choice not to tell stories about the kids, then I end up telling a lot more stories about my own life, and that brings us back around to talking about trauma, and talking about it a lot.
Writing what you Know, Even if What You Know is Awful
I’m working on learning to embrace the fact that I’m good at writing about trauma and about difficult topics. All of us who write have things we’re good at writing, right? That’s why we choose most often to work in whatever genres we choose to write in, even when we sometimes stretch outside our comfort zones. I write poems and essays, and as much as I might like to write a short story or novel or something like that, I find myself getting lost and frustrated every time I try, even with all the notes in the world, even after I’ve studied different suggestions for strategies to keep track of things.
I have trouble hearing the voices of my characters, I find dialogue really, really difficult to write (although I’ve heard this from many people,) and my excessive use of adjectives probably makes the things I write more overwhelming to read than even some of the supposedly paid-by-the-word nineteenth century novels I hated reading.
As I write about trauma though I can’t help but come back again and again to what I don’t want to write. I don’t want to write trauma porn. My painful stories are not out there for someone else’s thrills. There are plenty of great horror novels, some even based on true stories for people who want thrills from that kind of story.
I don’t want to write inspiration porn. I’m not telling them because I want praise for my resilience. I don’t talk about trauma so that I can say “Oh, look at these things I can accomplish in spite of this terrible story.” I’m not telling stories about trauma to tug at the heartstrings of people who don’t share the experience. My trauma is not a commodity to be bartered for your sympathy or kindness or to move you.
A Writing Tradition
I write about trauma because these are the stories that I can tell–my stories. I write them because I believe that people need to hear the stories I’m telling, even though they’re difficult to hear sometimes. I know some of them make people squirm in their seats, or that sometimes people need to walk away from them in the middle of the story, whether or not they come back to it. I recognize that sometimes my stories do need to be posted with warnings about the content–even when they’re not graphic, the topics can be triggering.
Writing About Trauma… Why?
I write to reach an audience who I am hoping will learn something from my stories, to give them a way to learn about an experience they’re not familiar with, even if the experience I write about isn’t something they’ll have to deal with in their own lives. I tell my stories so that people who are dealing with trauma know they’re not alone–as I’ve processed some of my own trauma, knowing that there are other people with similar experiences has helped me when I’ve struggled to keep going; for me, what that means is learning how to make the things that have happened a part of me and not all of my identity, the whole of me.
I am a whole mess of intersectional identities, and they’re all important to who I am–the way I experience the world is not as any one of those things but as all of those things together. Certainly there are times when writing the stories helps me see things about my experiences in a different way or to bring out details that I may not have considered before.
I write about trauma because it’s a way that I can thank the people who have told their stories before. Stories that I’ve connected with. That have given me comfort or given me hope when I’ve struggled. I write because writing about trauma helps me to keep looking ahead, and to keep my focus on what I’m doing to make the world better, safer, kinder and more gentle. In a way, writing about trauma is one of the ways I can put more love into the world. And can’t we all use a little more of that?