3 Things to Ask Yourself Before Writing about Trauma

From Jane Friedman:

“Let’s rip it off quick!” My grandmother pointed at the Band-Aid on my knee.

At four, I equated Band-Aid removal with peas, waiting my turn, and going to bed. Still, I loved and trusted my grandmother, so I let her yank it off. After a momentary flash of white-hot pain, I experienced an exquisite relief. Soon after, I adopted “rip it off” as my motto.

Three decades later, during my master’s in counseling, I discovered James Pennebaker’s research on how writing about difficult events improved your health. The trauma survivor in me saw this as a dream come true. So, I began a memoir.

My initial drafting plan combined Pennebaker’s research with Grandma’s sage wisdom. If ripping off a Band-Aid created some relief, churning out one hundred pages of “look what terrible thing happened” would elevate my health and happiness to the Oprah Winfrey level. Bottle that and I’d become the world’s greatest writing coach.

Except, the exact opposite happened. Writing about endless pain depressed me. Eventually, I avoided my writing desk. When I did show up, an essential part of me cried, “No, no, no.” If I forced myself to write anyway, the work felt flat and superficial.

To write sustainably about trauma, you must P.A.CE. yourself.

  • Proactively engage in self-care.
  • Activate your internal wisdom.
  • Choose wisely and keep it contained.
  • Explore your stories with curiosity and compassion.

P.A.C.E. is an integrative approach to writing about trauma that combines proactive self-care, mindful awareness, and targeted strategies that help writers discover insights and resilience inside their painful experiences.

Activating your internal wisdom (the A in P.A.C.E.) helps you to assess what you should write, when to get started, and how to manage the process before working on painful material. The process can also help you if you’re feeling stuck.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

2 thoughts on “3 Things to Ask Yourself Before Writing about Trauma”

  1. This looks like excellent advice. I’ve never been traumatized, so I come at this from a different angle.

    In college I used to have caseloads of divorced people who had to write testimonies about their failed marriages and their exes. I was startled to learn I have an inner misanthrope, who awakened when I was processing those cases. I realized I was in the job too long when I was pleasantly surprised that a mother beat the crap out of someone who molested her children. By that point I no longer took for granted a mother would protect her children; I fully expected her to rug sweep. My inner misanthrope notes the abuser wasn’t her boyfriend, so maybe that’s why she cared. Sigh.

    I graduated and jumped over to the newsroom. I expected my misanthropy would get worse, so I was puzzled that I reacted with calm detachment to the stories of murders. Even the child murders, or the one involving a particular family annihilator. Not to mention watching video of a train hitting a carful of teenagers because I had to make an editorial decision about it…

    After pondering this, I realized the difference between the marriage cases vs. the murders is that I wasn’t in the head of the murderers. I wasn’t seeing the situation through THEIR eyes, so I had psychic distance. As opposed to when I had to sift through people writing about the crap between them and their exes, or the things they allowed to happen to their kids. I think this is why I came to hate first person fiction; I really need the protagonist to be likable and sensible in that voice.

    So even if you’re not personally the victim of trauma, but just writing about someone else’s experience, Friedman’s advice is gold. Especially if you do have to spend time inside the minds of the people involved in the cases you’re delving into.

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