Trauma and writer’s block

Budapest Cemetery, photograph by Caroline Allen, 2006

As a teacher of writing, a writing coach, and a writer with her own personal trauma, I am deeply interested in how one finds the balance between their memories of trauma and putting them into memoir or fiction. How do we hold the awful memory with integrity, write it down when it’s so painful to do so, weave it into a story, revisit it again and again to turn our lives into poetry, and then how do we heal from it? Do we heal from it? Are some things unhealable? Is healing even the goal? Is it simply the witnessing that is required?

I’ve taught a lot of people who’ve been traumatized. Rape. Witnesses to murder. Folks beaten senseless regularly as children. Dozens of women and men who were sexually abused. Gang members who were violent and had violence done to them. The trauma of abject poverty. Gentle souls who crumbled beneath childhood verbal abuse. Then there’s a writer’s exposure to the larger society’s hatred, abuse, crime, war, violence, violence, violence.

Even typing those words makes my breath shallow, my arms weak. Keeping the gentle core of my soul protected and safe from so much anger – it sometimes exhausts me. And only from my gentle core does my best artistic/writing work come. For me that’s true; I don’t know for others. Maybe rage is a writer’s motivator, too, but it wears me out. Breaks me down. Rage doesn’t help me write.

I was a journalist for years, surrounded by trauma and violence. As an editor, I sorted and prioritized the trauma, organized it, matched it to pictures, headlines, captions. Thinking, I suppose, that by organizing it all, I was helping myself and others (the reading public) to make some sense of it all.

I was at the Seattle P-I newspaper, working as a subeditor. 1999. I sat next to the police scanner. Real voices begging, crying, screaming. Help me. Help me. Help me. I was just trying to help. As I typed, day in day out, my arms were growing increasingly numb. At night they’d fall asleep. Like death. Dead limbs.

On the police scanner one day, the final day, a boy’s voice, whispering, frantic: I’m underneath the bed. Daddy has a gun. He’s going to kill mommy.

My arms went dead. Right there in the newsroom. I stood up and was unable to move them. This is a true story. It feels like I’m writing fiction. I had a permanent case of repetitive strain injury, thoracic outlet syndrome, where the nerves at the clavicle are pinched off. As one friend and healer said to me later: You just couldn’t ‘hand’-le it anymore.

I just couldn’t handle it anymore.

Today, I still cannot type much or often, and have to use voice software to write fiction. The process of laying on my back on the floor for days and months, counting the cracks on the ceiling, counting and recounting the cracks, was a profound one. I kept asking myself: am I a writer if I cannot use my hands? What is a writer? Someone who expresses their soul. Wasn’t I still going to do that? Even if it meant speaking the stories to have someone else type them? I began by memorizing a short story I wanted to write about the time I skydived. I memorized the first paragraph. Then memorized the second. I’d lie on my back and recite the first paragraph, then the second, then I’d memorize the third. I’d recite first, second, third, then memorize the fourth. Until I had 18 pages of a story deep in my memory. Years later, I voiced this story, “I Learned to Fly” into my computer using voice software.

I came to a profound understanding of myself as a writer, in my soul, from those months of incapacitation. Seven years after the repetitive strain injury began, I am no longer a journalist at all. I am writing fiction. I am doing visual art. Revelling in beauty. It’s been a helluva journey.

My novel earth deals with violence. It’s been a long journey of self healing, for myself through my own writing, and for others I’ve had the honor to teach and coach and watch self heal through writing. The book Writing as a Way of Healing, by Louise De Salvo, has proven helpful for many people I work with.

For writers, the brain stores the trauma on top of the gentler, kinder stories. I’ve seen it a hundred times. We have to tell the trauma first. It’s sitting on top, and needs to be cleared out first. Writers I work with who say they want to start with a happy story, try, and fail. Their stories always go to the dark places. It’s good to have a therapist during the first few years of writing down a traumatic past. Someone to hold your hand. As a coach, I ask all the folks I work with to consider having a therapist as well as a writing coach. Two people to hold your hand.

What is the point of witnessing trauma? Of writing it down? First, individually, we really need to be creative or we die. Your soul needs creativity. And anything that blocks that creativity, well, that blocked trauma is in itself creative. And it needs expression. Second, I often quote the Hopi proverb: The one who tells the stories rules the world.

So, people who are in positions of power, if they’re the only ones telling the stories, we’re in deep shit. We need the softer voices as witnesses. And we’ve all read literature that has changed our lives. Writers cause revolutions, evolutions. But not if they’re not writing.

Here’s how I’ve witnessed the process of traumatized writers coming out of the trauma and into the healing of writing:

1. First is the remembering. Start with just one incident you cannot get out of your mind. Tell it as simply and straightforwardly as possible. Write it down.

2. Next comes the context. The writing will invariably bring up a context for the violence. Write as much of the context as you can. The setting, in visceral detail, for example. The history of the situation. The time and place. Your history. Their history.

3. The other people involved. Characterization is essential for understanding the other players in your drama. They aren’t cardboard cut out figures who traumatized you. They were invariably traumatized themselves. Rage about them. Don’t get me wrong. Don’t forgive them if you don’t want to. But flesh them out – even monsters are people. Writing can force you to look the creep in the eye, describe him or her, their lives and backgrounds, and just see. Witness. What a blessing to witness. To have these eyes, these ears, this heart, this brain. To witness. Just see if perhaps in the end you don’t understand them a bit more. That you don’t loosen your grip on the rage.

4. The societal context. The social situation. How often do we forget that all of this is happening within a world that has its own issues that are affecting the situation. For gang violence, explore why there are gangs. How does a racist society affect your story? How did racism make you violent? Was your own violence perhaps strangely justified? Does that help to think that way? Yes? No? Does it help break open the gates, to get to the creative writer within? Sometimes, it’s OK to poke the beast, because rage is passion too.

5. One important issue seems to be: after you’ve relived the trauma through writing, how can you fit it into the context of where you are now. You are not 5 years old. You are a grown woman. What does that mean? Journal it. It’s important to come back to the present…as a hypnotherapist will pull you back into your body. It’s the same thing. Pull yourself back to the present. Don’t stay in the trauma; write about what you’ve done since the traumatic event. (I’ve started writing fiction. I help other writers. I have a safe, loving environment. These are my good friends.) Revel in the details of your current life, in its love, progress, revolution and evolution to bring yourself back to the present.

6. After the years of writing, watch for signs of spring. It took me years. To release the rage. To have such joy at a brightly painted building, a waft of breeze billowing the curtain, the sizzling smell of sausages. We see so much of the past through our current eyes – sizzling sausages used to remind me of a painful childhood, and now they’re just sizzling sausages. The sound like a hiss, the smell sharp and tangy, the taste almost sexy. That’s what breaking through the trauma means. Right? Love of life? Don’t we all just want to love life?

In the end, after I wrote about a particularly enraged person in my life, I could just see them as broken and small. Pathetic. It was actually easier to see them as full of this rageful power. At least it was power. At least it wasn’t pathetic. But that’s been the consequence of telling my story in fiction. What I thought was power, what I feared, was just pathetic. Was a scared child. A broken child.

I hope the next door that opens is compassion. But I do not know. Writing is like that. If you try to be politically correct – after I write this, I will forgive and forget and have a white picket fence with little birdies chirping on my shoulder – you will fail. Just write it down. Witness your own process. Be honest. For god sake, just be honest. I’m so exhausted with everyone trying to be smiling happy people, when with one look in their eyes, you can see a terrified, lonely, sobbing person inside. Be honest in the writing. Be honest with your process. Be honest with the results. If you’re still enraged after the writing, glory in it. It’s your process. Your passion! For god sake, don’t dress it up in a bow and parade it around like some pathetic dog at a dog show.

Be enraged. Be unforgiving. Be who you are and what you feel. Eat sausage. That is enough.


It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Mary Oliver

4 thoughts on “Trauma and writer’s block

  1. I’ve got a concern, whch is that I have a lot of colleagues who write about various traumas in their lives. Many of them go through the steps you describe so clearly.

    However, they cannot do this on their own. They almost always need professional guidance – usually in the form of a therapist with PTSD expertise – in order to accomplish writing tasks. They work on Steps 2 – 4 listed, and they either dissociate or feel intense, debilitating flashbacks.

    I kinda wish you’d mentioned this possibility in this otherwise excellent article.


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