Experiencing Vicarious Trauma: A Writer’s Madness

April 23, 2018 § 14 Comments

fogg

Photo by Griffin Pictures

By Kirsten Fogg

It started with a lump in my throat. Actually, it started before that.

When I embarked on a project gathering stories of belonging, I tried to be witty and philosophical by quoting author Ben Okri. “Listening,” Okri had said in an interview, “is quite close to suffering.” Maybe I didn’t take Okri seriously or maybe I thought I was immune. Either way I’m embarrassed to say that I became a casualty of my own research.

In order to interview people I wouldn’t normally meet, I’d applied to become a writer in residence but no one would have me. After I recovered from the rejections, I decided to continue my research independently and called myself the Writer Out Of Residence. I was thrilled to be part of a festival and had stints with a state library, a hospital, and a hip cafe. In six months, I collected 130 interviews. I just didn’t think it would drive me to therapy.

The thing is when I asked about belonging, people told me about rape and racism – He dragged me from the car by my hair – anorexia and mental illness, attempted suicide, prison and homelessness – I cut off his hand and shoved it in his mouth.

The more I listened, the bigger that lump in my throat became but I kept ignoring it. I’m doing important work, I told myself. It’s research for my book. It wasn’t until I had trouble swallowing and speaking became painful that I remembered a friend’s father who had died of throat cancer.

My GP sent me to the ear nose and throat doctor who squirted bitter anesthetic up my right nostril and stuffed a tube in it to peer into my throat as I gagged. Two GPs, one barium swallow and a cortisol inhalant later, I was lying on a carpeted floor staring at the ceiling and repeating zz sounds.

“Your throat is unremarkable,” the speech pathologist said, reading the ENT report. The pathologist used to sing opera and he looks like he used to sing opera. “It’s called globus pharyngeus. It’s an involuntary clenching of the vocal chords. Can be caused by stress. I see it all the time. Feels like a lump in your throat.”

Ben Okri may not have been referring to vicarious trauma when he equated listening with suffering but the link was there. When I was collecting stories, people opened up to me. They talked to me as if I was a therapist rather than a writer and I had no idea how to handle it. This type of secondary trauma is associated with war correspondents, social workers, or medical and rescue personnel, not creative nonfiction writers like me. But the more we as writers delve into the lives of others, the more susceptible we become to taking on their trauma, simply by listening.

I kept going. At one all-day festival, I interviewed 19 people without stopping and then raced home to look after my children. Everywhere I went I carried those stories with me. I was beaten up about nine times by gangs. The details rolled around my head and the weight of other people’s rage and terror pulled on my limbs. I tried to kill myself. Nightmares and heart palpitations jerked me awake at 3 a.m. and during the day I wanted to crawl under my desk and hide. I ignored the restlessness that pumped through my body like a never-ending sugar high. I kept collecting stories. How could I not listen?

Even writing this, my chest is tightening, my throat clenching. I pause, exhale, and look out the library window at the muddy Brisbane River. After months with an art therapist and the speech pathologist I know more about vicarious trauma and how anxiety affects me.

In my attempt to understand other people’s search for belonging I neglected myself: I didn’t debrief after interviews, I didn’t cut down on my workload, I didn’t find a way to let the trauma out, and I didn’t ask for help. How could I whine about what I was feeling when I was only listening?

At the same time, I felt so responsible for preserving people’s stories and honoring my commitments that I stopped doing activities that would have helped me: I was too busy to run or rock climb and my flute stayed in its case.

I know I’m not the only writer who is suffering and feeling guilty about secondary trauma: Oxford University now offers workshops to students and academics researching difficult subjects and more writers are asking about how to handle this in conferences and on social media.

There is no easy answer. People talk about self-care, going for walks, or hanging out with friends, but those suggestions were too vague. I was in a position of high anxiety and I wasn’t going to stop interviewing people so I needed a long-term solution.

At a writer’s conference in Australia I bumped into Leah Kaminsky, a General Practicioner and award-winning author. If anyone could help, it had to be her: she’s written about death and The Holocaust and seems balanced and happy. Later, when we talked on the phone and I asked about vicarious trauma, her suggestion surprised me. It was, in fact, the one thing I’d been avoiding because I thought it would upset me. She insisted that reading a broad range of well-written books on traumatic subjects was key.

“It helped me focus on the craft of how to actually be the translator of pain and of trauma, rather than being the vessel for it,” Kaminsky said. “I was the translator that was carrying the language of the voiceless to the reader.”

Now I’m surrounded by memoirs and essays on topics ranging from disability to genocide. And it’s working. I’ve got a way to go before that lump disappears from my throat, but concentrating on how other writers have transformed trauma into type is helping me manage the suffering embedded in truly listening.
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Kirsten Fogg is a writer and journalist who has lived in France, the U.K. and Australia. Her personals essays have been published in Creative Nonfiction (U.S.), The Malahat Review (Canada) and produced by ABC Radio National (Australia). Her essay “NanaTechnology” was the 2015 winner of the CNFC/carte-blanche contest. Her articles have appeared in international newspapers including The Chicago Tribune. She recently moved her family to Toronto, Canada and can be found — covered in dust and muddling her way through renovating an old house — at www.writeroutofresidence.com.

On Spry and Flashy Prose

April 20, 2018 § Leave a comment

spry-banner-trans-ish-49Not about Brevity, but about ‘brevity,’ from Elizabeth Hilts at Spry literary magazine (another flash market to consider during our submissions closure):

This might be a bit obvious, right? I mean, c’mon, “brevity” in a series on flash. Yet the fact of it must be addressed. Concise. Exact. Just the right words and only a very few of them (though that seems to be negotiable); the challenge being to express the breadth and depth of a thing fully within the constraints of brevity, to write beautifully, evocatively, to essay a specific truth without succumbing to wordiness.

Poetry does this. The constraints of form and structure seem designed to inspire precision and, by definition, poetry is concentrated. The formality of the genre creates a sort of elegant sparseness, each word “curated” in the most hipster-ish sense of the word. But flash is not poetry, flash is flash so…what? It seems easier to interrogate what flash is not than it is to define what flash is.

Flash is not merely brief, the whole endeavor is much more complex than that. Flash requires the strict attention to form required of poetry but without the illusory “comfort” of rules concerning syntax and tempo and all the rest.

Read the rest here

Writing to Give Shape to Our Lives

April 9, 2018 § 24 Comments

zz slavinBy Nancy Slavin

“I write because writing helps bring life into clearer focus and give shape to what I might otherwise experience as disconnected shards.”  – Joyce Thomas

I read the Joyce Thomas quote above in a 2011 issue of Poets & Writers and practically hummed out loud in my attraction to it. The urge to write for me is a primordial need to make sense of experiences that often happen in pieces. The way I make sense of the pieces is by creating the story, which hopefully turns out whole. Certainly in the case my daughter’s birth, the pieces of a fifty-four hour labor are disconnected, fragmenting more and more with each passing year, making me wonder which pieces are important enough to keep? And yet, long as the labor was and as bloody the outcome, I don’t use warfare metaphors to discuss that birth or write about my body as a battlefield, or even discuss the experience in sharp-termed images like shards. I have a choice in how to name that experience; I get to write my own story.

Being cut open crosswise below my belly button has made me feel at times like I have two parts of a body, and writing about that experience, even after therapy for post-partum depression, has actually been the best work I’ve done to connect the two parts, to make a new whole. As a former writing mentor once said, “if you write it down, it can’t own you.” For me, writing about the difficult parts helps me own that experience, rather than it owning me.

People often ask, when they hear I’m a writer, “what do you write?” I answer I write words. But I write in many forms – poetry, fiction, non-fiction. I’ve taught all of those genres, too, and love thinking about the different elements between each form because I’m a believer in form follows function. Each story demands its own structure, and each story, eventually, will tell you in what form to write it if you’re willing to listen.

I also believe: the greater the pain behind the experience, the greater the need for precision within the form. Joyce Thomas, in her Poets & Writers essay, tells us that after she was raped at gunpoint, she wrote her very first poem. She wonders why she turned to poetry at that moment, but I don’t wonder, I know: the greater the pain, the greater the need for poetry, the most precise of forms, to connect the shards. For the same reason, the first time I wrote about birthing my daughter, I wrote a poem in rhyming heroic couplets, an exacting form that helped me stitch together our dual experience.

The other question people ask when hearing I’m a writer is “what do you write about?” That question is quite a bit more complicated and I’m sure there’s not one answer any writer could give, although at least one famous writer claimed each writer writes the same story over and over. But finding out what you need to write about is important. Find your themes. When I teach writing classes, one of the first exercises I do with students is to have them write a one or two word “top ten” list of topics they think are important to write about, topics that would excite them and get their engines greased. They come up with weighty subjects like the environment, God, being a mother or father, daughter or son, and sometimes less weighty subjects like cars or video games. Still, every subject has potential for deeper exploration, and certainly can be crafted into a story. When I do that exercise, I often write “human relationships” as my number one topic, but I think the bigger truth is I write about “healing in human relationships.”

Writing, in the form of essays, fiction, and poems, has helped me figure out and heal disparate swatches of myself, swatches torn from the whole due to traumas or losses or disappointments. Writing literally helped me stitch together the initial frayed pieces of motherhood, and continues to do so as my child grows. I’ve also written about family, partners, therapists, and friends. All the writing allows me to connect pieces of my life and figure out my constant thread within my life. I’m grateful not only that I have this primordial need to write, but also that I have the wherewithal to abide to that need and act accordingly. I wish the same wherewithal for you, for we all have a need to express our “top ten” list. May the disconnected shards of your experiences be assembled into a whole.

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Nancy Slavin is a freelance writer and editor. She was longtime community college writing and English literature instructor and a violence-prevention educator. Her work has been published in Oregon Humanities Magazine, The Manifest Station, Barrelhouse, Literary Mama, Hip Mama, among others. She’s the author of Moorings a novel, and Oregon Pacific, a collection of poems.

Writing Toward Wholeness: Journaling, Imagery, and Meditation

April 6, 2018 § 7 Comments

zz ww40_Author and workshop leader Susan Tiberghien offers writing exercises from her new book, Writing Toward Wholeness, Lessons Inspired by C.G. Jung, which uses excerpts from Jung’s writings, and writers such as Etty Hillesum, Thomas Merton, Annie Dillard, and Thich Nhat Hahn, to bring together psychology, spirituality and the arts:  

The first lesson in Writing Toward Wholeness ─ “Keeping Your Own Red Books” ─ suggests journaling as a way toward uncovering our soul, toward uncovering our connectedness, our oneness. Journaling is a practice, like meditation, leading us to deeper writing, to deeper living. When we journal, when we write about what we see, feel, touch, we discover its meaning, linking together the visible and the invisible worlds.

If I journal about a walk on the beach and picking up a small white shell, the white shell is no longer one amidst hundreds in the sand, but it is unique, its jagged edges cupped in my hand. It has suffered, from being tossed about by waves, currents, and eddies. But here it is in my hand, opening the door in my imagination to my own jagged edges.

To illustrate this, here is a writing suggestion from the second lesson in my book, “Pursuing Images.” Open your journal, close your eyes, what experience comes to you, what image comes to you? Something you did, something you saw. Hold on to the image, look at it, and describe it. Take a moment and write a few lines to give it life.

I give the following example from my own journal: “A tree with fall foliage appeared, like the one outside my kitchen window last fall. Its rust-colored leaves were falling sporadically to the ground.”  To learn from the image, from my tree, I spoke to it, asked it why it came to me. I wrote down my question and the tree’s response in the form of a dialogue. Jung calls this active imagination.

I asked if I too must let go of my leaves, If I must “stop checking if all is well, stop worrying about family, friends, about my work.” Yes, replied the tree, “Let things be.” I was told to trust the process. “The leaves return to their roots to rise anew.” Nothing is lost. Life is a continuum.

A continuum. A whole. Each of us writes towards this wholeness.  As Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote in her “Letter To A Young Activist During Troubled Times:” ─ “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.”
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Susan Tiberghien, an American writer living in Geneva, Switzerland, holds a BA in Literature and Philosophy and did graduate work at Grenoble University in France and the C.G. Jung Institute in Kusnacht, Switzerland. She has published four memoirs Looking for Gold, A Year in Jungian Analysis; Circling to the Center, An Invitation to Silent Prayer; Side by Side: Writing Your Love Story; and Footsteps: In Love with a Frenchman, and the writing handbook, One Year to a Writing Life, Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft, along with numerous essays in journals and anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic. Tiberghien has been teaching Jungian inspired writing workshops for over twenty years at C.G. Jung Societies, at the International Women’s Writing Guild, and at writers’ centers and conferences in the States and in Europe. She directs the Geneva Writers’ Group, an association of over 240 English-language writers, which she founded in 1993. Mother of six children and sixteen grandchildren, she lives with her husband in Geneva, Switzerland.

 

Brevity Podcast Episode #9: Rhiannon Navin and Ander Monson

April 5, 2018 § 1 Comment

This episode, Brevity takes a detour into fiction, speaking with debut author Rhiannon Navin about making fiction from fact and how she turned her real-life emotional experience into a novel. Then it’s back to our regularly scheduled creative nonfiction, with Ander Monson, editor-in-chief of Diagram.

Stream the show right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.

Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below.

Next episode, it’s time for our listeners’ very own One-Minute Memoirs! Audio Editor Kathryn Rose and I will discuss what made the winning submissions stand out, and how to make your own story pack maximum punch in minimum space. And you’ll hear 15 fantastic, very short memoirs.

 

Show Notes: Episode #9 People and Books

Find out more about:

Only Child by Rhiannon Navin

Ander Monson

Letter to a Future Lover

Paul Monette

The Mezzanine

Turtle Island

Casa de los Ninos

Charley Douglas and the “laff box”

Useful Adjectives and Adjectival Phrases to Describe Ander Monson:

  1. phenomenal
  2. maverick
  3. self-involved
  4. trickeration-loving
  5. asinine
  6. straight-shooting
  7. family-betraying
  8. law-breaking
  9. ne’er-do-well
  10. bad boy
  11. future addict
  12. serious and accomplished
  13. brainy but beautiful
  14. chubby
  15. crazy
  16. more than likely delusional
  17. poetryish
  18. encyclopedic
  19. whale-kicking
  20. profane
  21. piratical
  22. regretful
  23. sympathetic
  24. criminal
  25. pensive
  26. bright but misguided
  27. hurt, badly, baldly
  28. good
  29. trying real hard to be good

Additional music by John Stebbe, Ars Sonor, and Kai Engel via freemusicarchive.org.

________________________________

Allison K Williams is the host of the Brevity Podcast.

On Shoveling Snow During a Blizzard and Writing Memoir at 26

April 2, 2018 § 10 Comments

Katie HS Square (3 of 1) (1).jpgBy Katie Simon

“What kind of writing do you do?” It is snowing heavily outside, and I am at a party, ice flaking off my quilted boots and melting into puddles on the hardwood floor. I get asked this question frequently, not just by buzz-cut, twenty-something, plaid-wearing, men like the one in front of me, but by people of all hairstyles, ages, and clothing preferences. I know what this man expects me to say: short stories; poetry; hot takes on pop culture trends. I am 26 years old, and anything I write must be imaginary or ephemeral.

I squirm in my boots, stare out the window at the weather I just escaped. I hate this question. “Memoir,” I say.

“Huh.” He looks at me skeptically. Even without asking my age, he has a general idea. I look younger than I am. “Kind of funny for somebody your age, don’t you think?” I wonder about the walk home and if the sidewalks will be cleared if I just wait out this storm a little while longer, if I manage to make it through this conversation.

I don’t owe him an explanation, though I have one I know will effectively wipe away his doubt. I could tell him I’m finishing a book about the gap year I took during which I contracted the plague in Uzbekistan, was raped by a stranger in a Tel Aviv alleyway, and found myself in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution. Though mentioning this project appeases would-be skeptics, I don’t like sharing it. I don’t want to perpetuate the misconception that a young person needs to have had an unusual life to write a memoir. So, standing in my friend’s apartment, my fingers still thawing from the frozen weather outside, I shrug and change the topic.

During a blizzard, you start shoveling while the snow is still falling. It seems counter-intuitive. Why bundle up and bend against snowflake-filled wind when you could just wait for the snow and wind to stop? Those who’ve braved blizzards, New Englanders like me, know better.

My book is about a sequence of events that took place largely in my eighteenth year. When I started writing, it was less than a year later. I was nineteen years old and knew I probably hadn’t even lived the ending, but I wrote anyway, because I knew my story needed to be told. I took workshops with widely published authors who advised me to write my story as quickly as possible and get a book deal before graduating college. “Just write it really close up,” one professor told me. “You don’t need to have an older narrator’s wisdom if you present the facts to the reader without judgement.” While his advice may work for some, I didn’t take it.

You start shoveling during the blizzard so you have a pathway to work yourself out once the snow finally stops.

I didn’t write my book as quickly as possible. I stuck my unfinished manuscript in a drawer. I worked on other writing. I took a break from writing altogether. And when I finally returned to the book I had started six years before, I was unequivocally grateful to my teenage self for having the audacity to write her own story as it was unfolding. What I wrote in college, though mostly rewritten, overhauled, or simply cut, has been invaluable to the process of finishing the draft I have today.

You start shoveling during the blizzard so you can see the outline of the sidewalk when you dig later on, so you don’t scrape cars or break your shovel on fire hydrants.

Those early pieces gave me a blueprint. I got down the details of events and characters and settings I wouldn’t otherwise have remembered. I built up the eighteen-year-old’s persona with such intricate interiority that going back and reflecting, even just a few years down the line, proved much easier; the ways in which my perspective had changed were immediately noticeable. Without having my teenage point of view down on paper, the persona, so recently embodied, would have blurred with the narrator.

You start shoveling during the blizzard because if you don’t, by the time the last flake has fallen, the snow in front of you may be so deep and dense you can’t break through its icy surface, not even a dent.

I wrote memoir at nineteen because even though I hadn’t yet lived my book’s ending, I intuitively knew I had to get words down on the page. So that when, six years later, I faced the enormous, incomprehensible task of writing a book about my life, I wouldn’t be so overwhelmed that I waited, and waited, and waited, hoping it would make the task ahead magically easier.

Don’t wait. Write memoir when you’re young, even if haven’t yet lived your story’s ending. Shovel when the blizzard is still raging outside.

_____
Katie Simon is writing a memoir about the year she contracted the plague, was raped by a stranger in an alleyway, and found herself in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, Health, Entropy, BUST, Women’s Health, and elsewhere.

 

Finding Inspiration in Free Events at the Public Library

March 30, 2018 § 8 Comments

barbara krasnerBy Barbara Krasner

I drove to the Princeton Public Library through a heavy drip of snow for a lecture/workshop on writing about other people’s memories. The speaker was Ellen Friedman, author of The Seven: A Family Holocaust Story, a narrative based on oral interviews, travel, and archival research about her family’s migration east through the Soviet Union during World War II. I was prepared to take notes and participate in an interactive writing session.

But what I got, besides the $40 parking ticket since the meter I used apparently didn’t work, was a kick in the pants. As Dr. Friedman read from her first chapter, I was reminded of my great-uncle who also took a Soviet train east in 1939. He ended up in Uzbekistan-Bukhara and eventually, after the war, Palestine. Only he, and my maternal grandfather and one brother who came to America before the war, survived. I thought, too, about my paternal grandmother’s brother, Leib Zuckerkandel, who was sent to a Soviet labor camp from his home in Galicia, while his wife and daughters perished. Only Leib and my grandmother, who came to America in 1913, survived.

I took notes, but not about Dr. Friedman’s book. I made a list of actions to take: Contact Stan and Michael about the tenant registers—did they include my maternal grandfather’s shtetl? Contact Leib’s children to learn more about the labor camp and his memories. Contact anyone I’d been in touch with over the years who might have stories about our mutual ancestral Galician village. But could it also be that my reading of Noah Lederman’s The World Erased: A Grandson’s Search for His Family’s Holocaust Secrets, was reaching my brain at the same time?

I had insomnia. I spent hours combing Ancestry.com for my grandmother’s potential relatives. I had no idea Gustav Klimt painted a portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandel of Vienna. I knew from a conversation with Leib’s widow, Rose, that we were distantly related to these fin-de-siècle salon Zuckerkandels, originally from Hungary. A new vitality emerged about the memoir of my grandmother I’m writing, that is, the grandmother I never knew because she died years before I was born. Do I have events of my discovery in the right order?

I was in my hometown a day later, an hour north of where I currently live. I wanted desperately to drive to where my father and his family lived behind the corner mom-and-pop store just to count the number of stairs of the stoop on the side of the building.

Within a 48-hour period, I learned the following:

  1. Always use quarters and not your credit card in Princeton parking meters.
  2. Attend as many free workshops and readings as possible, especially those at local libraries. They will introduce you to more writers, more writing styles, and they offer inspiration.
  3. Develop your own action plan as a result of attending these sessions.

Next up, reading Dr. Friedman’s book, reading Mimi Schwartz’s When History Is Personal, reading a self-published memoir about a town close to my grandmother’s, and participating in a free, two-part memoir workshop at the Princeton Library. My quarters are all lined up.

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Barbara Krasner holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a PhD candidate in Holocaust & Genocide Studies at Gratz College. Her creative nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Smart SetSouth 85Poor YorickJewish Literary JournalMinerva Rising, and other publications. She teaches creative writing, composition, and history in New Jersey.

 

 

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