Write About Your Loss 

July 20, 2022 § 7 Comments

By Ninette Hartley

“Well, he has a broken leg but that’s the least of his problems. He has suffered some trauma to his head. In this country we … how can I put it? …we would say he is brain dead.”  

On the 13th of January 2011 my twenty-seven-year-old son Thomas, was rushed to intensive care in Porto, having fallen through a skylight whilst searching for somewhere to paint graffiti. I received a phone call from a doctor in the hospital, and when I asked her how bad it was she explained his injuries to me. Her English was good, but I couldn’t quite take it in.

His step-father and I had to get from Italy (where we lived at the time) to Portugal as quickly as we could. The hospital was waiting impatiently for me, his next of kin, to arrive so that I could give permission for his organs to be donated. His partner and my other four children came to Portugal, travelling from Australia, Singapore and England. Together we moved through the days after the accident supporting each other. 

When I look back now, I remember those first few days as a sort of numbness. I floated around in a mist of confusion and disbelief, with grief knocking me sideways when it arrived without warning in erratic bursts. The paperwork and tasks that have to be attended to after a death do, to a certain extent, distract the newly bereaved for some of the time. Funeral arrangements, cremation, bringing the ashes home; there was a great deal to organise. Then when all that was over, my children returned to their own lives, my husband and I to Italy, it was then I realised I needed some other kind of support. 

I found it in writing creative non-fiction. 

I began to write a letter to Tosh (his nickname) just to tell him what was going on. I wrote eight thousand words that were meant to be just between us. I never intended to share those words but as the years went by my writing became more important to me. I enrolled for online courses, began creating poetry, wrote short stories and flash fiction. A play and even a novel. But I kept coming back to Dear Tosh.  In September 2019, I was accepted onto the MA in Creative Writing Course at Exeter University and I completed that in 2020. For one module I pulled out my letter to Tosh and began to re-structure it into something that I felt I could share with others; at that time, it was just 5000 words.

For the tenth anniversary of his death, I completed Dear Tosh my first memoir, which was published in May 2021. It’s made up of twenty-seven letters, one for each year that he lived. It felt as though I spent time with him as I wrote, telling him all the events that had happened in the family and the world since he left us. I found it therapeutic to write, and even though it opened up the wounds of loss, it also helped me come to terms with so much that surrounds the loss of a child. One of those things for me, was the organ donation. I had no counselling for this, and the whole idea of it haunted me like a recurring dream for months and years after his death. Writing about it, sharing my feelings with Tosh, actually exorcised my fears and I was able, at last, to accept it. 

Writing the book wasn’t all doom and gloom. Much of it made me smile and even laugh out loud — and readers often have the same reaction — so many memories brought back, of fun times with the family when the children were little. I have a strong sense of humour and realise that I have passed this on to my children and that it comes through in my writing.

Writing saved my mental health, I’m sure of it. I would urge anyone to write about their loss in any way they can. It doesn’t matter if it’s never shown to anyone. The act of writing your innermost feelings can act as therapy. Grief may be difficult to share verbally but writing it down is a release and you never know, it might turn into a beautiful work of creative non-fiction. 


Ninette Hartley is a writer, mother, grandmother, wife and teacher. She has followed many paths – from acting and dancing to magazine publishing, and even driving a pony and trap – but she has always come back to storytelling.

Ninette has an MA in creative writing and has been published in three short story collections. Her first memoir Dear Tosh, published in May 2021 has been shortlisted in the Selfies Book Awards and long-listed in the Dorchester Literary Festival Writing Prize 2022 (shortlist and winner announced in August 2022). In 2015 she was shortlisted for the Fish Publishing Short Memoir Prize, and was longlisted for the Poetry Prize in 2020. She has won or been placed in several flash fiction competitions.

After eight years living in rural Italy she moved to the Dorset countryside with her husband, Geoff, and beloved rescue dog, Jpeg. 

Find more from Ninette on her website www.ninettehartley.com 

Crafting Beauty from Trauma: An Interview with Keema Waterfield

July 15, 2022 § 3 Comments

Keema Waterfield is the award-winning author of Inside Passage, a nomadic childhood memoir set along the wild coast of Southeast Alaska. Much of Keema’s body of work features drunk hippies, stoner parents, and traveling to play music from an early age. Her prose is lyrical and often humorous, even as she explores the impact of early childhood sexual trauma. 

Summer Koester (rhymes with “luster”) is an award-winning writer living in Juneau, Alaska. Though they both grew up in Juneau, the two met online after Keema’s book released and Summer reached out for an interview. Here, they talk about radical honesty, how to decide whether to include a traumatic event in your story, and writing into hard-to-remember moments.

Summer Koester: Inside Passage and your Brevity essay, “You Will Find Me in the Starred Sky,” both feature trauma and sexual abuse, and yet you manage to make it beautiful and avoid self-pity. Do you write with a specific audience in mind? 

Keema Waterfield: It’s too much to say that I write for the world, but I absolutely feel that I do. I write to give voice to survivors, and to push back against the apathetic. My grandmother’s edict was: we don’t talk about these things. My mother’s: we don’t keep secrets anymore. Mine is: it’s time to break open all the windows and scream

SK: That’s a directive I can get behind. How do you decide whether a difficult event needs to be included or can be left out?

KW: A lot of new writers ask me this, and here’s why: if you’ve experienced trauma in your life, you likely grew up avoiding being seen to protect yourself. You also probably heard that you were too much, that your story made people uncomfortable. It’s natural to ask whether you can hold your reader through these challenging moments when your own friends or family rejected them, or if you even want to try.

Keema Waterfield

When you’re debating whether to include a painful event in your book, answer these questions: Did this experience shape you? Does it move the story you are telling forward? Without it, are you incomplete? Then trust that your audience wants you to bring your fullest self to the page, but we typically won’t need to see every slap, only the most pivotal ones.

Ask yourself how much your reader needs to know explicitly to understand the enormity of every scene you choose. For example, once I’ve revealed there’s a man with his pants around his ankles and a gun to my three-year-old head, the reader doesn’t need more scene. They need me to quickly move in with my reflective voice and help them make sense of the moment, to show that I remain their sturdy guide through what comes next.

SK: Radical honesty is terrifying!

KW: You don’t need permission to write the truth, but if you’re afraid of your story, you aren’t ready to dig into it yet. Worrying about the court of public opinion, who might be hurt, or what reviewers will say can paralyze you and undermine your project. Hard subjects require fearlessness. Start by writing for just yourself while you build confidence. 

You’ve reached the appropriate emotional distance when you’re able to show a person behaving badly on the page without moralizing their actions. Then you’re ready to carefully select your in-scene moments and marry them to thoughtful sensory supports and reflection. Bear in mind that too much scene overwhelms, while heavy reflection bores. Study authors you admire to see how they balance that.

SK: You seem to have mastered the balance between scene and reflection, so I need to study up on your work more. 

Summer Koester

I know when I strip down in publications or on social media, I end up having dreams about pontificating naked on top of buildings. How do you avoid vulnerability fatigue when writing about painful topics?  

KW: Can I drop a heart emoji in here? Sadly, I haven’t found a cure for vulnerability fatigue in memoir writing. I accept it as another part of my story and prepare myself for unexpected naps.

When I’m working on intense material, I set a timer for 40 minutes. I let myself feel whatever comes. Then I take a walk, eat something, or call a friend. I don’t beat myself up if I can’t get back to the material immediately, and I trust that any emotions that arise are earned. I strive to let them pass through me rather than turn them away. 

I always plan a few days or a week of down time to let my nervous system settle after those sessions. I focus on my children’s small delights, my dog’s snores, and the dingleberry I need to comb out of my cat’s hind fur.

SK: In The Return: The Art of Confession, Melissa Febos writes: “On the page, I return to the past and make something new of it, I forgive myself and am freed of old harms, I return to love.” How do you tackle difficult events that are hard to remember? How do you translate them to the page?

KW: That’s a great question. Every nonfiction writer faces this problem at some point. 

I view memoir as a form of narrative archaeology rooted in curiosity. Our job is to unearth fragments of personal history and ask how the pieces we’ve lost to time, age, or trauma inform our understanding of ourselves. What did or didn’t happen? How did it shape us? Why does it matter? Confronting the holes in your memory is an opportunity to imagine what might have been. There is equal power in what you know, what you can’t remember, and the story you’ve made up in your head about it all. While the questions you ask will be unique to you, the urge to make sense of them is universal, which gives your readers a reason to buy in to your journey.

Writing 9-11: The Costs and Benefits of Saying Yes

September 11, 2021 § 6 Comments

By Jessica DuLong

“What about another book?” The editor’s email subject line announced her overture. Who would turn down such an offer? Still, I hesitated.

She was encouraging me to expand the piece I had published about the spontaneous boat evacuation of nearly half a million people from Manhattan on September 11, 2001. I knew turning that into a book would require immersing myself for many months in the suffering and fear of a dark day in American history.

It would mean putting myself into the heads of people like ferry captain James Parese, whose over-and-back routine suddenly shifted that day from ferrying passengers to rescuing them. Instead of staying put on the safe shores of Staten Island, he made the choice, again and again, to drop lines, pull out, and steer his boat straight toward the incomprehensible hell unfolding at the tip of Manhattan.

I was wary of taking this on. A decade after the terrorist attacks, I still struggled with the psychological fallout from my service at Ground Zero.

For four days, I had worked as a marine engineer aboard fireboat John J. Harvey. After the planes struck, the retired 1931 FDNY vessel was called back into service to supply water to firefighters at the World Trade Center.

A pontoon boat operated by merchant marines had rushed me to the site. There, I spotted the Harvey among the assemblage of workboats stationed along the seawall. The outmoded, historic fireboat that had stolen my heart was back, pumping river water up through her deck pipes, doing the work for which she’d been built.

I warmed at the sight, but also braced myself. Once I’d set foot in that dust-coated lunar landscape, nothing could ever be the same.

A day after both towers collapsed, firefighters continued battling the blazes that would rage on for months. Ironworkers cut away at what had already been dubbed The Pile. They pulled up sections of steel whose molten ends, exposed to air, flared up once more.

Reporting to the captain for duty aboard Harvey on that late summer day, I saw snow. Powdery ash had settled on every surface. Paper, plastic bags, and debris had tangled into nearby trees—some standing, some toppled. Responders in hard hats, coveralls, turnout gear, and blue and green scrubs rushed around in this blizzard. It made no sense. That day, that dust became a part of me.

Ten years later, the editor’s book invitation left me torn. My work at the Trade Center still haunted me. Yet, as a journalist, a historian, a responder, a witness, and a patriot, I felt the weight of responsibility. The boat lift story is one of grace in response to brutality. This history matters. I felt obliged to collect and share it.

I knew well the deep immersion that book writing requires. At the time, I still felt depleted from writing My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Built America and the two years of book events that followed. That book had called upon me to merge memoir with 400 years of Hudson River history. Naively, I supposed that writing about the September 11 boat lift might be simpler since the events took place on a single day.

I accepted the editor’s offer. The writing took a toll.

Reporting on topics like violence and human suffering has consequences for the mental health of journalists and historians, a fact that has become more widely recognized in recent years. Organizations like the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, established in 1991, continue to assemble and share additional resources like these: Resources for Journalists Coping With Trauma.

I’ve now spent a second decade swimming in the trauma of terrorism, reliving awful close-ups of the World Trade Center catastrophe at every stage of reporting, interviewing, writing, and revising. Some days it’s been hard to see past all the horror.

I wish I could say I took advantage of Dart’s resources and found constructive ways to cope. But that wouldn’t be true. In reality, this project has exacerbated existing anxiety issues and left me reeling through difficult periods of PTSD.

But… I’ve also relished the gifts it’s brought. Document this history has granted me the privilege of discovering how new, often unlikely, alliances formed between people who worked together to help.

Now, with U.S. society newly sensitized to the ruinous costs of erasing or eliding our brutal histories, I feel heightened urgency to share the generous efforts made by all the helpers that day. The remarkable choices they made reveal the power of collective action, make evident the force of good.

Somewhere in the middle of writing Saved at the Seawall: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift, I discovered light amidst the darkness. Chronicling the series of lifesaving, selfless acts performed by countless everyday people revealed the reflexive human drive to aid those in need. Memorializing the maritime evacuation as a landmark event in our history is critical to our understanding the hope and humanity that so often comes in response to disaster. Stories of how people rallied together with the simple, clear recognition of human interconnectedness show us who we can be again. Seems like a good time to remember that.

Saved has come out in time for the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. The process of drafting the preface while struggling through the pandemic left me raw. But I hope this anniversary will be the one where I let go of some of the awfulness and embrace the good.

The boat rescues that grew into the largest-ever maritime evacuation upend common assumptions about human limitations. Mariners who improvised this massive, unplanned, successful effort showed who we are when we’re at our best. This antidote to divisiveness and fear offers an enheartening message for right now.

Recognizing the large-scale compassion and creativity that occurs in response to hatred and evil has expanded my belief in human potential.

Saying “yes” to that editor is what gave me that chance.


Jessica DuLong is a Brooklyn-based author, editor, and collaborator/coach who helps writers develop a wide array of narrative nonfiction books. SAVED AT THE SEAWALL: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift is the definitive history of the largest ever waterborne evacuation. MY RIVER CHRONICLES: Rediscovering the Work that Built America won the 2010 American Society of Journalists and Authors Outstanding Book Award for memoir. A USCG-licensed marine engineer, DuLong served aboard retired 1931 NYC fireboat John J. Harvey for two decades, 11 years as chief.

On Writing During a Crisis

July 30, 2020 § 20 Comments

Beth MorrowBy Beth Morrow

I made a new acquaintance recently who, in his days before three kids, a job in administration, and a divorce, had been an active and productive writer. He lauded me each evening for having sat down during this pandemic to flesh out the essays in my head with a Bic pen in my spiral notebook.

I couldn’t understand why he, as a person who’d felt the pull and power of writing himself, wasn’t doing the same. I thought that’s what writing was for: to internalize and digest the suppositional inanities of the external world into concrete and rational observations. To use our words to transmute the unease and anger and hatred and uncertainty into a story with tangible relevance. Writing has been the only way I have been able to convert the painful and potentially destructive events of my life into a series of stepping stones since I was nine. It has brought me through both my brother’s and husband’s deaths when family and friends failed, clinical depression when no one listened, and panic when leadership had cowered.

Wasn’t that why other writers sat down to the page?

Sure, he said, but it was impossible to get to the point of being able to write again with all the distractions that conspire to consume his days. Besides, he added, the rejections he’d suffered in his submitting days were evidence that he probably wasn’t meant to pick up a pen and keep going.

I disagreed. To me, these were the clearest indications of why he–and we–must continue writing.

Lack of time and focus, fear of rejection, unpredictability, worry. These shadow elements, in differing proportions, conflict in the creative mind to make the path to writing in times of chaos seem insurmountable and irrelevant. When each dawn reveals a new catastrophe or devastating loss, it’s easy to believe that putting more words into the world won’t make anything better. There are too many things going wrong, too many wars waging, too little quiet, too much outrage. The virus. So little makes sense, so much is frightening.

All of these are the reasons we must dedicate ourselves to putting pen to paper. Just as the military analyst has decades of familiarity interpreting complex battle plans to the civilian and the educator possesses the gift of compelling the learner to explore uninspiring content, the writer exists to experience, filter, funnel, and transform abstract feelings and emotions into words to light the way for others. If we can name our joys and gratitude, so too can our readers. If we can grapple with our invisible dread and illuminate anxiety on the page, we can share them. If we can admit the shortcomings of our own human experience with grace, we can spark introspection in a way that fuels hope, change, and growth.

The truth of the matter is that the act of writing allows us to cement the universe’s upheaval to the human condition–the wishes and dreams, fears and failures for the future we all hold–in a way that helps others to process the changing landscape, to face the overwhelm, grief, and sadness inherent in such a time, and emerge with the knowing that no matter the struggle, beauty prevails.

Examining the pain of life through the pandemic, Civil Rights, gender equity, and other crises through words is the writer’s way to absorb the collective energy and focus it through our uniquely beautiful and personal story lens to metamorphose us all forward.

When my friend asked last night about what writing I’d done, I told him I’d drafted a few paragraphs about the importance of writing through big challenges, and how writing is the first step in healing what feels like a life spinning out of control in a world we are struggling to recognize.

“I suppose that’s your way of telling me to get back to writing?” he chuckled.

“I suppose it is,” I confirmed.

Beth Morrow is a writer and teacher from Grove City, Ohio. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines and blogs on health, summer camp, language acquisition, and, of course, writing. Visit her on Twitter @Buckeye_BethM and at http://www.BethMorrow.blog

On Trauma Writing: A Pain So Heavy, So Needful

December 11, 2019 § 32 Comments

emma wellsBy Emmy D. Wells

My son used to beat me up. Now he beats other people up.

He’s only fifteen, but he has a severe psychological disorder paired with an intellectual disability and has been locked up in a secure residential facility in another state since he was eleven.

That is essentially the entirety of the memoir I am getting ready to query. I hope I haven’t spoiled anything for you.

Sometimes I wonder how I was able to write an entire manuscript that can be summed up in three sentences. In fact, if I tried hard enough, I could probably get it to one or two. Does that mean I’m somehow cheating?

It has been a long, almost five-year road writing the book because… well… it is hard to write about getting knocked around.

Trauma is hard to talk about. It’s hard to think about. It’s hard to write about.

I am not cheating, though. Not really. I had to start at the beginning, before the bruises and broken furniture, the fights and the flying food. I told myself that my readers needed to know where it all began. I think I needed to know more. It was profoundly important for me to understand what happened to my son, to my family.

It is not unusual to hear about boyfriends or husbands, sometimes even wives or girlfriends, hitting or kicking their “loved ones”. I do not recall many times, though, where I have heard someone admit that their kid abused them.

Truthfully, it happens more than you probably realize.

I am also writing a psychological thriller and I have often wondered why it has taken me so long to write the memoir when, in less than six months, I have been able to whip out most of the entire first draft of a novel. I know better about what happened in my real-life story, after all.

It makes sense, though, when you think about it. I had to write in small little increments, little nibbles, morsels of time each day. The words had a bitter flavor and were sharp to the touch, painful and sour.

Still, getting the words on my screen gave me a sort of relief, like slicing through a festering, pus-filled abscess. The pressure releases and the pain lessens. Over time, the angry red turns to pink, and the yellow ooze dries up and washes away. Then the scar becomes thick and bumpy and ragged, but it’s closed and it only hurts when you push on it.

Writing pushes on my scar, makes it hurt. But I have become used to it and, over time, the pain has become normal, like that gnawing pain in your lower back at the start of each day or that old knee injury that you got in high school that just won’t go away.

My pain has become my friend. I’m not sure what I would do without it. It teaches me and informs me, tells me what to write. It prods me to type and type, make me feel better, a sort of analgesic relief.

I see my son once a month now and the scar opens a little each time.

Emmy D. Wells is a writer and blogger living in Hampden, Maine. Her life as a mother to four children, two of whom have severe psychological disorders, and wife to a disabled man in a wheelchair informs much of her work. When Emmy isn’t writing, you’ll find her curled up on the couch, buried under her three dogs, with her nose in a book. Find her on Twitter:  www.twitter.com/emmydwells2 Or Instagram: www.instagram.com/emmydwells



The Painful Narrative that No Longer Serves Me

August 19, 2019 § 25 Comments

rae author photoBy Rae Pagliarulo

A little while ago, in a fit of whimsy, I sold an article about my two biggest obsessions―Gilmore Girls and tarot cards―to a major website known for lifestyle and pop culture content. It felt great―I got to share this nerdy piece that brought me pure happiness, and I did it on a new platform that was previously outside my comfort zone.

One of my most trustworthy writing partners, a woman who consistently gives me the most thoughtful and truthful feedback a writer could ask for, gushed praise in an email to me.

“I loved it because it felt like a whole different you,” she said, “like the person who wrote it is lighter and happier than the person who wrote everything else.” Then, “I feel like the writer Rae I know has always been buried beneath layers and layers of pain and bad experiences, but the person who wrote this has finally climbed her way up to the surface and just stuck her face in the sun for the first time.”

Because I am an overflowing bag of all the feelings, I had sixteen different emotions about her reaction. But the strongest emotion was a hybrid of shame, tinged with pride. Shall we call that shmide? Prame? (Can you feel both at the same time? Trust me. You can.)

I felt shame because she was right―since I started writing “seriously,” I’ve clung to a few major narratives, most of which revolve around codependency, depression, and addiction. Sometimes, if I’m feeling experimental, I’ll throw in heartbreak and self-hate, too. These stories – the ones that have centered around my most painful lessons – felt like the most valuable thing I could put forward. Why else would I have gone through these experiences, I thought, if not to share what I learned with others? I’ve spent years applying my love of language to pain and trauma, a careful alchemy that felt like a calling. Sure, a calling that has given me endless stress, worry, and frustration, but a calling nonetheless. Of course it would be difficult to tell the most charged and challenging stories of my life. Of course it would be a struggle I could not unburden myself from.

At the same time, her comment made me feel immense pride. Anyone who knows me in the real world, far away from the glowing screens of my published essays, knows I am an optimistic, cheerful, sometimes maddeningly bubbly person who tries to find joy anywhere she can. The new piece I published wasn’t painful to write―it was a perfect reflection of my real-life voice, my interests, and my outlook. Yes, on top of my dark, twisty interior, knotted tight with anguish and self-reflection, beats the heart of a truly annoying Gilmore Girls fan who pulls tarot cards when she isn’t sure what to have for dinner. Beyond being a woman with a past full of difficult relationships and years of cutting myself down until I was barely recognizable, I am also a woman who can rattle off funny stories about disastrous first dates, musings about female friendships, and thoughtful missives about the genuine benefits of watching Hallmark made-for-TV movies.

I realized, after reading my friend’s supportive and celebratory email, that I had been called out in the best way possible. I have been struggling to effectively tell “my story” for a few years now. Each time I think I’ve made progress, something busts up the foundation I’ve laid and puts me back to square one. My Google Drive is overflowing with unfinished drafts, half-revised, clunky essays, and blathering notes to myself about what a ridiculous failure I am.

What if all this teeth-gnashing is happening because I’m holding on too tight to a narrative that no longer defines me?

What if the thing I thought I was called to do is actually the thing that’s holding me back?

To be sure, I’m not going to stop writing about my past as a way to understand it and create connections with people who have experienced similar things. However, I think this exploration of lighter topics could be just the break I was looking for. A way to share my voice without having to dig it up from the deepest depths. A way to remember that I am made of so many different things, and even if they aren’t deep or meaningful or heartbreaking, they can still be what connects people to my work, and to me. I don’t have to be one kind of person, or one kind of writer. If I can accept all the disparate parts of me as a functional whole, then I can trust the people who read my work to do the same.

I have long lurked in the Binders Facebook groups, reading with wonder as talented writers turned around thoughtful reaction pieces and hilarious listicles one day, and poignant braided essays about family trauma the next. Everything I was working on felt so heavy, so burdensome, so impossible to finish. I envied those writers, believing that kind of lightness couldn’t come out of me, believing that I couldn’t look away from what hurt long enough to talk about the small delights of my life. Believing, maybe, that my value as a writer hinged on those painful narratives.But it feels like change is now inevitable. An essential adjustment, not just to the kind of pieces I write, but to the trauma-identified writer mentality that I have maintained for so long. I’ve still got years of heartbreak and pain to talk about, and if I live a full life, I will have many more years in front of me. But I also want to talk about moisturizing sheet masks and psychic mediums and online dating and that new show on Freeform. And there’s value in all of it.
Rae Pagliarulo is the flash nonfiction editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and earns her living in the fundraising and resource development sector. Her poems, essays, and articles have been featured in Full Grown People, bedfellows, r.k.v.r.y quarterly, Cleaver, POPSUGAR, the Brevity Blog, and many others. She is the 2014 winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, and earned her MFA from Rosemont College, near her lifelong home, Philadelphia. Find her at raepagliarulo.wordpress.com.

A Review of Reema Zaman’s I Am Yours

June 5, 2019 § 3 Comments

zaman_coverBy Lisa Ellison

I met Reema Zaman at the 2018 Hippocamp Conference when she presented “The Art of Radical Vulnerability: Using Writing to Turn Wounds into Wisdom.” Audience members sat elbow-to-elbow as she revealed the insights she’d gained while writing her debut memoir I Am Yours: A Shared Memoir. Reema’s message was received with the powerful silence deserving of profound truths. Follow-up questions focused on one theme: writing about trauma.

Six years ago, I worked as a trauma therapist, helping clients understand and revise the stories they tell about painful experiences. Now, I teach classes in memoir. Trauma is a frequent guest at our workshop tables. Sometimes it’s an uncontained beast that threatens to derail projects. As an instructor, I constantly seek tools students can use to safely house their suffering and mold chaotic experiences into something ordered. A favorite is the Soham meditation—a Sanskrit mantra that roughly translates as I am that. It serves as both repository for errant thoughts and reminder that our essential nature is powerful and good.

Like this meditation, I Am Yours creates a haven for trauma narratives—one that simultaneously records and reauthors the writer’s deepest challenges. Structured as a love letter to her highest self, Reema’s memoir encapsulates her experiences with misogyny, sexual assaults and rape, intimate partner violence, and the racially-charged subjugation she faced as a Bangladeshi immigrant in the United States.

Letters like Reema’s serve as apt vessels for traumatic experiences. Her greeting, “Dear Love,” invokes the ultimate loving witness for her vulnerable stories. In her letter’s body, she processes her story, and through the closing, we are invited to let go of past harms and embrace radical self-love.

Reema’s letter has a meditative quality she sustains through a variation on Soham. Each episode begins with “I am” and her age. “I am 3. I am 5. I am 11.” This “I Am” invites the reader into her painful experiences—ones she renders with stark clarity and poetic finesse. On being raped, she writes: “He grabs me. I steel my body against his…. The vile truth, as bitter as bile: He is much too strong.” When her abusive husband insisted she downplay her looks and intellect, she writes “I blot my cheeks, lips, eyelids, dimming myself.”

Her memoir opens with her early life. As the oldest daughter to parents of an arranged marriage, she tries to fulfill the preset roles of a toxic patriarchy. To cope with the challenges of living in a world that silences women, she develops anorexia—an illness that shrinks both body and spirit—and pursues beauty as she strives to become a voice for the voiceless. This leads to careers in modeling and acting. But external changes don’t result in internal metamorphosis. Eventually, she realizes, “being raised by a bully, I married a bully, and through my choices, I become my biggest bully.” Each page contains similar epiphanies that frequently read like prayers.

Her memoir fulfills the satisfying arc we expect: the heroine loses her innocence, struggles, and ultimately prevails. But her unique approach makes I Am Yours distinctive. Many memoirs weave traumatic episodes into gripping tales that ascend to a triumphant crescendo, placing readers fully in the story’s present moment, desperate for resolution. In the midst of Zaman’s darkest episodes, she invokes the witness, “my love,” and reminds readers that an actualized writer (not the wounded character) controls her story. She tells her younger self, “she is kind, loved, and has value in this world,” creating an in vivo reauthoring of traumatic experiences as she recounts them. A miscarriage is “my body knowing how to take care of itself.” Of her gritty and painful marriage to a man who says she’s a wife for “greensies not for keepsies,” she writes “I entered my first marriage a girl. I leave a woman.” On her rape, she writes, “this is but one chapter and only I author my life.”

Self-soothing and reparenting the inner child are therapy terms frequently met with balled fists and pursed lips. How does one practice what one never had? Whether Zaman learned these skills or intuited them, she models self-soothing for us and reveals a new way to write memoir—one that speaks back to trauma in her revolutionary style. Time will tell whether other writers will emulate her in vivo reauthoring in their books. Regardless, I Am Yours has proved an essential guidebook for authors who wish to harness their internal witnesses and speak compassionately to themselves throughout the writing process.

Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach and member of the Moving Forewords Memoir Collective. She teaches classes in memoir and creative nonfiction at WriterHouse, a nonprofit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in The New Guard Review, The Kenyon ReviewThe Guardianand The Rumpusamong others. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LisaEllisonsPen.


On Writing about Trauma and So-Called “Misery Porn”

December 12, 2018 § 33 Comments

detraBy Detra Damskov

I’ve kept journals since my 9th birthday when I was gifted my first blue sequined journal and matching pen. My academic writing assignments had always received high marks. I did quite well in my undergrad poetry class, though afterwards,I never wrote another poem. Mostly, I wrote in secret and only enough to keep the urge at bay. My secret depended upon my silence, even on paper.

After recently entering a graduate creative writing program, however, the professor in my first workshop asked us to spend 40 minutes writing without lifting our pen.  She said we could write about anything we wanted, but if we needed a prompt, we could write about what we could not write about.

Write about what you can’t write about.

I couldn’t write about my abuse at the hands of a mother with sociopathy.  Because of this, I hadn’t been able to write about anything.  My story needed to breathe so I could do the same.  So that night, I exhaled and began.  What came from that 40 minutes of writing, would eventually evolve into my first piece of authentic writing.

I’ve been writing ever since, some of it expounding upon early traumatic experiences, but much of it completely unrelated, on topics ranging from Japanese Mamasans to Hoodoo priests.  Still, my most meaningful writing to date is that first piece that allowed me to breathe, to begin the path to writing with veracious honesty.

But as is the case when the oppressed speak out, there are those who want to quiet them.

Until recently, I had only heard these writings of abuse referred to as “trauma writing.”  Apparently, they’ve been given other “names” as well: misery lit, misery memoirs, and my least favorite, misery porn.

Sociologist Frank Furedi speaks about trauma writing as the “pornography of emotional hurt” in his article, insensitively titled, “An Emotional Striptease.” Furedi spent his childhood living in a refugee camp, working to help his family and feeling frustrated his parents were unable to help him with homework due to a language barrier. He considers this experience commensurate to that of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, suggesting because he does not dwell on his childhood experiences, neither should anyone else. Through his critique of misery porn, Furedi claims, the world morphs into a place of unfounded familial mistrust which bleeds into communal distrust serving to break down society as a whole.

If this isn’t an attempt to victim shame and keep survivors quiet, I don’t know what is.

While I do not pretend to understand the struggles Furedi experienced living through such a difficult time, and while I’m sure his time in a refugee camp had a profound effect on his life, I do not see how the events of his life, negate the experiences of mine.

Other critics of “misery lit” or “misery porn” invariably site, as evidence of its perversion, literary scandals regarding debunked accounts of childhood trauma. While there have been a few who have exploited the suffering of victims of abuse in an attempt to gain literary success, (hence further victimizing them) this does not negate the genre as a whole, nor the legitimate experiences of actual survivors of abuse.

Another common attack on trauma writers lies in accusations of the commercialization of voyeurism.  Commentators argue that those who read trauma writing aren’t doing it out of appreciation for triumphs of the human spirit but are sadists who read misery lit from a place of depravity.  Readers are seeking a cheap thrill and writers are merely capitalizing on this.  Which leaves survivors with two options if they have the audacity to tell their story: either they are liars, or they are merely attempting to exploit their trauma for the sole purpose of financial gain.

As a so-called misery porn writer, I’m motivated neither by voyeurism nor capitalism. Writing about my childhood affords me the opportunity to give my experiences some semblance of order and meaning. My child-self and adult-self are able to merge into the unified human being I am meant to be, having been damaged but becoming whole in my refusal to carry the burden in isolation and shame.  In writing my story, it becomes a part of who I am both publicly and privately, losing its potency and power to rip me apart from within. It ceases to be the thing I battle within the dark but is a telling of how I exist in the light.

Well-crafted trauma writing has a long history through such literary greats as Eli Wiesel, Maya Angelou, and Joan Didion, to name a few.  Writing, such as theirs, speaks a universal truth which helps survivors feel less alone and less freakish, while encouraging those fortunate enough to have grown up in loving environments to gain a much-needed empathy.

If this isn’t the purpose of high literature, I’m not sure what is.

Detra Damskov, a Canadian living in America, is pursuing a Masters of Arts in Creative Nonfiction Writing at the University of Omaha. She was also a finalist for a graduate fellowship in creative nonfiction.  She spends much of her time searching for the perfect cardigan and has an irrational hatred for bananas.

Facing the Fear: On “Wide Open Spaces”

October 4, 2013 § 6 Comments

LAPDHS-Old-No.-11Kathryn Miller discusses the origin of her recent Brevity essay, Wide Open Spaces:

I was in Chicago for the summer, supposedly to work on my book about getting shot as a kid in an affluent Chicago suburb. But I wasn’t writing much, if at all. I also wasn’t doing any of the things I said I’d do while there, like go to the police station. Instead I went to street festivals and concerts and rode my bike across the city and spent money that I shouldn’t on fancy dinners with old friends.

Two years earlier, I’d decided to confront the shooting, take in as much as possible about it, to hopefully attain further healing or closure or something else good. In that time, I’d immersed myself in it. I’d read the two books written about the woman who shot us, looked at my hospital records, talked to my mom for the first time about her experience. I’d endured the strangeness of workshop, listening to fellow MFA students debate things like where placing the shooting scene in my book would garner the most narrative tension and hearing my description of the boy who died the day of the shooting read aloud, making his death happen again, right there, in class, so I’d almost embarrassingly yelled, Please stop. But even after all that, I still avoided reminders of that day. Thus, while I’d resolved at the beginning of that summer to go to look at the records, days and weeks passed, my guilt mounted, but I didn’t go to the station, nor did I even call to find out if accessing the records was possible.

It took the man I was involved with at the time to make me finally call. Just do it, he said one morning, crawling back into bed next to me, where I was lying far too late, especially for a Wednesday. Maybe we can even drive up there today. I didn’t look convinced. All you’re doing is calling and getting some information, he said, putting his hands on my shoulders. It was the reasonable, casual terms I needed the task to be put in—I was capable of doing something simple like “calling and getting some information.”

And like that, a couple phone calls later, I had an appointment to look at the files the following week.

When I told my good friend about the police station plan, we were drinking beers in a dive bar with mismatched, disintegrating stools, the metal legs rusting, the black vinyl peeling back from the seats, exposing yellow foam cushions. There was handwriting all over the bathroom walls saying things like, Imagine Charlie Sheen fucking a centaur on Mars. We were watching open-mic stand-up comics. He said: Jesus, dude. Don’t go by yourself.

When I told my dad at dinner in a crowded suburban restaurant, trying and failing to mimic a Wisconsin lodge: his eyes got red and misty.

What my stepmom did at that same dinner: clasped my hands across the table, across my bread plate with a piece of half eaten onion bread on it and said, We’re so proud of you. You’re so brave.

But I didn’t feel brave.

The morning I went to the station, I was in a foul mood, irritated by everything, even the blue, cloudless sky—will it ever rain again—until I realized driving to the station that no one was making me go. What I was about to do wasn’t such a big deal anyway—it was paper, words, photographs. The hard part, the trauma, was long passed. No matter what I saw, I was okay and nothing in those files could change that.

When I sat down to write about the experience, it was the first time all summer that I was able to write almost effortlessly. The words flowed with ease (though I still wrote, rewrote and edited the hell out of it, like I do everything). It was getting myself to the police station, to that moment, that was the work.

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