When I first started writing about my childhood physical and emotional abuse in 2006, I did almost everything wrong.
I wrote for hours at a time, scrunched over my computer, interspersing angry rants amidst spare details of memory, tears streaming down my face. Meals were takeout, and junk food, my constant writing fuel. Exercise was a short walk to the cafe where I continued to rant-write with friends, timing ourselves to see who could generate the most words in a given amount of time, what we called a “word war.” I usually won.
It was National Novel Writing Month, you see, where enthusiasts aim to write a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. I crossed the finish line on day thirteen, my friends blinking in astonishment. By Nov. 30, I’d doubled my word count, clocking in at just over 100,000 words. Triumph!
Two weeks later, I was in the ER with severe chest pain similar to a heart attack.
My father held my hand as we waited for a doctor. “How did this happen?” he asked, shaking his head.
“I think it has something to do with writing about my childhood for NaNoWriMo,” I said, eyes lowered. “About Mom. I was crying every day, not sleeping well, not eating well…” His face cleared and he nodded. Of course.
Test after test, the doctors found nothing wrong. Finally, I was diagnosed with severe acid reflux—so severe I could only drink water and swallow a little bread for the next week. Later, my naturopath told me if I hadn’t followed her strict, low-acid diet, I would have developed an ulcer.
I threw my manuscript in a drawer and slammed it shut. When I finally returned to it, a couple years later, I thought, No wonder I got sick! Grief burned through the thick stack and distress scarred each page. My stomach clenched. I shoved the papers back.
Now, eleven years later, my writing is much more emotionally processed. I’ve learned to explore painful memories with an aim toward hope and healing. But I still find myself needing to tread carefully in the rushing waters of remembered trauma, finding toeholds and steadying branches to help me stay upright through the thunderous tide of resurfacing pain.
I’ve come up with some guidelines for writing about painful events in a more balanced way. I still mess this up, but when I do my best to live these out in my day-to-day life, both my body and my writing are lighter, happier, healthier.
1. Don’t push. If you don’t feel ready to re-visit trauma, then don’t. A fiction-writing friend once told me, “You’ve been writing this for seven years, right? You should be done by now.” In response, my creative nonfiction instructor said, “We’re making art. It takes as long as it takes—usually years, maybe decades.” My childhood memoir has taken eleven years so far. When I made a push to finish it early last year, my stomach issues returned. Now, it’s on the back burner again. It’ll take as long as it takes.
2. Listen to your body. Tune in when it says no. Do you know how your body says no? Is it a tightening in your gut? A feeling of dread and dragging feet? Procrastinating by playing online games? Overworking? Your body is a compass to your emotions and your limits. Stop when you need to.
3. Stay in balance. When writing about difficult subjects, think of yourself like a see-saw. Counterbalance challenging stories with ones that make you happy. Write about your gratitude for something a difficult person taught you. How did you grow from the experience?
4. Take long breaks. Vary difficult writing with submissions to literary journals or agents, revising stories on other subjects, daily free writing, critiquing stories for others. If you need to put a subject aside for months or years, do it. If you suddenly realize, “I don’t ever want to write about this,” that’s okay. Trust and honor your limits.
5. Practice more self-care than you think you need. Eat more nourishing food you enjoy. Devise a daily or weekly exercise goal. (One year, mine was to play Pokémon Go every day.) Give yourself naps, an early bedtime, the gift of sleeping in.
6. Take a class. Following a step-by-step process with feedback and support from a trusted mentor is helpful when I’m struggling to approach a subject or am otherwise not feeling well.
7. Get support. You need an outlet for the intense emotions coming up through your writing. Talk to a friend about how you feel. See a therapist to discuss emotions that re-surface in your writing. Read the book Writing As A Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo and try her advice.
8. Keep a writing process journal where you record your feelings about what you’re writing. I haven’t tried this yet, but I’ve recently started The Artist’s Way, and my three stream-of-consciousness morning pages have helped me feel productive even if I’m only recounting my shopping list. When I do write about how I’m feeling, I feel the support of the page, and my other essays seem to flow more easily.
9. Start a writing group for writers like you. You could begin with a meditation and then do a few short exercises before each person gets twenty minutes to talk about how their writing is going, how they’re feeling, and what old emotions and memories are surfacing.
It’s essential to not only honor your process, but also to develop one that works for you, whatever form it takes. And it’s an ongoing lesson, one that teaches me new things all the time—even with this article! I wrote half of this piece in a couple of hours, but it took me another two weeks to put together the second half because health issues slowed me down. But I kept at it, telling myself I was writing this because I need to remember these guidelines as much as anyone else.
Now that it’s done, it’s a gift from my well self to my ill self. Both of them deserve to tell their story and stay safe while doing it.
Yolande House’s creative writing has appeared or is forthcoming in literary magazines such as The Rumpus, Grain, Joyland, and The Nasiona. Her Entropy essay was selected as one of the magazine’s “Best of 2018,” and she was a finalist for an issue of Creative Nonfiction. She offers healing resources on her website and can be found on Twitter: @herstorian and Instagram: @healthruwriting. Currently, she’s revising a completed childhood memoir.