by Lillie Gardner, guest blogger
This post is part of a HippoCamp 2022 recap series, with guest blog posts written by HippoCamp attendees. Learn more about our conference for creative nonfiction writers.
The term “self-care” is casually thrown around these days, usually paired with images of flawless female models getting cucumber-eyed facials or taking pristine white bubble baths (makes you wonder if it’s only young, well-lit women who need self-care!). But self-care is a serious endeavor, and perhaps nobody understands this better than memoirists.
I’m embarking on a memoir myself. So far, I’ve written the stuff that’s pretty easy to write. I’ve avoided large chunks of memories because, apparently, I don’t really want to go there. I didn’t realize I was procrastinating this part of the writing process until I attended Sue Repko’s session at HippoCamp, “Diving into the Wreck: How to Write the Hard Parts, Come Up for Air and Self-Care, and Finish Your Memoir.”
Repko is a writer and gun violence prevention advocate. She spent fifteen years writing her memoir about her relationship with her father and an unintentional shooting in her childhood. During this difficult writing process, she learned important lessons about trauma writing and patience that she shared in her HippoCamp session, which was structured around Adrienne Rich’s powerful poem “Diving into the Wreck.” Attendees clearly resonated with the poem as we listened to it. A collective sigh of understanding sounded with the line: “you breathe differently down here.”
Repko began the session with a short meditation from the Calm app to help attendees feel grounded. She spoke about the experience of writing her memoir, focusing on the importance of creating a healthy and sustainable writing practice. Writing about trauma is unavoidably difficult, she noted, so preparation is key.
I appreciated how practical Repko’s session was. She shared her strategies for surviving “the dive,” covering everything from how to handle a PTSD flashback to her own decision to limit (not entirely cut, she clarified) caffeine, wine and chocolate during the memoir-writing process. She stressed the importance of therapy, educating yourself about how trauma works, paying attention to how your body is feeling, and making a plan for self-care. She encouraged us to get thinking about this immediately, and even provided a self-care plan worksheet to attendees.
Self-care for writers as proactive rather than reactive was my biggest takeaway from this session. I tend to approach self-care as something I have to figure out in moments of emotional breaking points or stress build-up. (Spoiler alert: I’m not in a great place to make self-care-oriented decisions at these times!) According to Repko, it can be helpful to identify your triggers ahead of time, implement rituals and check-in points throughout your writing process, and plan your self-care strategies in advance.
Repko recommended the books Writing Hard Stories and The Body Keeps the Score in addition to the work of another HippoCamp presenter, writer and trauma-informed coach Lisa Cooper Ellison, whose “P.A.C.E.” strategy can be implemented to write sustainably about trauma.
When we dive into our past traumas in order to write about them, we must do so alone. There’s no way around this; it’s hard work. But Repko argues that because of this work, other people (your future readers) might discover they are not alone—just as you, the writer, may discover you’re not alone either: “That’s what is paradoxical, beautiful, and sacred about this kind of writing.”