Lecture Notes!

My mom and I did a really cool thing today! We did the Eleventh Hour Lecture at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. It was fun. Our topic was “Approaches to Trauma Writing.” Some people in the audience said they wanted our lecture notes, and I said I would post them on my blog so they were easily accessible. I’m putting in a page break so they don’t clog up my main blog page, so you’ll have to click past if you’re interested. 

Thank you so much to everyone who came to the lecture! It was a really great experience. 

They’re kinda rough because I’m just copy-pasting them, I hope they’re helpful in some way.


11:00  Intro

K: Cade Leebron is a government major and writing minor at Wesleyan University, where she’ll be a senior this year.  She performs with the a cappella and sketch comedy group Vocal Debauchery, and does standup with the campus collective Punchline.  She blogs for Wesleyan Voices, for the office of admissions at Wesleyan, where she is supposed to be “real but not too real,” and she has her own blog, called “Spinal Tapped: Life as a Twenty-Something with MS.” At Wesleyan, she has won the Samuel Eells Literary and Educational Foundation prizes for photography and nonfiction, and a Herbert Lee Connelly prize in nonfiction. She is also very feisty, and has a guinea pig as an emotional support animal.  


C: Kathryn Rhett is the author of Near Breathing, a memoir, and editor of the anthology Survival Stories: Memoirs of Crisis.  She teaches at Gettysburg College and in the low-residency MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte.  Her essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Harvard Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and River Teeth.  Her essay collection, Souvenir, will be published in 2014 by Carnegie Mellon University Press. She has three children and a thousand pets. I am one of the children and also possibly one of the pets.


K: So, Cade, how do you approach trauma writing?


C: Very carefully. You go first, you’re older.


11:05 How we came to trauma writing


K: MFA at Iowa in poetry, and started teaching memoir writing at ISWF in 1988.

But I didn’t start writing memoir myself until 1993 after Cade was born and suffered meconium aspiration syndrome and persistent fetal circulation; seven months after she was born I started writing an account in a notebook; gradually I realized that I wanted it to be not just a diary, but an accurate and well written record of upsetting events during which I was functional as a person but somehow suppressed in terms of figuring out what I thought and felt.  I wrote myself back into being myself, connecting up the pieces of before and after. That work became a memoir, Near Breathing.

    As I was writing, I was reading, trying to teach myself how to write a memoir about a difficult experience.

I collected the best of what I found to bring to memoir workshop here in the summer, finding that a lot of people in my workshops were writing about crisis—illness, poverty, burnout, divorce, childhood trauma, depression. In 1995 I turned that memoir workshop into a crisis memoir workshop, which I taught until 2003, here, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.

Through gathering course materials, I decided to publish an anthology, with the same name as the workshop: Survival Stories: Memoirs of Crisis.

By the summer of 2003, I was busy, pregnant, and living in Pennsylvania, so I stopped teaching in the summer.

But then some stuff happened.  In 2010 I mentored a student who was conducting an experiment in therapeutic writing for teenagers. As we worked together, I read new research in the field of memory, writing, and trauma and disability studies, and, thanks to years of war, PTSD.  We discovered that in fact the writing prompts that worked for good literary writing also tended to have a therapeutic effect.  That was interesting.  That same year Cade, then eighteen, became ill with multiple sclerosis.


C: So that happened. When I was diagnosed, I was a freshman at Wesleyan and was hoping to double major in Biology and Government. The diagnosis first pushed me further toward Biology and away from Government, because I thought that being pre-med and eventually becoming a doctor would make me feel better about being sick. I guess my main goal was to be the sort of person who Lifetime makes really bad movies about–the girl who cured her own disease. Biology wasn’t especially satisfying, though, and I ended up in an intro nonfiction workshop in the spring of my sophomore year. I was already writing and performing sketch comedy on campus so I was thinking I’d write some funny personal essays, but I kept getting drawn to writing about multiple sclerosis. There was another student in my workshop who was also writing about a medical trauma. Wesleyan allows students to apply to teach classes if they have an expertise in a subject not currently offered, so we teamed up and applied to teach a course called “Writing Through Trauma.” And thus began my journey into becoming my mother. We got approved to teach the course, and it went really well. We got a ton of applications and rejected all the ones that mentioned that the course “would be like group therapy” and ended up with seven really talented students. Which was surprising! They were writing about all kinds of stuff (bipolar disorder, suicide attempts, alcoholic fathers, eating disorders, deaths of friends or family, breakups, abusive boyfriends) and they really helped me see how writing through trauma is a very specific kind of writing. It’s a different kind of writing, and you’re trying to achieve a different kind of connection with your reader. So hi Mom, how do you deal with trauma?


K: I enjoy lying on the couch, crying a lot, cursing, taking antidepressants, writing about trivial things (I have a blog called Favorite Household Object, about teapots and sunglasses), making to-do lists, watching sitcoms, doing yoga, writing down quotes from books I like, and hacking at shrubbery with large clippers.  But then eventually I turn to writing. We’re going to ask you to turn to writing, too.


C: One of the essential problems of human life is that we exist in the space-time continuum.  Time moves in one direction.  We can’t alter the past.  So, we want to ask you to write about that for a few minutes.


11:10 exercise for starting a project–write for 5 minutes & hear some responses

Write about what you wish you had done differently. Whether you wish you had put on sunscreen this morning, or you wish you had never married that guy, write about it.


11:20 Trauma writing, a working definition


C: Situations of regret are often traumatic.  And of course there are traumatic situations that don’t involve regret:  like, I wish I hadn’t gotten multiple sclerosis.So, what exactly is trauma, and what is trauma writing? It’s early by college student standards still, but if you all could call out some definitions of trauma or trauma writing that would be great. Go for it.


[People call stuff out for a while hopefully]


C: When I taught my class last year, the working definition we used for trauma was: something that shakes the foundation. It’s my favorite definition because it’s all-inclusive. While it can seem overly broad or vague, I think it’s both accurate and the easiest way to think about the “trauma” part of “trauma writing.” And it makes trauma writing accessible to everyone!


K: I define trauma as something that divides your life into a before and after, or that causes you to change your mind, or that derails you from the track you were on.  Trauma usually involves conflict, stress, grief, or loss.


C: what makes trauma writing a separate genre: it comes from places of instability, revelation, pain, and/or suffering, and seeks to communicate all of that to a reader who is not necessarily coming from a similar place. Trauma writing needs to communicate the trauma, as well as why it’s important to the author.

In her essay “The Fourth State of Matter,” Jo Ann Beard writes, “There are stars and stars and stars. The sky is full of dead men, drifting in the blackness like helium balloons. My mother floats past in a hospital gown, trailing tubes. I go back inside where the heat is.” I hope this is not overly poetic/theoretical, but this passage to me represents trauma writing as a whole. The author must show their view of their trauma, the blackness, the coldness, and the death, but connect with the reader by going back to a place that seems sane or rational, where the heat is. In her memoir, Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen writes, “…it is easy to slip into a parallel universe. There are so many of them: worlds of the insane, the criminal, the crippled, the dying, perhaps of the dead as well. These worlds exist alongside this world and resemble it, but are not in it.” Trauma writing is the bridge between these parallel worlds and the world of the reader.


K: There are some characteristics of traumatic experience that writing can address.


In writing about trauma, you generally have a subject, the facts of what happened, and the urgent feeling of wanting or needing to write about it.  So you have all that–now what?


Effective trauma writing is exploratory, not a rehash of the known story.  Write what you know and what you don’t know.  Patricia Hampl defines memoir as the quest literature of our time, and the quest in trauma writing is to articulate what people may say is “unimaginable.”  


1. Trauma can be isolating.   Simple questions like, What happened?, or, How are you doing? can be difficult to answer. Writing about it can help you articulate the experience to yourself and to others.


C: How do you connect to a reader?


Contrast.  Write about the contrast between before and after, or between yourself and others, your body and other bodies. Nancy Mairs a writer who uses a wheelchair, writes,  “the very thought of ever being like me so horrifies them that they can’t permit themselves to put themselves on my wheels for even an instant.”  Alice Sebold in her memoir Lucky writes that after her rape, she felt that she could no longer compare herself to her sister at all, even though up to the point of trauma they had had similar life experiences.


Sometimes the easiest way to connect to a reader is just to bring in the facts: statistics, dates, names, definitions.


Enlarge the perspective.

The challenge of the first person is to reach beyond first-person perspective to create a world that’s not self-centered.  Trauma stories are self-centered, but to widen the world, to make the story universal, to be a good guide to the story, it’s necessary to place yourself in the wider world.

Every good memoirist puts himself in context.”  William Zinsser



2. Traumatic experience can cause breakage.

Crisis disrupts the “continuously rewritten autobiography we all carry with us in our minds.”

–Charles L. Mee, in A Nearly Normal Life



How do you write a coherent story?  How do you write a story that feels whole about an experience that is chaotic and may be ongoing?  One strategy is the braided essay, that follows several strands of narrative and thinking—just be sure that all your strands are there at the end of the braid.


Another strategy is to connect up then and now.  Describe what happened then, and link it to something from right now.



3.  In many cases there is a hyper-awareness of traumatic events, which feel separate from daily life.


“Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning.  Traumatic memories…are not encoded like the ordinary memories of adults in a verbal, linear narrative that is assimilated into an ongoing life story.”

–Judith Herman, in Trauma and Recovery


“All of this seems as though it were yesterday, or forever ago, in that crevasse between space and time that stays fixed in the imagination.  I remember it all because I remember it all.”

–Gail Caldwell, in Let’s Take the Long Way Home


Use as much sensory detail as you can remember.  Most of us have the same five senses.  We all have bodies, so put the reader in yours.

Be a detective of your own disaster–let go of defensiveness, of bidding for the reader’s sympathy, of portraying yourself as the perfect victim.  Get curious instead–what happened, and how, and what was the experience like? Try writing in the third person to get some distance from yourself.



4. Experiencing trauma can make you receptive to new ways of thinking and being. Being derailed has a way of making you re-assess, and of turning people into seekers.  The old life story may have been broken, but there’s an opportunity to be creative, to write a new story that includes the trauma.

Sven Birkerts, “Trauma and Memory,” chapter in The Art of Time in Memoir

“However different the nature of the trauma itself…what the writers share in common is an impulse to represent the overcoming of the wound, whether through repair, reconciliation, or redemption.”

Writing about trauma is a way to connect up the pieces of your story to make it whole again, and a way to move forward.



As a strategy, you can shift the way you conceptualize a story.  Change the verb tense. A great example of this is in Aleksandar Hemon’s essay “The Aquarium” where he writes the whole story in past tense, up until the moment of his daughter’s death, where he switches to a frantic present tense. Sorry, that was a spoiler. You can also change the framework.  Consider someone else’s point of view. Change point of view.  Timeframe: write a paragraph in which 24 hours pass; write a page in which 5 minutes pass.  Verb tense.  Short pieces. Chronological, or not.


11:40 exercise for for moving forward with a project–write for 5 minutes & hear some responses

Write some sensory description about a traumatic experience–description from in the midst or right after.

Now write a sentence about that experience beginning with the word ‘Today.’


The idea is not to come to an easy resolution or a lesson learned, but to consider how the past relates to the present, to connect up the two.  And to tell the story from the now, which gives it dynamism and currency and openness.


Last thoughts on writing about trauma

Trauma is overwhelming–writing about it helps you feel in control.


No matter what has happened, you’re not the only one who feels this way.

(“Every man has within himself the entire human condition.”  Michel de Montaigne)


And, your work may help other people:


In the May 19th New York Times, Allison Hersh London wrote about having a rare neurological disorder, dystonia, and ended her essay with an argument for the importance of talking about it: “Long after coming out to my friends about my diagnosis, I realize now that what’s most important is telling people about the disease.  Telling waiters why I’ve brought a special pillow with me to a restaurant; legislative aides who want to know what their bosses can do; and strangers who ask, almost rhetorically, if I am in pain.”  And she also talked by writing for the widely read New York Times.


Or, as Phillip Lopate writes,


“The trick is to realize that one is not important, except insofar as one’s example can serve to elucidate a more widespread human trait and make readers feel a little less lonely and freakish.”

11:50 Q&A


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