Finding “the heart”: A new course on trauma writing
I’m so pleased to be teaching a new course through the Center called Writing through Trauma to Truth.
I usually blog about ways to develop or strengthen a writing routine. I do so because I’m someone who has needed those tips in the past—the kind of writer who has struggled with getting to the page, and who has figured out some methods that have worked for her.
In the same born-of-necessity spirit, Elizabeth Ayres and I developed this course on writing about trauma.
Over and over in my life, I’ve turned to writing to work through problems and make sense of seemingly senseless things. There have been times where I felt I would burst if I didn’t write something off of my mind. And when bad things have happened to me, have shocked me into inertia, writing has often been the only thing that’s made me feel like me again.
I’ve written about abuse and regained confidence in my voice by creating my own safe space.
I’ve written about childhood trauma and learned a lot about memory, its subjectivity, its tricks, and how to (I hope) write respectfully about other people, even if they’ve hurt me.
I’ve written about the helplessness of watching my son struggle with the early health problems that result from premature birth, and regained a semblance of control over my own coping mechanisms—that is, I realized what they are, and allowed myself to consciously execute them.
I am not a therapist or an expert on trauma itself, only on this one way of dealing with it that has worked for me as a writer. And I’ve read enough writing about trauma to know that it can be powerful, cathartic, and unifying. When Elizabeth and I began developing this course late last fall, I started compiling a list of poems and personal essays that would make good reading assignments. The list is now enormous. It seems at least some of us have an insatiable need to tell our stories and, through them, connect with others.
Writing through Trauma to Truth originated as a group course, but the format has since transitioned to one-on one. I pull from that aforementioned list of readings to customize the course for each student based on the issue(s) most pressing to them, and we work privately, together, to give voice to their most difficult personal experiences.
I believe one of the great benefits of reading anything at all, let alone reading about another person’s trauma, is the opportunity we are given to experience empathy and compassion for someone we don’t know, someone who might have a very different background, upbringing, and set of challenges than we do. I decided I wanted to focus on recognizing and developing empathy in the first week of my trauma writing course. First, we will experience and witness each other experiencing empathy, which I believe helps to build trust between myself and my students.
Other themes over the five-week period of the course are personal trauma, collective trauma, voice and persona, and symbolism, in that order. Just as I didn’t want to ask my students to share their suffering right out of the gate, before we “know” one another, I also didn’t want us to stay mired in or dwell on their most difficult life events. To create some distance and try to move toward the “truth” portion of this process, we examine readings that utilize personas and symbols, ways of re-framing trauma that can lead to identifying “the heart” of each writer’s story and the truth toward which students will write.
As a graduate student, one of my favorite professors used to draw little hearts in the margins of our poems. I thought she was saying, “This—I love this part/line/image.” What she was really saying, I learned, was, “This—this is the heart of this poem. Write everything around this vital, living part. This is the part that matters the most. Without this, the meaning of this poem is lost.” The ultimate goal for me, as instructor of a course on trauma writing, is to help my students find “the heart” of the story that’s hardest for them to tell. Once you have “the heart,” you can write that story 100 different ways and it will still ring authentic and true.
That is the goal of this trauma writing course: to get to the truth, the heart, the universal part of each student’s story that transcends their personal experience and becomes a narrative that will resonate with readers.
Writing through Trauma to Truth is open for registration now. Please see the Classes tab at the top of this page.