How to Survive Writing about Trauma in Workshop
Words By Jerakah Greene, Art By johnhain
In the spring of my freshman year of undergrad, I took my very first writing workshop. I was nineteen. My professor was in his late fifties, a published author. He announced in our first class that he was in the process of negotiating film rights for his latest novel, a harrowing coming of age story loosely based on his own adolescence. I admired him. He was actually out there writing, taking his own experience and making it into something commercial, something readable.
A few workshops in, one of my classmates brought in a creative nonfiction piece about the abuse she had suffered the semester before. It was graphic, and none of us really knew how to respond. Feedback from her classmates was minimal, full of shallow praise for being so honest and raw. Our professor went last. He questioned her for what felt like hours. He wanted her to get to the root of this story, to expand on its feeling and emotion. He said, “What is the point of a story like this, if the reader can’t feel exactly what the narrator is feeling? Without that emotion, the scene is shallow.” He recommended that she expand the scene by slowing it down, second by second. Only then would she create something genuinely visceral.
I remember the look on her face. She was close to tears, and never brought the story in again. Our professor asked about it every week, and every week she shut down.
We all have baggage, some of it heavier than others. As a writer, we may feel that it’s a part of our job to use this baggage and write it out for the world to read. If you’ve ever taken a writing workshop, you’ve probably heard more about your classmates’ lives than seems appropriate—hell, sometimes I learn about an author’s trauma before I even learn their name.
When it comes to writing about your trauma in a workshop, it’s important to set boundaries for yourself and for your classmates. In the end, these students, and especially your professor, are there to help you improve your work. But how do you know when to put your mental health before your writing, especially if writing is how you process pain?
Understand that you are not the only person in the classroom dealing with trauma.
Remember your baggage? Everyone is dragging their own into the room, too.
It can take years for us to sit down and write out painful memories—but just because you are at that point, doesn’t mean everyone else is. Include disclaimers, content warnings, and/or footnotes! A creative writing environment is a safe writing environment.
Be sure that you’re ready for strangers to know what you’ve been through.
By sharing your writing, you’re becoming an open book. People might look at you differently. When my classmate shared her story with us, we didn’t know what to say. I tried to treat her writing like anyone else’s, but it was difficult.
Some classmates may only be there for a fine arts credit, while others are there to write their magnum opus. Some writers will be insensitive, and some will be overly sensitive. Either way, you can bet that at least one student will corner you afterwards and question you about your process, the honesty of your piece, and commend you for your bravery in putting yourself out there. Sharing trauma can be healing, and it can create solidarity in the writing circle. Be ready to get personal—and all that it entails.
Criticism hits harder when the content is personal.
In order to better your writing and strengthen the piece, be prepared to take it apart. You may have to rewrite the whole thing. You may have to cut the scenes it took you weeks to write or expand the ones that were hardest to relive. When students critique your piece, they’ll try to be sensitive, but it’s easy to get defensive when someone is going after your work. Remember that everyone is only trying to help you write the best piece you can. Be ready to talk about your work from a distance.
Professors are usually focused on one thing: improving your writing.
My professor didn’t mean to make my classmate uncomfortable. He likely thought that, since she had already shared the piece in class, she was ready for criticism. Maybe she thought the same.
Some professors will push you too hard. Some of them, like mine, won’t know when to stop. Don’t be afraid to approach your professor after class and have a conversation with them. You don’t have to disclose anything about your experience, but it never hurts to be truthful. Tell them that this story is hard for you to share. Tell them it isn’t just a “story,” but a part of you. You are brave for sharing this with the world, but let your professor know that even the strongest of us can only take our trauma so far.
Sometimes, you’re not ready to pick apart your past, even if you thought you were.
Many of us write in order to process our pain. I often find that I can’t remember a situation clearly until I put it down on paper. It’s only afterwards, having read through my own words, that I can begin to think critically about what I’ve gone through. Most of the time, this writing never sees the light of day, but on the rare occasion that I bring it into a workshop, it feels like a game of chance; will I be able to handle criticism, or will it be too much? I have to remind myself that it’s okay for it to be too much. When you’re done with this piece, don’t be afraid to set it down. We might not be ready to share these pieces of ourselves. It doesn’t make us any less honest of a writer, it just makes us human.
My professor was focused on the writing. I wonder if it was a good thing; is it better to analyze our trauma with a critical lens? Will that make it less painful? Ultimately, I’ve learned that my emotional well-being is more important than any piece of writing. Workshops are meant to push us to our limits and pull honest writing out of us, but we can be honest writers without putting too much of ourselves and our pain into our work. When you enter a writing workshop with your trauma in tow, remember that you are not your writing.