Our Stories Grow in their Own Time: On (not) Writing about Trauma

by Lisa D. Chavez

(This was originally a talk at a panel discussion from the AWP Conference 2021, titled “Difficult Muses and Damaged Gods: On Writing Birthed from Darkness") When I was younger, more arrogant and certain of my future, I remember making jokes with other graduate students about a creative writing faculty member who always read from the same manuscript at readings. Years passed, and the book never progressed. We all thought we would do so much better. We wouldn’t drown ourselves in whatever stopped up that writer’s creative flow—no, we’d blaze forward, finish all projects, and win fame and acclaim. Remember those days?

Decades later, my small share of success includes two books of poetry, some essays, and a fantasy novella. Yet I am also that stalled writer. I hate the question one writer asks another—what are you working on?—because my answer will always be the same: a memoir about my mother and growing up in Alaska. Sometimes, I imagine I see my failure to finish writ large in other writers’ eyes. So, I want to talk about not writing, about why sometimes things don’t get finished in a timely manner, and why we should forgive ourselves even when it seems we can’t make progress. I’m especially thinking about those of us who may be writing about childhood trauma.

I wrote my first essay for my memoir project in graduate school, way back in the 90’s. I already had Complex PTSD from being raised and mostly neglected by my mother, who herself had untreated bipolar disorder. I would have had PTSD even if I hadn’t experienced trauma on top of that: from multiple sexual assaults, to being strangled near to death by a man at 19, from violent racism I experienced as a BI-POC. By the time I went to graduate school, I was profoundly traumatized. I managed to write poetry: short poems that let me shield myself behind characters, but I stalled on the essay of my near death. I wrote that story over and over—the first attempts in graduate school were angry, furious things. I was mired in pain.

That essay changed repeatedly over the years, expanding from just my story to include the experiences of other women. It was published more than thirty years after I’d nearly died on a dark street in San Francisco. Part of the reason this essay took so long was because I had trouble writing it; part of it was because it’s not, as some people think, easy to get things published about trauma. I sent that essay out over and over, as I would with an essay about rape, as I would with the essay collection both became part of, and often the response I got was based on content, not craft: we’ve already published something on domestic violence, on sexual assault (as if trauma is interchangeable). Or who do you think will want to read this?

Writing is not therapy: writing memoir is about turning our lives and experiences—however harrowing—into art. And sometimes, our body’s own defenses get in our way. This is especially true for those of us who live with PTSD or depression or anxiety rooted in trauma. Some of us become paralyzed by our own past pain. We’re triggered by it. Popular culture has ridiculed the idea of trigger or content warnings, and I’m sure we’ve all seen one article or another that suggests students are just trying to get out of engaging with material by saying they are “triggered.” As a person who suffers from PTSD, I know something about being triggered, and I have experience teaching others who also have had it, including combat vets. To be triggered doesn’t mean we don’t want to engage with something: it means we are unable to, because our body and minds have built up a way to deal with extreme situations: we are kicked right into flashback, into fight, flight, or freeze. I’ve seen this happen to students in the classroom and it’s happened to me, and when we are triggered, we can’t think clearly at all—we’re taking nothing in, only reacting. That’s the real point of content warnings, something I am in favor of. However, for some of us, the act of writing can be triggering. This is where we need to proceed with caution. As a child, I developed a strong imagination that meant books became an escape. I envisioned what I read as if watching a movie. Lost in a book, I heard and saw nothing else. I was using reading to disassociate myself from the frightening world I lived in (something it would take me most of my life to understand). Of course, this imaginative capability is important for a writer. But perhaps some of us hone this skill too well. What this means for me is that I can’t write about parts of my life without the memories triggering a flashback, a dissociative state. If I let myself fall deeply into that state of imagination in which I am trying to recreate my own past, my body reacts as if I’m back in time, reacting to the original incident. My own imagination triggers me. There is no point to trying to push through: I simply must stop. I can write about the oldest trauma now—most of the pain has leached away. But my stalled project is a memoir about growing up with my mother in Alaska, and she is still alive, so it seems there is no end to my story. To make my memoir work, I needed to write more about my mother, but I didn’t want to: my troubled relationship with my mother has taken up enough space in my life, and it was all so difficult, thinking about how she had abandoned me often as a child, and how now, so many years later, I was expected to care for her in ways she was unable to care for me as a child. I froze, then fled from the page—the trauma was too overwhelming. If my mother had not neglected me, I would not have been left alone, subject to sexual predators. I survived, but this was a knot of ugliness and pain that writing couldn’t come close to fixing. I also had the same fears others do when writing about family: would my story be too negative? Or too uncritical?

Life interfered as it often does—in the past six years, after a series of suicide attempts, including one that caused brain damage, my mother’s mental health had deteriorated, and her dementia progressed. I moved her out of Alaska and closer to me, and I also had to empty my childhood home on my own—a house crammed neared to the ceiling with the results of my mother’s hoarding. While emptying the house, I discovered much that I thought I knew about my mother and my childhood was incorrect. My mother was not 17 and single when she gave birth to me as she has always insisted, but 22 and married. She shaved five years off her life at some point. And there was more: my mother tried to adopt me out after she divorced because she didn’t want to raise a child. She took me on several suicide trips with her when I was small (years later she’d told me she’d meant to kill herself then. The unanswered question: what did she mean to do with me?) Nothing she’d told me seemed true: She’d always said she didn’t like to drink much and that she never did drugs, but in fact she had an opiate addiction that sent her repeatedly to the emergency room, begging for drugs. I didn’t know any of this, and now I’m grateful that I didn’t publish this book earlier. Much of what I thought I understood about my mother and her life was wrong.

I am still writing that memoir. When the book gets finished, it will be very different. There are harder things to say as I examine the ways in which my mother shaped my life, but in the long years I’ve been trying to write this, I’ve also reached a level of forgiveness. For years, I thought I knew how that book would end—with my mother’s death, probably by suicide. My mother is not close to dying, as it turns out, but she is someone entirely new to me, as her dementia and regular medication for her bipolar disorder have smoothed her edges. She is not the mother I had. Now she is like a child, amazed by the world she has found herself in, and who am I to hold on too long to the memories she doesn’t have any more? I could blame her for my childhood—sometimes I still do—but I know she was doing the best she could too—her mental illness was not something she chose, just as I have not chosen my own. I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t write memoir until we have the full story—I don’t mean that at all. I mean that sometimes we think something is done and it is not, and if that means we’re slower to publish than some others, we should not compare our output to theirs. Our stories grow in their own time. We should be gentle with ourselves. I remember trying to write about my mother just after those horrible trips to Alaska, after yet another suicide attempt. I’d begin, fingers striking out words on the keyboard too hard, and my too vivid imagination made me freeze. After a few harsh sentences, I’d slouch, sobbing on the sofa, shaking. I was so hard on myself! I’d tell myself I had to do it: just write it, because that’s what I’d been taught. Just do it. I thought that I was a failure if I couldn’t push through, but sometimes even trying to write would spiral into days of depression and anxiety. I needed to listen to what my body was telling me: I was shutting down, hiding from what was too painful. I was—am—still that frightened child, triggered. This is what I mean about forgiving yourself: if the writing you are doing is bringing you too much pain at the time of writing, maybe it’s time to rest, try it on another day, or in another genre, or try after more time has passed. My message is simply this: be kind to yourself. Writing is important, but our lives and our health are more important. If you’re overwhelmed, stop. You have time. Wait. Don’t compare yourself to others, but let your story sprout and grow and blossom in its own time. Only we know when the story is ready to be told, and how it is to be told, and when we can write it. Only we know when we can put what haunts us to rest.

Lisa D. Chavez has published two books of poetry, Destruction Bay and In An Angry Season. Her essays have appeared in Arts and Letters, The Fourth Genre and other magazines, and in anthologies including The Other Latin@: Writing Against a Singular Identity, and An Angle of Vision: Women Writers on their Poor and Working Class Roots. In addition to reading and writing, she has a keen interest in plants, dogs and perfume. She currently is the Director of the Creative Writing program at the University of New Mexico.

Photo by Mumtahina Tanni


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