Author’s Note: Writing about trauma can be difficult and sometimes dangerous. If you choose to work through past events by writing, make sure you have the support of a trained professional. In the event that you have plans to harm yourself or someone else, get emergency assistance immediately.
For decades, I have used writing as a creative outlet. I’ve used it to process emotions, to tell stories, to share my inner life. I’ve also noticed that sometimes writing is more therapeutic than others. In fact, my first attempt at NaNoWriMo ended abruptly when I wrote a scene that triggered PTSD symptoms. How does writing help, and what can you do to make the power of words work for you rather than against you?
What We Know
Much research has been conducted since the late 1990s on the topic of writing and health. However, simply writing about trauma doesn’t produce consistent results. In fact, often, as I found during NaNoWriMo, reliving trauma through writing can retraumatize a person. What seems to be the key is intentional reframing. In studying writing about trauma, researchers have found an apparent connection between a change in perspective and a positive health outcome.
In my own writing life, I had a fantastic example of the need for resolution in writing. In second grade, I wrote a disturbing fanfiction narrative after my teacher read The Silver Chair (from C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia) aloud to the class. In my unfinished story, I wrote about being kidnapped along with classmates by Telmarine cannibals. My teacher saw the story, became concerned (appropriately) and approached my mother. Unfortunately, instead of getting help with the issues that caused me to write such violent stuff about myself and my classmates, I got in trouble for writing the story. I continued to compose violent narratives in my head, but after that day, I never wrote these narratives down on paper. And I never composed a narrative in which I escaped from my captors or abusers.
Many years later, while I was going through trauma therapy, this unfinished story from my childhood resurfaced in my consciousness. The terror of it paralyzed me. I spoke about the issue with my wife, and she suggested I call a close friend who has read the Chronicles of Narnia many times. She hoped that with his help I would be able to write a satisfying end to my story—an end in which my classmates and I would be rescued. My friend and I discussed my story, and I asked if perhaps the White Stag would be able to save me. My friend said that not only would the White Stag be able to save me but also the White Stag saving me meant that I was special. The White Stag would only come to assist a pure soul. Together, we created a satisfying ending to my story. After nearly 40 years, the little girl who had been stuck, found comfort, freedom and personal empowerment.
Although we have much to learn about writing and what type of writing is most effective for healing, many clinicians have guided clients toward healing by facilitating satisfying story resolution. By writing a story with the ending we wish had happened or by writing a fantasy tale in which we serve as our own heroes, many trauma survivors have been able to move on. We seem to resolve the conflict by empowering ourselves with our own imagination. Pop psychology would refer to this as a corollary of the “if you believe it, you can achieve it” phenomenon. My take on this is that by imagining a positive outcome, we can successfully break old patterns and move on to new, healthier sequences in our lives.