I’m a creative nonfiction writer – which is to say that I write personal essays about family relationships and dynamics. Which is to say that, for me, writing involves a lot of hunching over my laptop keyboard unpacking what are oftentimes traumatic memories. The process is a lot of staring into the eye of the storm and forcing myself to look at what I’d otherwise repress.
In many ways, this is a great thing, because it helps me get down into the “why” behind the writing – what’s twisting the knife in this memory and why?
The caveat, of course, is that then I have to break down my trauma, put it under a microscope, and relive it, moment by moment. The best way for me to describe writing is that it feels like being underwater. All of my other senses are dulled, and I’m floating in this nebulous-crisis space where I won’t be able to fully breathe and feel normal again until I stop writing. (Perhaps a melodramatic metaphor, but what else would you expect from a CNF writer?). When I come out the other side, I am always drained.
I don’t mind the process itself – I’ve long since accepted that it’s a necessary step in doing something that I really love, and there is a sacred catharsis that comes with it. The problem that arises is this: how do you stick to a consistent writing schedule when the process itself gets so emotionally exhausting? Any famous author will tell you that the only way to be a successful writer is to write every single day. In my experience, whenever I try to write a great mass of rehashed memories every day, it turns me into a complete downer. I lose my snort-laugh, I make lots of dark, self-deprecating jokes, and fall into way too many moodily-staring-into-space spells. While I have a schedule to make sure I’m on track, writing every day does not work for me. Thus, my first piece of trauma-writing advice is this: make your writing schedule work for you. Know how to hold yourself accountable for finishing whatever project you have, but be kind to yourself.
Another crucial component of rehashing painful memories: having a good support system. My friend Katy is always my go-to for post-writing aftercare. I’ll word-vomit some writing into a word doc, then I’ll word-vomit to Katy in an email about how hard this is. In my head I have a shortlist of loved ones who know how to make me laugh, and who are willing to put up with several minutes of angst-filled ranting and will lift me up afterwards. Another key player in this support system: therapy. Therapy therapy therapy.
Oh, and going swimming after writing is a biggie for me. After being mentally underwater for a long time, it’s nice to just float and let the water carry me instead.
Digging into the tough stuff isn’t fun, but there are no words for the satisfaction that comes when you stare at the (semi-)finished narrative spilled out on the page – “Finally. I’ve finally said it.” As it is with most creative endeavors, the work is always hard, but it’s also always worth it.
Julia Oshiki is a first-year MFA candidate in creative nonfiction. When she’s not writing, Julia’s interests include baking, overthinking, and watching bad movies.