Writing About Traumatic Events: How Soon Is Too Soon?

Last week, my audio essay,  “Sanctuary” was published at “The Drum: A Literary Magazine for Your Ears.”  As fond and proud as I am of this particular essay and this online literary magazine, having this piece of writing go public gave me the jitters.

“Sanctuary” is about the 2005 death of my mother. In eight years, this is my first time publishing anything about that event.

Note I said “publishing.”

Not writing.

Oh, believe you me, her death made me write. And write. Confession:  I have a 3 a.m. notebook entry from one of those eerie nights when my siblings and I alternated shifts in our mother’s hospital room. That night, I tiptoed down a florescent corridor and went to my sister’s house to grab some sleep. But first, before collapsing into an exhausted and dreamless slumber, I wrote in my notebook.

After the funeral, when I returned from Ireland to the U.S. and my “normal” life–though there was nothing normal about it–I continued to write pages and pages about her and me, our lives together and the life that had just ended.

Once, I booked myself into my usual writers retreat ostensibly to work on a new novel. There, as if my fingers and the keyboard had a will of their own, I ended up writing a 60-page chronology of her cancer and death.  In fact, my just-published essay “Sanctuary” is as much about writing (and how it saves us) as it is about grief and healing.

Long before the medical and psychological research supported it, ever  since childhood, I have long believed in the value of writing about trauma and painful events.

And yet ….

With all those pages of writing already completed, why did it take me almost eight years to craft something eligible for publication?

In her essay, “Writing Through Grief: a Lifelong Writing Assignment” (on writing and re-writing her memoir about the death of her 19-year-old daughter), Eleanor Vincent writes:

First, there are my journals where raw writing is produced. But I would no more think of publishing my journals than of building the frame for a house and calling it a home. The journals are only the boards and nails, the raw materials. Then a process of refining begins with a first draft on the computer, followed by feedback from my writing group, and then many rounds of revision.”

I didn’t send drafts of my essay out for review or input. And I don’t belong to a writing group. In fact, that short little essay kind of wrote itself. But this final, publishable verision  wrote itself only because I had spent the last eight years creating what Vincent calls “the boards and nails, the raw materials” of my story.

In her essay, “The Incident of the Dog in the Early Evening – Is it Journaling or the First Draft of a New Masterpiece?” Christiane Alsop also addresses this issue of discerning between “literary catharsis” and well-honed work:

Such is journaling. Good old-fashioned journaling that helps healing. I have copious amounts of it generated around the turning points in my life. Good material to revisit in ten years when a dramatic event might become an incident in a future novel. Might. But only if, in ten years, the emotional heat has cooled to just the right temperature.”

Ten years. It took me eight. So maybe I’m ahead of the game. Or pain.

How do you cope with writing about painful events? Do you have a technique or approach for letting the “emotional heat” cool?  Or do we really need to?


About Aine Greaney

I'm an Irish writer living in greater Boston. I've published four books--two novels, a small collection of short stories and a how-to writing book, "Writer with a Day Job" (Writers Digest Books). I've also published lots of short stories, essays and feature articles. My latest project, "What Brought You Here" is a non-fiction narrative about being an expatriate in America. Find me on Twitter @ainegreaney. Or at my author web page, www.ainegreaney.com. As well as creative writing, I am the communications director for a healthcare non-profit. I also lead creative writing workshops at various libraries, schools and arts programs. At my workshops, I've been inspired by lots of wonderful writers--most of whom work a day job!
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4 Responses to Writing About Traumatic Events: How Soon Is Too Soon?

  1. Loretta Worters says:

    I never tire of this wonderful piece and how appropriate for Mother’s Day. I hope this day, is a peaceful one for you and the pain, just a little less.

  2. Aine Greaney says:

    Thank you, Loretta. Hope you are having a lovely day with Mrs. W. Give her a Mother’s Day hug from me.

  3. I teach memoir writing to senior citizens and I tell them to write about trauma or painful events in the third person — which removes them and the “I” from the telling of their stories. This distance can really help. I also suggest that they try using really passive language, too, just so they can get the story down…then they can go back later and edit…hope this helps! It has worked for me…Cheryl Somers Aubin

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