7 Tips For Writing About Trauma

Research has proven that writing about traumatic events, if done properly, can be beneficial. I spent nearly a decade working on a memoir about my brother’s suicide, our lives, and my grief. Here’s what I learned along the way.
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I was 24 years old when my brother, my only sibling, died by suicide. Fresh out of a graduate program in literature, words were the way I made sense of my life. I decided that they were the only way I’d be able to make sense of my brother’s death.

Research has proven that writing about traumatic events, if done properly, can be beneficial. I spent nearly a decade working on a memoir about my brother’s suicide, our lives, and my grief. Here’s what I learned along the way:

This guest post is by Kelley Clink. Clink is the author of A Different Kind of Same (She Writes Press, June 9, 2015) and is a full-time writer with degrees in literature from the University of Alabama and DePaul University. She is the winner of the 2014 Beacon Street Prize in Nonfiction and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband. Connect with her at KelleyClink.com, at Facebook.com/kelleyclinkauthor or on Twitter @kelley_clink.

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1. Give Yourself Time

For the first two years after my brother’s death, all I could do was focus on daily life. Any time I tried to write about my brother, I felt worse. According to Harvard Health Publications, this is common. Dr. James W. Pennebaker, a researcher on the health benefits of writing about trauma, recommends people wait at least one or two months after a traumatic event occurs before writing about it.

2. Reach Out to Your Support Network

When I began writing about my brother, it felt like I was grieving all over again. I hadn’t told anyone what I was doing, so my husband, parents, and close friends didn’t know why I was suddenly more sensitive. After telling my loved ones about my project, I received the space and support I needed to deal with the difficult emotions that came up during the writing process.

3. Write to Heal, Then Write to Publish

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write a book, and that I wanted to share that book with the public. But the first and second drafts of my manuscript were just for me. If I’d written them with an audience in mind, I might have held back. I might have shut down. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to work through my grief. The first time you tell the story, tell it for you. Don’t show it to anyone, if you don’t want to. If your intent is to share the work with others, you can make edits with an audience in mind later.

4. Start Slowly

I began writing about my brother in short journal entries, just fifteen minutes a day. Small goals made the project feel more manageable. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!]

5. Walk Away When You Need To

There were times during the writing of my memoir when my emotions became overwhelming. When that happened, I took a break—either by working on another part of the book or taking a few days off from writing completely.

[Memoir or Novel? 8 Issues to Think About Before Writing Your Own Story]

6. Be Patient and Gentle With Yourself

The work you are doing is hard. It’s not always going to feel good. It may take you a long time to complete. Be kind to yourself along the way. Treat yourself to long walks, naps, warm baths, strong cups of good coffee, or an extra chocolate chip cookie.

7. Work With a Mental Health Professional

If you don’t already have a therapist, get one. Writing about a traumatic event, even one that happened decades ago, is bound to trigger some complicated emotions. Some research suggests that writing about trauma is most beneficial when it focuses on meaning and understanding, rather than simply reliving the detail of the event. A mental health professional should be able to help you frame your experience in a way that encourages healing.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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