Seven Posts in Seven Days: Three

Trauma, Healing and Literary Writing

For today’s post I want to return to the original focus of this blog: Therapeutic Writing. I also want to try something new: asking questions at the beginning of the post instead of at the end. I guess it’s the teacher in me; perhaps my questions will enhance your reading, maybe you will find them irritating. Either way, please feel free to comment on the post, my questions or anything you want; just remember to keep it polite!

Here are the questions:

  • What feelings, if any, does this post provoke?
  • What problems or objections do you have with the opinions expressed here and why?
  • Is there another way of looking at this issue?

And here is the post:

I recently read an excellent article by Kelly Sundberg on Brevity, where she shared a remark an examiner made when Sundberg defended her PhD thesis, which was a series of linked essays about personal trauma. The examiner wondered whether the work was ‘melodramatic’. Sundberg was justifiably stunned by this comment. My initial response to her blog was that academia still has a long way to go before it accepts PhD projects involving research filtered through the candidate’s personal experience.

I experienced a slightly different response when, back in 2008, I started working on my thesis; someone suggested I should focus more on my trauma. I was uncomfortable with this. My experience was, and still is, powerfully personal and I didn’t want it to become the subject, throughout my candidature, of campus gossip, however well meaning. I also wanted to protect my three children and my parents, who appeared, albeit briefly, in the memoir that was a crucial part of my Creative Arts thesis.P1000499

Like Sundberg, I agree with Jessa Crispin’s misgivings about trauma as an entry into a ‘club’ of women who write about their pain. I didn’t want to join the club; I wanted my thesis to focus on well-being and  survival, which is why I researched writing as healing or, as Sundberg puts it, that ‘dastardly term’ therapeutic.

As I neared the end of my PhD the issue of trauma again raised its head. I was advised to demonstrate my awareness of ‘trauma studies’ and how I incorporated it into my research. Trauma studies, for me, examines distressing, depowering and damaging events or situations that result in the ongoing misery or suffering of individuals or groups, and which leaves them unable to enjoy or participate fully in life. Studying the causes, effects and consequences of trauma is certainly important. The danger lies in trauma defining our individual and cultural identity, and we ‘become’ the trauma we have experienced or witnessed. This risks characterising the individual and, I believe, entire cultures as victims, not survivors. It also risks ignoring the very necessary and difficult work of healing a trauma.

Emily Ashman believes in

the transformative potential of trauma itself and the possibilities of psychic regrowth that may emanate from traumatic individual and collective processes.

Steven K. Levine suggests we acknowledge trauma while fostering a creative response to it. For Levine, healing is an act of survival, something made possible through art:

expressive therapy teaches the art of survival, survival through the making of art. Why art? Because nothing else is strong enough to contain the destruction of the self.

Believe me, I appreciate the benefit of studying and writing about trauma. The problem is, focusing on trauma may mean, as Sundberg acknowledges, trauma becomes the main factor in how women (and men) are perceived. I think this ‘fetishizes trauma’ instead of addressing its causes and treatment. When trauma, but not the means to prevent or assuage trauma, is validated, we live in a culture that upholds and prolongs suffering and alienation. I want to make it clear Sundberg does not do this, quite the contrary, and I agree with her that the comment made when she defended her thesis was inappropriate. Sundberg is right to worry

about having to constantly assert my legitimacy as a literary writer, simply because I often write about my experience of trauma. I am worried about the notion that writing about trauma is somehow easier (or less than) other writing.

This is how I feel about therapeutic writing, which means I disagree with Sundberg’s comment that:

‘Like most literary writers, I do not believe that literary writing should be therapeutic.’

Why? Is it impossible to be a ‘literary writer’ and write about healing or write as a form of therapy? Good writing, which is what I presume Sundberg means by ‘literary writing’, does more than ‘tell a story’. A therapeutic writer (of fiction and non-fiction) is capable of constructing an interesting plot and creating a memorable, intelligent narrative voice that clearly portrays engaging, multidimensional characters. Therapeutic writing can also employ evocative, stimulating language that conveys a coherent, meaningful and universal theme. Therapeutic writing can likewise describe humankind’s best and worst qualities.

Instead of focusing on trauma, a better approach is to endorse and validate healing and promote healing as a cultural, and not just individual, activity. Therapeutic writing, like any other form of writing can achieve this. It only takes the kind of hard work, attention to craft and the ability to draw on one’s lived experience that Sundberg says she devotes to her writing.

What do you think?


Emily Ashman, ‘Psychic Resilience in the Fragile Images of A Petal: A Post-Jungian Perspective on Retraumatisation’, in Trauma Narratives and Herstory, ed. by Sonya Andermahr and Silvier Pellicer-Ortin (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), pp. 171-187.

Stephen K. Levine, Trauma, Tragedy, Therapy: The Arts and Human Suffering (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2009), p. 120.

5 thoughts on “Seven Posts in Seven Days: Three

  1. Janet,

    Thank you for your thoughts. My PhD exams list is going to focus on how and where trauma and environmental writing intersect. My critical dissertation will also focus on that. My creative dissertation will be my memoir (which in addition to describing my experience of trauma is also deeply rooted in my upbringing in a one-stoplight cattle ranching town in Idaho). I also appreciate what you have to say about therapeutic writing being “good.” I’ll give this some thought!

    You have some really good resources here, and I’ll be checking out more of your blog as I prepare for my exams.

    All best,
    Kelly Sundberg


    1. Hi Kelly,
      Thanks for your comment and thanks, too, for your original blog. Good luck with the final stages of your PhD. Both your dissertation and your Memoir sound very interesting.
      Best Wishes, Janet


  2. Thank you for this post, Janet. I am developing my research proposal at the moment and planning to use performance autoethnography as my methodology. It sounds like there is a lot of crossover between the aims of P.A. and therapeutic writing…though the social impact of the work, the intersection between the personal experience and social situatedness, is at the forefront for many scholars. I am personally interested in the therapeutic elements (for both the researcher and reader/audience member) in the work, but it similarly feels like this angle is considered if not ‘melodramatic’, then at least self-indulgent. I’d be interested to hear your perspective.


    1. Oh, where to begin? Thanks for the question though. I looked at some texts on autoethnography, but I’d have to dig out my bibliography and look over my notes. I’ll get back to you, Tiffany, probably privately if that is okay. X


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