(Good morning, good morning! While I’m away, I wanted to share with you some pieces from my book, Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma, which is coming out next month! I’ll post one of these a week, on Friday mornings. Be easy with you, ok? And please keep writing…)
I started journaling in 1993, when I was twenty-one years old and breaking away from my stepfather after nearly ten years of ongoing sexual, psychological, and physical abuse. As often as I could, I took refuge in local café, where I bought a large, dark roast coffee, and popped a tape into my portable cassette player—Ani DiFranco, Erasure, Zap Mama, The Crystal Method—slid my headset over my ears, folded the notebook open to a new page, uncapped my pen, wrote things I thought I’d never be able to say out loud. I spent years doing this, my butt planted in a wooden chair in some coffee house or other in Northern New England or around San Francisco. This is the way I found my tongue again. I wrote through the numbness that kept me protected—through writing I could feel the sadness, despair, depression, rage. The emotions had a weight and a shape once they found their way into words, whereas, inside me, they had all tangled together into a single inarticulate mass. There were few days I didn’t break through into tears while I bent over my notebook at that corner table in the back of the cafe.
In the earliest months of my writing practice, I was often rigidly and “logically” truthful. I froze often during my writing sessions, straining hard to get every detail right so my stepfather could not accuse me of lying (should he ever come to read what I wrote—and, of course, I assumed he would; up to that point, he’d had access to every single aspect of my being). I wanted to compile a record of his atrocities, and was beginning the work of disentangling my feelings from the so-called psychoanalytical brainwashing that was a core component of his control over me, my sister, and my mother. If he ever made good on his threat to have me killed for leaving his bed, I believed someone would find this notebook and finally know who I really was. In those early years, as much as for any other reason, I wrote to survive my death in the form of a final, true story. I had told so many lies—I wanted someone, in the end, to know What Really Happened.
I wanted friends and former lovers and family to read the story that explained me: this is why I was so sexually experienced so young; this is why I’d be locked in the bathroom of my dorm room on the phone with my stepfather for hours; this is why I had rabid mood swings; this is why I was such an erratic friend; this is why I disappeared. Oh, this was why Jen was so crazy all the time. This is what she was dealing with.
After a year or so of “just” writing, I managed to get into individual therapy. I participated in groups for women who were incest survivors. I spent hours wandering around my small college town, listening to music and crying. I drank too much, watched too much bad television, spent uncountable hours reading books about incest, feminism, sex. But it was when I sat alone at the Dirt Cowboy Cafe in that small town in New Hampshire, one hand affixed to a big mug of French Roast coffee and the other hand moving a pen across the page, that things—life, loss, longing—slowed down and unraveled enough for me to be able to breathe a little better.
In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg said we should take two years focused only on writing practice before we tried to write for publication, so that we could learn the contours of our minds, our inner selves. I couldn’t imagine wasting all that time just journaling. Two whole years? Is she kidding?
I look up today and it’s been over twenty.
They weren’t relaxing, those hours with my journal. This was not a hobby or dalliance. I was learning to save my life. Writing came to be a way for me to be safely but intensely present with myself and with the world around me. Through writing, first and foremost, I (re)learned what it meant to be human.
This is the writing practice that has worked for me: write daily (or as near as possible), create open space for the words, keep the pen moving, don’t let the censor/abuser stop the flow of words (sometimes I write down the censor/abuser’s objections, when I can stomach it, just to get them out of the way), and follow the writing wherever it seems to want to go.
“Following the writing” means listening to the tug that wants me to write about my childhood dog or that moment of feeling triggered when I thought I was going to finally get to write about the sex I had last weekend. It means writing exactly the words that pop into my head—those first, often nonsensical thoughts—and trusting them, even if I can’t see where they’re leading. It means writing, word by word, into the terrifying places, always going slowly, listening to the deep wisdom of psyche that tells me when we are ready to go in and nudges me when we are ready to ease back out. I drop my pen to the page and go, trusting that I won’t be the same on the other side. French feminist Hélène Cixous, in her brilliant essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” wrote, “When I write, it’s everything that we don’t know we can be that is written out of me, without exclusions, without stipulation, and everything we will be calls us to the unflagging, intoxicating, unappeasable search for love.” That’s what I mean.
When I started journaling in cafes back in the early ’90s, I wrote fast and messy. Fast, because I wanted to catch those first thoughts as they came to me. There was no time to slow down—I needed to grab the thought and get it on the page right away because the stepfather in my head was sure to contradict, challenge, or change it. I learned to catch those thoughts and write them, too. I wanted all of it on the page, so I could look back at it later, so I could record all the madness in my head, so I didn’t have to be all alone with this overwhelm anymore. The page could help me hold it. I wrote messily so that I could write anywhere—in public, at the coffee shop—without worrying that the people around me could easily read over my shoulder. I was afraid of being found out, yet I couldn’t write at my apartment. Home wasn’t a safe place, no matter that the physical danger lived 1,400 miles away. At the cafe, I couldn’t hear the phone ringing, reminding me that he was (I feared) never going to stop monitoring me, never going to stop harassing me, never going to let me live my life away from him in peace.
I had a whirlwind in my head. I wanted to get it all down before I forgot, or lost the thread, or lost my nerve, before he came to take me back. I was sure he was going to track me down and make me go back.
In order to concentrate on writing, I needed noise outside to counteract all the noise inside, to soothe my hyperarousal and an overdeveloped startle response, to get to what Stephen King calls “the basement place” out of which to imagine and create. I needed a crowded cafe, loud music in my headphones, and my back to a wall, face toward the door. No one was going to sneak up on me while I wrote this history, while I wrote into the contours of my trauma. It took a great deal of effort and energy to be able to focus my attention at all. I wrote stream-of-consciousness (I have whole notebooks that are run-on sentences), fragments, flash images, and filled the page with shout-and-scribble when I was too angry to form words at all.
Over time, by following the thread of my writing right into the now, the now became a place that’s safer for me to inhabit while I’m writing, even without all the distraction. Slowly, over these years of writing practice, I have come to be able to write even with no headphones on, no longer terrified of my startle response, no longer afraid of something bad happening to me when I get lost in the words.
(Thank you for reading, and for your words today…)