book snippet: what writing can do

(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…)

Cover of Writing Ourselves Whole book, the view of a small island from a wooden deck, you can see the edge of the deck, water, and a green island in the distance. The title reads Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma, Jen Cross.From the section “what writing can do for survivors”:

This is what I believe: Give us safe space, a “room” of our own and we will create change in our lives. We learn what it means to lie and truth our way to safety, to lie our way home. We must take what we need to continue the process of survival, which is ultimately a process of resistance: the pen the paper the time the space the cafe or bedroom or kitchen table the 3 a.m. living room the subway train the cemetery the laundromat the whatever it is we need.

Take me backward into your dreams and let me watch you stumble. Your language is yours alone, the sounds of your body the stretch and wrinkle of your face the wrinkled words and nods, shrugs and shivers and shifts of eyeballs. You know your own way and I cannot tell it for you. I can hold your hand, though, and promise to listen while you float in your own waters, while you choke down the nausea of history in your instance to see the clownfish and schools of yellowtail floating around the coral of yourself. (2003)

In the years I’ve written with groups of sexual trauma survivors, I’ve become convinced that every person has artistic brilliance in them. There hasn’t been a single person in any writing group I’ve ever facilitated who hasn’t generated work that surprises them and astonishes listeners. Not one. And this isn’t because I’m some kind of genius facilitator—this is about what happens when survivors gather to share their stories through poetry and metaphor, song and testimony.

Pat Schneider says in her book, Writing Alone and With Others, “What I believe is not what everyone believes. It is this: There is no place for hierarchies in the heart, and the making of art is a matter of the heart. Art is the creative expression of the human spirit.” Together, we who participate in these writing groups engage in the co-creation of a space that allows for risk, performance, and play. We who have been denied hearings by those in power can assist and heal ourselves and each other. There is powerful pleasure, connection, and transformation possible through the sharing of ourselves through story, and deep change occurs when we have the audacity to articulate the truths of our lives.

When we come together this way, assiduously working to remain aware and respectful of the differences among us, and share our words, we get to acknowledge our ability to create beauty—both because we listen to our own poetic phrasing and descriptions, and because others tell us what is beautiful and strong for them in the writings we offer. We hear, witness, and open (to) the beauty in ourselves and in others; we “seek[] a language that allows [us] to imagine a new world without forgetting the tragedies of the past,” as theologian Sharon Welch wrote. It’s a revolution when we, who have spent years reiterating to ourselves the lessons of ugliness learned at our abusers’ hips, are able to acknowledge splendor in ourselves.

•§•

One Monday night, several years ago, a group of writers gathered in my living room for the fourth of eight meetings of a survivors writing group. Three walked in together, laughing, having met at the front door of my apartment building. One was already here, and the others arrived soon after. My homely little living room with its tangerine-orange walls was full of conversation as the writers made their tea and gathered up plates of snacks: nuts, strawberries, baby carrots, potato chips, and dark chocolate. The tenderness, delight, and anticipation was palpable. If not for their readiness to claim trauma survivor openly, the writers would not have found themselves in this room, thrumming with the heartbeat of creative connection.

This deep connectedness doesn’t emerge in every single group—sometimes folks don’t click quite as completely; that’s a possibility for any group of people. Still, it’s not uncommon for the writers, two or three weeks in, to find their hearts broken open to one another. We find we care about each other as people. We care about each other’s histories, but even more, we care about one another’s now. Folks exchange phone numbers, offer rides to and from the subway, email each other during the week. We begin to allow ourselves to connect.

For those who have been shamed, called stupid or dull, for those taught that kindness is weakness or weapon (and what American has not been taught this?), for those who believed no one would listen, for those whose voices went dormant, for those silenced or terrorized, the steps we take together when we write, read, and respond allow us to organically unlearn old lessons, and allow our psyches to gently internalize something new, something that was always true: we have a necessary story to tell and we are enough for that telling; we deserve (and deserved) to be listened to; we have something to share; the story of our survival helps others heal and grow. Our words are necessary sustenance for ourselves, yes, and for others in our communities, too.

•§•

There is magic that happens for a survivor who sits down and writes herself to the page in stunning visions, who sits down with other survivors and reads her real self: her surviving, wondering, hungry, difficult, fragmented, gorgeous self. The writing opens up the tight fist of power and control and drops us out—the writing opens up a chasm, the writing throws over a bridge, the writing topples buildings and walls, boulders fall, steam rises, the room opens. We don’t do anything when we hear each other except bear witness, and maybe that’s all that matters. Yes, we hear and, yes, we speak our listening and, yes, we say this is where I swell when your words touch me. Yes, we listen hear want desire imagine. The pen is a vision is a dream shimmering, the oil slick silvery rainbow over the deep well of tide pool we will eventually dive into.

Writing makes a difference. Visualizing and hoping makes a difference. When we write this way, we risk becoming aware of ourselves differently. We can take the lessons we were taught, the rules and regulations of our traumatized selves, and walk through them like a ruined house of mirrors. We don’t have to be who they—the abusers, the school teachers, the boys on the bus—told us we were.

What I have learned deeply, what I have internalized through this transformative writing practice, is that there’s no such thing as “doing it right” when it comes to writing and when it comes to sex and when it comes to living in the aftermath of sexual trauma. We are infinite in our abilities, in our possibilities.

•§•

Someone said, if we don’t tell our stories, others will tell them for us, and they will get them wrong. The stories that the others tell about you will be used to build policy and pathology, will be used to build boxes to hide you in, used to build walls to close around you, used against you. If we do not tell our stories, the stories told about us will be used to our detriment.

We are a nation of subjected and silenced people. We are a nation of people trained into the difference of others as reason enough to kill them. We are a nation raised on our supremacy—America is the greatest country in the world!—and we believe it even as we see our leaders stripping away our bedsheets and clothes, snatching the food from our and our children’s mouths, tearing down our homes, thieving the books from our children’s hands and tossing it all on the bonfires of their war, tossing it all into their own furnaces, selling our labor on the open market to the highest or most connected bidder and pocketing the money themselves.

Still: We have our bodies. We have our hands and feet thighs legs arms eyes noses breasts mouths bellies chests butts foreheads fingers lips toes and yes genitals yes cunts and cocks yes, and we have our voices. We can use them to our own ends, and in service of those we love and all we believe in, rather than allowing ourselves to be deployed in service of those in power through our silence. Through this writing practice, I open to the world around me. I walk around heavily awake, I smile more amply, I touch the cats on the ledge with my eyes. I am present. I am seen and I see. I am heard. This is the opposite of dissociation. This is the practice of embodiment, the practice of resistance, the practice of freedom.

(Thank you for reading, and for your words today…)