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Writing About Trauma: Are You Protecting Readers from the Truth?

The other day, a client talked about how she’s written little pieces of her memoir, but that she felt blocked because she didn’t want to hurt the family members of her abuser by writing about the trauma.

Two decades after the abuse, she met with her abuser to tell him how the abuse had impacted her and how she wanted to write about the trauma but felt she needed to protect his family. Oddly, he encouraged her to write her story. Still she felt stuck, wanting to protect the abuser’s family.

I suggested to her that she was making an assumption about how her writing about the trauma would affect his family. Would it hurt them? Perhaps it would provide healing, especially since he had several children of his own. Had he abused his own children? Could they find healing in her story, rather than harm?

The truth is we don’t know.

It could hurt.

It could help them.

It could heal.

But it isn’t necessarily her job to protect his family.

Her job is to follow her healing instinct, her creative promptings, her passion and her truth. And right now, that is to write her story, to write about trauma. When she decides to publish the story, she can make more decisions about what to share and what to publish.

healing trauma

It was clear to me that she came from a place of seeking healing, not vengeance. And, therefore, clarity would come as she followed her inner knowing over time.

Deciding whether or not to protect others from the truth is not an easy task. But that’s maybe step 7 or 8 or 10 of a longer process. When writing about trauma, abuse or a similarly sensitive subject, consider allowing yourself to not know where you are going with your writing. Let it pour out. Write to heal.

Then, think about your readers, and what you want them to get from the writing. Write for them.

My Journey

Writing about this conversation reminded me of a personal and traumatic experience in college that I had only recently begun to process and understand. Three or four times this year I’d written in my journal about it. I wrote for personal healing.

But now, giving this author advice, I wondered what to do next with my own writing. Was there something activist to bring to the attention of the institution, where the well-orchestrated event took place? Should I check in first with a friend who was part of the experience? Was it time to “go public” with the story?

writing about trauma

I don’t know. And when a story is that sensitive, it’s worth sitting with it longer, until you are clear about your motives, as well as the potential ramifications. You can’t take back a story like that once it’s out in the world.

So, when writing about trauma, be gentle with yourself. Focus first on healing, without worrying about whether you will publish or how it will affect others. There will come a time later to decide what to do with it–publish (and choose where to publish), wait longer for clarity or burn it in a healing ritual perhaps. For now, write. Write and heal.

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Get Lisa’s New Book:

The Joy of Writing Journal: Spark Your Creativity in 8 Minutes a Day

Lisa Tener

Lisa Tener is an award-winning book writing coach who assists writers in all aspects of the writing process—from writing a book proposal and getting published to finding one’s creative voice. Her clients have appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Early Show, The Montel Williams Show, CNN, Fox News, New Morning and much more. They blog on sites like The Huffington Post, Psychology Today and WebMD.

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