by Tessa Fontaine
Inside the Charles George VA Medical Center, 10 military veterans sit in a circle, pen and paper in hand. They’re nervous, strangers to one another.
“Write about your first day in-country,” says Elizabeth Heaney, a psychotherapist and the writer-in-residence at the N.C. Veterans Writing Alliance Foundation.
The men, some of whom have never been asked to talk about their experiences in more than 50 years, clear their throats, stretch their necks or chuckle uncomfortably. Then they begin writing.
Heaney, the author of the 2016 prize-winning book, The Honor Was Mine: A Look Inside the Struggles of Military Veterans, has worked with the foundation for eight of its 10 years. What began as a small group of Vietnam combat veterans has evolved into an intergenerational, coeducational writing group that now includes Gold Star Family members. But the intention remains the same: to help veterans capture their stories and restore a belief in the value of their own voices — to find a way through trauma.
Of course, veterans are not alone in confronting traumatic experiences on the page. Local poets and authors also grapple with painful relationships and social dynamics through their poetry and prose. For some, time and distance is essential to addressing their past difficulties, while others find the written word an immediate source of strength and relief.
The things they carried
Writing has proved to be one of the tools most beneficial for people living with trauma, says Stephen Henderson, president of the N.C. Veterans Writing Alliance Foundation. “It really helps with the healing process, with the memory process,” he notes.
As part of the program he organizes, groups of eight-10 military vets meet every other week for eight weeks and write about different facets of their experience under Heaney’s guidance.
“These are folks who have never been asked to tell their stories, or they tried to tell their stories and were shut down,” Heaney explains. “People didn’t want to hear it. So we turn to them and say: ‘We want to hear your story. We want to listen to it.’”
During the workshops, the veterans are asked to write in response to a specific prompt. Once composed, anyone is welcome to share their writing with the group. “Sharing out loud takes the healing to another level. You’re no longer trying to contain it. You’re understood,” Heaney says.
Often during sessions, Heaney will look around the room while a participant is sharing his or her work. She watches as other veterans nod their heads to stories about the loss of a best friend, being too scared to sleep or experiencing the unbelievable noise that is war. “Even if they didn’t directly experience it, they can imagine [it],” Heaney says. “Writing is one way to offload what you’ve carried.”
It can be hard to quantify how much writing about trauma benefits the writer. But one tangible effect Henderson has witnessed is an increase in memory. “With a traumatic brain injury, you lose a lot of memory,” he explains. This can impact a person’s ability to memorize job training, among other challenges. But Henderson says he has noticed that once people start writing, “They remember better.”
The sense of community these workshops create is another benefit. “The writing groups come together almost like a platoon in the military, like serving again,” Henderson says.
Glimpses into another life
While many people associate trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder with those who have experienced combat and military service, there is also a large number of civilians dealing with similar mental health issues. Post-traumatic testimonies have become an important way to understand individual experiences, as in the case of historians looking to Holocaust testimonies to get a deeper sense of lived experience. But trauma is not always pinned to large historical events. Many memoirs, for example, explore the traumas an individual writer has gone through, offering the reader a glimpse into another life, a story of survival.
One of the challenges in writing about trauma, says Asheville-based author Rachel M. Hanson, is that sometimes trauma is used as a narrative hook. A writer might withhold the details of a harrowing experience as a way of building suspense. Hanson, an assistant professor at UNC Asheville and the founder of the Punch Bucket Lit reading series and literary nonprofit, explains that her approach is to describe the traumatic event or situation right away, “so it’s not used as a teaser. What I’m interested in is the aftermath.”
Hanson’s forthcoming memoir, The End of Tennessee, which will be published in August, is about the lasting impact of her experience as a runaway Appalachian teen, deprived of an education. She notes that writing about personal trauma can become a transformative, connective experience for more than just the author. “I wrote this book for my younger siblings,” Hanson says. “I wanted them to know what it was like to grow up in the life we grew up in as the oldest girl.”
Using writing to explore trauma is something familiar to Asheville poet and UNCA assistant professor Diamond Forde as well. “For me, living in a fat Black body in the South, I think the first way I divorced myself from the world, or understood trauma, was in my body. A lot of my poetic practice has been rooted in trying to reclaim my relationship with my body.”
This semester, Forde is teaching a fat poetics class at UNCA. The idea behind it, she explains, is to examine the way we treat particular identities and bodies — such as the fat body, the racialized body and the gendered body — as excessive. To help students think through the ways excess might be embodied in the writing, Forde assigned them a chapter from Lindo Bacon’s 2020 book, Radical Belonging: How to Survive and Thrive in an Unjust World (While Transforming It for the Better).
“Bacon’s text has this really powerful moment where they write that we are all alive because we live in bodies. To be divorced from your body is essentially death,” Forde says. “What poetry can do, especially through the lens of the body, especially dealing with body trauma, is to reassert our living again.”
An act of love
There are different camps on the distance a writer should take between a traumatic event and writing about it. For some, getting the experience down quickly while the emotion is fresh can be very powerful. Forde remembers writing her poem “Fat F*ck” immediately after a painful experience, and it underwent minimal revision.
Other poems have required many rounds of drafting and significant time before she was able to figure out what she needed to say. Writing about a very recent trauma “can be emotionally fraught and can also make it hard to hold a critical eye onto the work,” Forde says. Allowing more time between writing and revising “is a kindness for the editing process.”
This kindness, continues Forde, is one of many steps in the writing process that she considers an act of love. The first step, she explains, is the belief that there is something in her life “worth writing about.” In the next step, she considers craft and form; for example, what happens if she puts a poem about the fat body into a form that is all about concision? “The form of my poems is another act of love.” And finally, the last act of love is “sharing it with somebody else.” The reader loves the writer back by giving attention to the words.
Forde offers this wisdom for anyone writing about trauma: You must make recovery a part of the writing process. This is advice she offers particularly for writers of color. “Therapy and writing are not synonymous, but these things need to work together to create healthy wellness practices,” she says.
In writing about trauma, Forde explains, ignoring recovery within the process risks retraumatizing the writer. And if the relationship is harmful, the writer won’t want to write.
“For some, community can become part of the [recovery] process, and that’s beautiful,” she says. “Any way we can carve time out for ourselves to live with these emotions and figure out what living with them looks like in our lives is an act of love for our writing.”