Understanding trauma through storytelling

photo by gayle mavor. Art by Suzanne Fulbrook.

I went to a panel at the Growing Room Festival on Saturday called “No Way out but Through: Writing about Trauma.” The panelists were: Evelyn Lau, Christine Lowther and Sonnet L’Abbe with Elee Kraljii Gardener as the moderator. 

I was invited to be one of the active listeners. I’m not sure who suggested me. Someone, I suppose, who knows that I’ve taken quite a few counselling and related courses (eight to be exact) as pre-requisites to a Masters in the past few years. Poet Jonina Kirtan was the other active listener.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, nobody needed to talk to us.

Let me rephrase that. Some women may have benefited from sharing their feelings. There were no outward signs (except coughing) to indicate that. The thing about coughing is maybe you have a cold or maybe your emotion is being manifested through coughing.  Who’s to say.

How strangely serendipitous it should be that I would find myself being invited to that event because what some of the panelists had to say set off a bit of a light bulb moment for me in understanding that some of what I’m writing about is, of course, trauma-related. And if I re-examine some of the things I’ve been writing about from that perspective, it’s much clearer to me how to focus the stories and perhaps my entire manuscript with that in the background as the “golden thread” of explanation.

Evelyn Lau spoke to how she needed to be completely in her own space, in silence, in order to have the psychological space to work through her stuff.  She spoke about forming her commitment to writing long before a commitment to people.  “When talking hasn’t worked, writing is all that’s left.” And she also reminded us that trauma can also translate, eventually, into strength.” That, I believe, for me, has absolutely been true.

As a writer, a storyteller, you have to decide who you serve. Do you serve the writing or do you serve the people around you? Christine Lowther recalled hearing that (from Evelyn Lau) and as a result, (and she’s not alone in this experience based on what I’ve heard from other writers), she’s had relatives not speak to her for periods of time because of some of the things she’s written.

I think it was Elee Kraljii who said “the closer you are to a trauma, the more catharsis feels like the impetus for the writing. Years later, however, if you are still writing about it, it can feel psychologically damaging.”  Interesting insight to mull over.

Christine Lowther has been writing/re-writing about one specific image left over from a childhood experience, approaching that trauma and having new memories surface to add new layers and different ways into the story.  

She recalled having some student say to her 20 years ago, “Well, I hope you’re not going to be writing about this 20 years from now!” And she still is.  And maybe that’s what every writer is doing. Writing about the things that were the impetus for writing in the first place, in only slightly revised ways, but with layer upon layer of new insights impacting the words on the page.

Sonnet has this incredible project where she’s using Shakespeare’s sonnets to write around and interject her own writing over top of them, layering her experience as a woman of a Guyanese, South Asian and African mixed descent over some of the most seminal works in British colonialism.  I hope I understood that correctly.

I don’t know when trauma became a commonly referred to word but it didn’t exist when I was growing up. Or if it did, the depth of understanding related to it is greater now. At least that’s how it seems to me.  After a lot of therapy, some education and my own insights, I can’t help but see how that term – trauma – gets loaded with so much misinformation and misunderstanding.

Our stories, after all, are just our stories. They don’t come with labels alerting us to the clinical box they might fit inside. We can so easily forget to recognize how the scenes we’ve been a part of in life can be defined clinically in ways that we can so easily overlook. Sometimes that acknowledgement, not just in life, but on the page, can not only lead us to be kinder to ourselves, but to a more cohesive narrative.

Week 3: Write for 5 right now

photo by gayle mavor

photo from Creative Commons CC0-public domain

If it’s Saturday morning, it must be time to Write for 5. Or not! This is Week 3 of doing this and I’ve so enjoyed reading the writing of those writers who have taken the time out of their hectic schedules to sit themselves down and courageously face the blank page and screen.

If you’ve participated before, you know the routine.  If not, here are the guidelines:

·         I post a photo (or two) here at 8am on Saturday morning.

·         You look at the photo(s) above this blog post.

·         You take as much time as you need up to Sunday at 9pm

·         When you’re ready to write, set the timer for five minutes.

·         When you’re done, you post your results in the comments.

·         Do I ever look at what I’ve written and change a few words, and fix it slightly? Of course. I wouldn’t want you to put up what you don’t feel comfortable sharing. But perfection is not the goal. Heck, it’s not even possible. Five minutes. That goes FAST. But that’s the challenge and for me, that’s the fun.

·         Form is open: poetry, CNF, Flash fiction. You decide.

·         After it’s over, on the following Monday, I’ll let you know whose writing touched me in that moment in some way. Usually, it’s in a way that I’m not always able to define as to why. Then, I choose a book for that writer from one of my books and mail it to them. It’s an awesome way to cull my books, and to give someone a nice surprise.

Good luck. Give it a try!

PS: I probably won’t be posting my own response until Sunday morning. No time this Saturday. Very thankful for the scheduling feature in WordPress.

The poetry of mac and cheese

from Food Babbles blog: http://foodbabbles.com/jarlsberg-macaroni-cheese/

Up at the ungodly hour of 5am on Sunday morning, I began reading the food issue of Room magazine, savouring the blissful silence at that time of darkness, and I suddenly got this craving for the perfect Mac and Cheese recipe (which I don’t have) because I almost never eat it.  Then after reading some great pieces in this food-focused issue 40.1 (Psych Ward Grub by Lucas Crawford, Snap Dragon by Sylvia Symons, Your Body the Fire by Rachel Jansen), I felt the urge to write a poem.  It left me wondering what the perfect macaroni and cheese recipe might actually be. I found one at the bottom, after my poem, but no guarantees it’s the ultimate.

Mac and cheese love

If it’s going to snow in Vancouver in March (for God’s sake)

I need to find a perfect macaroni and cheese recipe,

buttery smooth and steaming into existence a non-existent family.

Don’t forget the wieners.

Call forth childhood

when we’d eat them handed to us

by a fat man behind the meat counter,

blood specked phonetics on his white apron.

We’d pop the wieners round, packed firmness

chewy and fun inside our mouths,

my brother and I grossing each other out,

we’d open wide

revealing the gnarly, half-chewed mystery bits

when our mother wasn’t looking.

 

This time, maybe I’ll use white cheese, not cheddar

Snow Geese, not crows

clouds, not cream,

hold the gull droppings,

oregano as evergreens

parmesan, not pigeon

and finish with a delicate, breadcrumb topping,

like brown birds dotting a frozen lake from a distance.

 

I’m thinking now back to the time I made my version from memory

for you (lacking)

and you were mad

because (I now realize), you were actually hungry, the

way most of us never are any more (in the West)

for a good

meal, (with meat),

subtle flavours requiring conversation to identify,

the kind of dishes you’d always concoct for my visits

on your two-burner hot plate,

you, Jamie Oliver, you.

Nothing like what I had plated, something

to turn your nose up at

as if my making such a thing,

(suburban, mundane, less-than),

meant I didn’t love you the way

you’d imagined I did.

 

And with that, it may (not really) have been worth getting up at 5 am yesterday.

Check out this blog for their recommendations for making amazing homemade mac and cheese or if you’re holding out on me, and you already have the very best mac and cheese recipe, tell me what I have to do to receive it from you, point me in the right direction.

May your week be full of culinary surprises (in a good way)!

Writing for 5: Week two writing prompt. Join in!

photo by Renaud Camus, Creative Commons, click image for details

Thank you so much for dropping by,

Welcome to Write for 5 week two. This is how it works. I post an image and we write for five minutes and then post our results in the comments up to 9pm on Sunday.

I decided to stick with just one image this week (above), not three like last week.

Take as long as you like to look at the bed above with that beautiful light on the pillows. When you’re ready to write, start your timer.

We have up until 9pm on Sunday, Mar. 5, to post what we’ve come up with but go ahead and post whenever you feel like it.

Our writing can take any form: poetry, creative nonfiction, flash fiction, experimental or erasure poetry, dialogue or whatever you like. Go for it.

If you have any questions, I’m going to be away from the computer most of the day but I’ll get back to you on Sunday morning. Let me know if you have any technical issues with posting.

I am so looking forward to reading what you come up with so don’t be shy.

And as I said yesterday, someone will get a book sent to them from me with a personal note for participating.

Thanks for playing. I hope you enjoy it!

Write for 5 links past to present

gayle mavor photo taken in Thailand, 2013

I recall her from elementary school and my childhood birthday parties. Pin the tail on the donkey. Pennies in the cake. Musical chairs affairs. She has beautiful eyes. Brown sparkly ones. And a bubbly personality.  At our parties, there’d be my twin brother at one end of the table. Me at the other. King and queen. Two cakes. Our mum really did make our birthdays special when we were young.

I have this photo in an album to prove that it happened once as if I’m looking at other people, as if it’s got nothing to do with me. I wonder if other people feel that way when they look at photos of themselves from so many years ago.

I hope she doesn’t freak when she sees this photo. She’s the one in the blue dress. Dark hair. Right-hand side. A silly red birthday hat on her head.

Thanks to Facebook, she’s now words on my computer screen that pop up every day. I guess in a way she’s more in my life now than she was then. Thank you Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.

I was really pleased that she participated in the first Write for 5 writing exercise where we write to an image for a timed five minutes. You can look at what image she chose, and introduce yourself to Mrs. Handicott in her submission in the comments off that blog post..

From what I’ve gleaned on social media, Jo-Anne is a more devoted coffee lover than most on the West Coast. I’d actually think she might make a pretty good guest on Comedians in Cars getting Coffee. I mean, there are regular people who could be as funny as most comedians off stage based on what I’ve seen on that show.

She’s also an avid reader, of course, and during the day while she dons her grownup attire and works as an HR Advisor for the Alzheimer’s Society of BC, you’ve got to know that when she’s in a meeting and she gets that faraway look in her eyes, it’s because she’s actually plotting her next flash fiction or poem.

Visit her blog, Going for Coffee and introduce yourself, preferably coffee in hand. Thanks so much Jo-Anne for taking part.

Only three more days until Saturday when the next Write for 5 begins at 8:00 am PST. I’m searching for just the right image and tomorrow, here, I’m going to muse about the magic of how it’s even possible to go from image to words on a page and how that spark happens for me. I’d be curious to know how it happens for you. Get mindful and pay attention to that process if you’re curious.

At a book launch yesterday in Vancouver, I ran into a friend and her husband. She was in the only writing group I’ve ever been in back in the mid-1990s. The past as present. It’s all around.

Smart girls love multitasking, and writing prompts

One of the women that submitted a short Write for 5 piece last weekend was someone I went to high school with. Her name is Marjorie Sayer. I remember her as being super smart, possibly the smartest person who went through New Westminster Secondary School at the time, (or maybe to date), very enthusiastic, and a lover of the sax which she played in the high school concert and jazz bands.

I haven’t been in touch with her very much since that time which is why I’m even more honoured that she would take the time to join in.

I love how she explains on her blog that math and physics are wonderful preparations for creative writing.

One of the interesting things I could glean from her website is that she’s written a book for Grades 4 and up called The Girl Mechanic of WanZhou. Here’s a link to a book review off a blog called Making it Sweet.

I found this particularly interesting because when I worked at UBC Computer Science 10 + years ago now, the Department was, and still is, focused on increasing the participation of girls and women in learning and teaching about computer science, and they have done a great job of that in on-the-ground representation of female undergrads, grad students, instructors and professors.

They even have a program there called GirlSmarts. I came up with that original name which they’ve changed to GIRLSmarts4Tech. The curriculum was originally created by Professor Anne Condon and managed by Michele Ng under the inspiration of Maria Klawe, current President of Harvey Mudd College.  (I hope I’m accurate in this representation of how GIRLSmarts originated).

I thought to myself, Marjorie would be such an excellent fit for them as some sort of guest speaker. I haven’t told her that and I haven’t reached out to Michele to perhaps investigate the possibility of the pairing in some way.

Many people will be like, meh, writing prompt, been there, done that. There are a million things competing for time. I get that.

But if you feel like it, you can join in this coming weekend March 4th at 8:00 am to March 5th at 9:00 pm to challenge yourself with Write for 5.

Happy Tuesday, the day of the week that gets kind of left out. Personally, I’ve always really liked Tuesdays, and smart girls.

Join in. Write for 5 for fun

Dear friends,

Thanks for joining in today in this little experiment: Write for 5.  

I will say, it was a wee bit of a challenge choosing a single image! So I decided to choose 3. Pick just one to write about.

Whenever you’re ready, start the timer. (We won’t include choosing/examining the photo in the 5 minutes of writing time. Take your time for that.)

Write for 5. That’s how it’s going to work. At least for this first time.

We can complete the Write for 5 exercise any time this weekend so if it doesn’t work right this minute, then later. But if you’re just procrastinating, don’t! Do it now if you can!

We’ll all be brave and agree to post our Write for 5 submission in the comments of this post when we’re done.

I’m arbitrarily choosing 9pm on Sunday, Feb. 26 as the cutoff for submitting to this week’s Write for 5.

The first person to post their Write for 5 result gets a subscription to Geist Magazine (6 issues) courtesy of me for one year.

I’ll respond to some of the writing throughout the week on the blog and we’ll do it again with a new image next Saturday. That’s the plan. The universe may have other plans. We’ll just see. baby steps!

If you want to say anything about the experience for you, that would be interesting. Only if you want to.

Go!