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.

Using Imagery as Writing Muse

Rummaging through some papers, I found this image from a magazine stapled to something I had written on July 18, 1998.

I was in a writing group then that met monthly – or tried to –  and re-reading it brought me right back into the small living room in the house where we’d meet. It was an old house, up rickety stairs, rooms all chopped up.

I was thinking how much fun it used to be to sit in that group, a bunch of magazine pages ripped out haphazardly, each of us taking turns choosing which image to pick so that we could scribble away during a timed writing exercise, letting whatever words come to us as they came. It was a form of writing meditation.  I think 5 minutes was what we settled on back then.

I was thinking how much fun it would be to let other writers look at a photo on the blog and see what they could come up with. It’s kind of a nice idea, a way to share. And then, you could post what you’d written after your own timed five minutes at home. No cheating!

If you feel inclined to try and time yourself and write to the above image, and then add what you ended up writing into the comments, it would make things a million time more interesting around here. I could then add a new image every week with whatever I’d managed to come up with in my own timed 5 minutes.

Here’s what I wrote back then although I will admit, I changed a few things after sitting down to type it out before posting it here. I changed her name. I decided this woman was Turkish and so Isabella didn’t seem like the right name.

Gülçin, a name bestowed eighty-nine years earlier, reveled in the spicy warmth of the nicotine as it streamed through the shriveled opening of her throat, lingered for just a few seconds, and was then expunged, pushing its way against the afternoon’s hot wind like an apparition.

She was safe in her chair, her favorite place. That same chair that had balanced her when the roundness of her thighs had not crept round the wooden corners of the frame but had fit snugly, like foam, atop the smooth wooden cup of the seat.

Her cane, carved by her grandfather over a few months the summer she turned eight, had been her most constant companion in the last few years. She had remembered him sitting near the red rocks, and bits of grass at the cliff edge near their home, the sparkling sea like a rug as far as the eye could see to the horizon.

She’d sit on her porch, perched above the dusty street in that town she’d lived in since she’d married more than 70 years ago now, and she’d watch the youth pass by in the way a factory foreman might watch assembly line workers. She never barked out orders or even greetings. 

When a neighbor or familiar face passed, she’d remove the cigarette and blow the smoke between the space where her two front teeth used to be and in that subtle shift, they’d know they’d been acknowledged, they’d been seen. And it was enough.

Most of the time she would not even notice the strays barking, the wrestling of small boys whose bare feet raised the dust to feather their ankles, or the bustle of women, beautiful full girls, and slap-dashed-together mothers hurrying back from the market in preparation for another day of the cooking, washing, feeding, cleaning cycle. She was there and she wasn’t. She was with all of them and she was with the images of her past that greeted her just as real as company, adding excitement and grief, love and energy to what would turn out to be just another 12 hours, like the 12 hours before that, wrapped in heat and routine.

 She’d think back to her best friend as a child and the hours they’d spent playing in the back alleyways, listening to adults they knew only by the first names their mothers used to refer to them as they gossiped. Mostly they watched. Anything to escape the one room they each shared with three generations who had perfected the familial folk dance, weaving around each other, ducking anger, ignoring bodily functions and even the tears everyone would have preferred to have kept hidden if they’d had the luxury of privacy.

Usually around midday, she would sometimes feel the phantom lips of her deceased husband as if they were grazing her forehead. A tear-dropped wet bead of sweat would seep from beneath her white headscarf and slip over the band of folded skin that decorated her chest like a handmade necklace.

She had loved the memory of his lips. Not just because they had become as familiar as her own but because they embodied everything they had shared together; framing the rite of two-as-one even though he’d been gone for decades.

Happy finalist of Canadian Writers’ Union Short Prose Competition

nonfictionThis is pretty much the last place I have to plaster this news. Yeah, I know, I know. But, hey, it may be the first and last competition I ever get recognition from, so I’m running with it.

It came as a shock and a very nice surprise that I was recently shortlisted as one of 12 finalists in the Writers Union of Canada Short Prose Competition. This year there were 253 entries of both fiction and nonfiction stories of 2500 words or less. The contest closed in March so by the time the announcement happened in mid June, I’d almost forgotten about it. Almost!

It was very exciting to hear a voice on the other end of the line relaying such a positive message about a piece of my writing that I really believe in. That tells me that it’s important to listen to myself as editor, as we all must, because inevitably, what we feel about something in a story that is or isn’t working usually ends up being accurate, especially if we’ve been doing this writing thing for quite some time.

I’d written about a childhood friendship and its impact on me with references to the Japanese internment because my friend is Japanese Canadian and her mother and family were interned in the Slocan Valley during WW II. My story’s title is “My Perfect Friend”.

The pieces went through a first judging by a lot of volunteer readers who are writers and members of The Writer’s Union. The final jury was made up of writers Gail Bowen, Shauntay Grant and Eric Siblin.

The winner, Deepam Wadds from Sebright, Ontario won for her piece “Tender Fruit”.

The thing about being shortlisted is that it really sparks the motivation to keep going, although writing is just so much a part of my life that regardless of what’s going on externally, I’d continue to write. If that wasn’t the case, I would have given up a long time ago like a sane person. Definition of insanity. Einstein. Right. You got it.  I’m guessing, if you’re a writer, you can relate to this sentiment.

I read the short comments back from some of the readers with some very positive feedback. The comment I found most useful, however, was this one   “Engaging and visual, the story evolves smoothly and keeps the reader interested in the plot. However, midway into the story, the reader begins to look for focus – purpose for the story. The ending saves the story – provides the purpose – the comparison to the narrator’s own father. One way to improve the story would be to introduce the comparison earlier – and to develop it. Otherwise it seems an afterthought – only stated at the end. Fresh voice – with a bit of work, could be a very good story.”

I believe it’s the most insightful about what needs to be fixed. How I’m going to do that will take a bit of thought because I think it could end up changing the story quite a bit in terms of length and what needs to be written into it.  I won’t know that for sure until I get down to it.  When I feel like it. And I don’t really feel like it right now. Not that mood is ever the reason to not get into a piece of writing. Get back on that horse! That’s the correct thing to say. I often believe that way of thinking isn’t wholly accurate, however. I think mood should be listened to more often than not. But everyone’s got a different process. Follow your own. Nobody else has the right answer. I think when you figure that out, that revelation is a milestone.

And recognize that even when a story gets published, it’s pretty likely that you’re going to have wished you’d done something different. We hear about writers being beyond humiliated when they look back at some of their first storytelling attempts.

Is anything every really finished when it comes to the endless perfecting of the written telling?

Congratulations to the other 11 finalists. Might as well keep writing.

Debunking Fame as the only legitimacy

When I saw the callout for proposals for workshops for LitFestNewWest it was on a whim that I began to create it the very same day. It came together as if I’d been writing proposals forever. Once it was accepted, Esmeralda Cabral and I fine-tuned it and fleshed out how we might do it together prior to the actual event, and that took more time.

The initial idea was easy because the kernel for the idea was found in J.J. Lee’s book, The Measure of a Man. In 2014 I was in a workshop led by Wayde Compton, writer, author, Associate Director of The Writer’s Studio. At some point J.J. Lee’s book came up. The book was published in 2011 to acclaim and as a finalist on many nonfiction literary award lists. I was amazed that an entire book of multiple story lines could arise from the artifact of a simple suit jacket that had belonged to his father.

I couldn’t think of a single thing that I owned from my father’s life that I could imagine building an entire book around. One day I walked absentmindedly into my bedroom, stared up at the open closet’s top shelf and immediately spotted this caramel-coloured, leather camera case. I took it down, the roughness of the weathered leather felt good in my hands. Inside was my father’s 8mm Paillard – Bolex movie camera.

My father took home movies of my twin brother and I when we were babies and toddlers. I was shocked when I saw it. I had always said that I was the only photographer in the family. I’d forgotten about him, the camera, and the home movies, regular intervals of us gathered round, eager to see ourselves on the grainy screen in the living room and the laughing. Family as foreign tribe revisited.

At the time, I’d started to write a story that made reference to my father’s emotional absence from our lives and when I saw the camera, the shocking realization between my observation about his emotional absence, and yet his consistent focusing of his viewpoint onto us from behind that camera’s lenses opened up all sorts of questions about him for me. And all because of thinking about J.J. Lee’s approach to his book.

But just a minute. Who was I to give a workshop on memoir? I haven’t published a memoir! And I’m getting the distinct feeling that there is some unspoken code that one must not give writing workshops about subjects where they have not achieved publishing success. I thought about that and eventually, in a defiant manner, rejected it because it is my pet peeve that “fame” seems to have become the criteria for the legitimizing of the sharing of, well, just about everything – knowledge, bullshit, sexist, racist, homophobic blah, blah blahing. I know you get it!

I thought back to Mona Fertig’s project that arose from her late father’s life-long work as an artist who received little, if any, recognition.  In 2008, when I’d moved to Salt Spring, I interviewed Mona and wrote a feature on her as she was embarking on her Unheralded Artists trade book project, a focus that many others said she was crazy to embark upon. Still she did it with many books now published under her MotherTongue Publishing.

And I began to think that we all need to find a way to fight the idea that we are only qualified to share our knowledge if we become “famous”. Because that is not how most of the world learned throughout history. They learned from elders, though storytelling. From trial and error. Through persistence. Via sharing in small groups, from a teacher challenging them from the front of the classroom.

And it is that kind of quiet sharing, one person to another — a grandmother teaching her grandchildren to knit, a fisherman showing them how to tie lures inside a wobbly boat on a lake with an Aurora Borealis of greens and browns highlighted on the lake’s surface by the sun’s first rays in the early morning.

And it is this form of sharing that is the way of The SFU Writer’s Studio which was started by Betsy Warland. It’s a commitment to relate as equals, mentor-students, one not more important than the other, that makes the SFU Writer’s Studio community a bonded one, person to person and then via social media for those who choose to stay connected after they move on.

So, as a bit of a stretch, I consider putting on our workshop, Mining Personal Artefacts as the Foundation for Memoir Writing, to be a very small political act specifically because I haven’t published a memoir. And yet, I do have something to share with others (as Esmeralda does) who may be farther back on the path than I am when it comes to writing overall.

Maybe you could assess your strengths and decide whether you have some level of knowledge and or passion, regardless of whether you’ve received notoriety from it or not, that you could share. Consider it a circumvention. That’s surely the attitude that self-publishing arose from.

And in that sharing, you might just help someone else think differently about something that they’re wrestling with personally, and maybe that’s enough. At the very least, it’s a start. It’s what J.J. Lee’s book did for me.

As if She’d Come to Collect Memories

I thought I’d share one of my creative non fiction stories. This was published in The SFU Writer’s Studio Emerge anthology.


Salt Spring Island Chain In Water

As Epiphanies Go

Her psychiatrist gave her an ultimatum.

“Him or me. You’ll have to choose.  I can’t work with you if you continue to go back to him.”

He was 57. A father. Part-time college instructor.

Favourite things?: Pot. Sex. Cigarettes. Baseball. Dogs. Birds. Red wine. Crown Royal. The Simpsons. T.S. Eliot. Teaching. Stan Rogers. Journalism. The CBC. That was him.

She was 37.  In therapy, in part, because of him. And the one before him and the one before that. Take your pick. That was her.

This time she opted for self preservation and she finally stopped seeing him.   Then, about a year later, she decided to call his number. The recorded voice on the other end said, “This number is no longer in service.”

She was confused. Had he moved? Had it been that long since she’d talked to him? She felt compelled to check in even though she knew it was probably a bad idea. Something inside of her wouldn’t let her not go see him.

She drove south across a bridge where industry lines up behind ditches, fish boats tower in dry dock and the road to the marina T-bones at the river. Turn left, drive all the way to the end, you’re there.

She got out and walked down the metal ramp to the dock below. Her footsteps crunched on the frosty deck.  It was October 31. Halloween. When she stepped onto the porch, his floating home dipped slightly. She opened the screen door and knocked hard. She told herself that no matter what he said, she wasn’t going anywhere. She wanted to talk to him.

After a long absence, the place looked even more dilapidated than she’d remembered. It was the first time she’d realized that its outsides were a likeness of his insides: worn.

She’d knocked louder the second time and when he opened the door, and the sun streamed into his eyes, he hesitated until he saw that it was her. She thought she detected a smirk.  He stared at her briefly.

It was a surprised pause. Then,  all he said was “Come in.”

She gave him a hug and he responded, loosely, as if he was already somewhere else.

“What the hell’s wrong with your phone?”

He shrugged. She noticed and ignored it.

As they moved to sit down, she was nervous. Small talk. So unlike them. She scanned the room as if she’d come to collect memories.  The wooden bookshelves, his flat pipe, the blue tea tin he kept his pot in.  The way the sun streamed through the dusty blinds and hit the bottom step on the stairs that led to his bedroom.  His dog. His cat.  That ugly chair, the one he was sitting in, the one she hated that bled white stuffing because it doubled as the cat’s scratching post.  Even the smell, nicotine damp and river moldy. She took it all in.

It was so cold inside that she kept her coat on.

He didn’t offer her tea.

She didn’t know why then, but she figured it out later. He knew that she would have asked for milk and then she would have seen that his fridge was almost empty. Inside her head, she began a debate, back and forth, back and forth. She was trying to figure out how to say what she hadn’t even counted on needing to say before she’d dropped by. She didn’t know why saying the words suddenly felt so urgent.

He was complaining about his best friend, his neighbors.

“ I’ve told him before, don’t come over here at dinner. He doesn’t listen.  It’s so disrespectful.  I’m sick of him.”

She remained silent. Her silence punctuated his anger, gnawed at her confusion. “I’m sick of all of them,” he said.

It was out of character; a rant, petty, angry, unreasonable.  She knew that now was not the time for her opinions.

Instead she took a breath before she said it; the words sounded broken, a fragile plea bargain.  “I still love you, ya know.” Her voice cracked.

“I know.” That was all he said.

Sometimes there’s no point in saying what won’t change a thing. She got that.

She never intended to stay long and n0w she was ready to leave.

When she got to the door, she said, “I don’t know what to say.”

“There isn’t anything to say.”    He emphasized the word “isn’t”. He sounded annoyed.

Imagine. Them . Nothing to say.

She walked back along the dock up the ramp. Halfway to the top she turned slightly to see if he was watching her through the kitchen window. He wasn’t.  She looked back again just in case. She looked back three more times and as she drove away she noticed a starburst of light reflecting off the top left hand corner of the windowpane. She’d never seen that before. She couldn’t stop examining it. It seemed imbued with meaning.

She didn’t know what she thought or felt. Every nerve in her body was trying to tell her.  For most of the rest of that day she thought about him. She told herself that maybe, in a few days, she’d drop by again. As soon as she had that thought, she knew she wouldn’t

A week later, her phone rang just after five o clock. His best friend’s voice, the one he was mad at, was on the other end. She was surprised. He’d never called her before.

Just  two words. “Mac’s gone,” was all he said.

“What?”

“This morning. Early. In his car.

She heard him. She just wasn’t sure she understood. She instinctively knew it was a time for self-protection.  Maybe they just couldn’t find him. Maybe he’d just needed to get away.

“Where?”

“Other end of the marina. Stranger found him. Engine still running. Firemen smashed the driver’s window to get at him. It was too late.”

She inhaled. A sound she’d never heard before, the kind that ramps up like a siren, as if someone had jabbed her, the sound a small animal makes when it’s injured, leaked out of her.

A few days later, she opened one of the typewritten letters he’d left for her.

The last line said:  “So that’s it. I’ve spent all the money. Smoked all the pot. Drank all the wine.  I have enough cigarettes to last me through this last night. And, truth to tell, I never wanted to be sixty anyway.”

As epiphanies go, she didn’t care much for that one.