If I had to label the way I engage in the writing process, I would say that I’m an intuitive writer. It’s as if I’m listening to a friend tell me a story about their life and I’m simply here to transcribe their words. I also follow my gut regarding which project I’ll focus on during those precious two hours I devote to my writing career every day.
For those of you who like to plan ahead and then execute that plan, fellow writers who identify as plotters, I know you’re cringing—and I don’t blame you. Even I cringe when I think about the beautiful chaos that’s my approach to the writing process. I have spent most of my life trying to create a new definition for “Type A”: I’m ultra-organized, ultra-punctual, and ultra-reliable. I make lists, I make lists for my lists, and then I systematically check everything off. “Why put off until tomorrow what can be done today” and “Early is on time, on time is late, and late is fired” were my personal mottos for decades. But I simply can’t write that way. I’ve reached a point in my life where I only want to devote time to something if I can truly give it my all and derive some enjoyment from that process, and to do that with my writing, I have to release the reins on my controlling tendencies and follow my intuition.
And my intuition has been insistent that I pick up my memoir, resilient, again. As was the case with Finding Annie, the novel I released eight months ago, I had it in my mind before I drafted the first words a couple of years ago that it would be a single volume. And like with my novel, I ended up laughing at my naivete for believing I could ever accomplish that kind of brevity; right now, I think I’ll end up with four volumes. Maybe five. I’ve had enough experiences in my three-plus decades for many lifetimes and I’ve learned a lot along the way that I believe can help others on their journeys.
Frankly, I never thought writing a memoir would be easy—not just for me, but for anyone. Trying to sift through memories and determine which ones will make the cut and which won’t when they all are part of who you’ve become sounds just plain hard. And then, if you have trauma you’re including—boy, what a challenge. I’ve always admired people who could write honestly about their lives, who had the courage to bare their pasts; the beautiful and the ugly, the inspiring and the abhorrent. Because we all have secrets, and we all have things we aren’t proud of…although knowing that and sharing those things are two different animals.
However, I’ve realized over the last few months how misguided I was. Writing a painful memoir isn’t just “not easy”; it’s possibly one of the most difficult undertakings in the author’s life because there’s no easy way to do it. No back door, no shortcut. It’s not like the slide bar on a Sorry! board where you land on the first tile with the arrow and you slide through the next several to the end and you’re good to move on. You have to go back to every single experience you think you might write and address. When I started, I thought, I know, I have to revisit these things, but I’ve got this. I’ve come a long way, I’ll be fine.
If today-me could go back in time when then-me had that thought, I’d probably laugh sadly and shake my head. I’d say, “You may think you do, but you have no idea what you’re about to experience.” Because I was incorrect then, too. When you write a memoir, you don’t just revisit… you relive. And nothing—NOTHING—can prepare you for reliving past trauma.
And not just once when you first write the words. Every single time you edit, every single time you do a read-through for flow or clarity or word choice, every single time you discuss your goal for what you’ve written with readers, editors… You relive those experiences over and over and over.
Near the end of resilient, I talk about the experience in more depth, but for now, I’ll just say this:
There were many occasions—some that lasted only moments while others lasted weeks—when I considered not continuing, the emotional toll from reliving my most horrific trauma from my childhood simply engulfing me like a tidal wave. It was undeniably the worst during that initial pass when the words materialized on the page for the very first time. But when I read through what I’d written and realized I hadn’t infused enough of the emotion of my experiences into the writing, I had to go back and relive those events, engaging all of my senses so I could see and hear and taste and smell and touch and feel everything I did when they first happened, and that was only marginally less difficult.
Then I had to do it again. And again. And again.
After the first pass by one of my editors, it was time to unravel the seams of my book and piece it back together differently; a shift in how the narrative is approached. That shift requires that several chapters be rewritten entirely, to take them out of a retrospective point of view and lead the reader through those events as if they were in my shoes, in my body, looking through my eyes when those things happened to me. Which meant I needed to go back to live those events…again.
I’d gotten through a chunk of the book when I realized I was getting through more quickly than I’d expected. More quickly than I had before—even with the chapters that I needed to write from scratch. And that’s when it hit me.
Each pass I took was only marginally easier than the previous one. But when I thought back to the experience of writing the words that very first time, how much time it required, how high an emotional toll I paid, I could see how far I’d come. That there was, in fact, a significant easing in the current process when compared with when I started.
As soon as I had that realization, I picked up my phone and typed a long text message to the same editor who’d done that first editorial pass for me. This woman is not only a fellow survivor of all manner of abuse, but she is also a friend, and she was there for every moment I was overwhelmed by my memories during the previous stages. There for every panicked text, every emotional email. There to read the first draft of certain events not because the writing was ready for editing, but because I just needed another human being to know the things I’d spent my life trying to forget and hadn’t told another soul about in the decades since they’d happened.
I explained to her that I realized I never wanted to go back and relive my past, yet there was an enormous difference in my trauma responses between my original drafting and this rewrite, and that seeing that difference filled me with so much renewed hope for a future where I am not controlled by my past trauma. We exchanged a few messages back and forth and I told her I would never quit this journey of facing down my past that I’ve embarked on.
She replied, “And that’s the beauty of you. The storm says ‘you can’t withstand me’ and you whisper back ‘I am the storm.’”
My very first thought, I must confess, was denial. Yeah right, not me. I’m not that kind of strong. But then I thought about it. I thought about all the abuse and neglect and assault in my past. I thought about the anxiety and PTSD I battle daily, the intense struggle to function during that initial drafting of my life’s experiences. I thought about the failed therapy attempts and the emotionally exhausting process of starting over every time I gritted my teeth and determinedly started searching again to find a therapist who would be a good fit. I thought about my deep, abiding shame of self I had to wade through and figure out how to transform into self-compassion so that I could heal and then share that healing with others.
Then I thought, She’s right—I am that kind of strong.
So is every one of you who’s healed from some sort of trauma. Every one of you who’s made the decision to address that abuse or neglect or assault in your past, every one of you who’s shared your pain so that it might help others.
Every one of you who’s survived when it would have been so much easier not to.
You may never have realized it, but you are also the storm.
You are the storm. I am the storm. WE are the storm.
Katherine Turner is a an author of contemporary fiction and nonfiction that explores love and human resilience in the wake of trauma and abuse, as well as an editor and sensitivity reader. She blogs about mental health, trauma, and ways we can be more compassionate as a society. Sign up for her newsletter to stay up to date and get the first five chapters of her novel Finding Annie, Women’s Fiction finalist in the 2020 IAN Book of the Year Awards, free!