Friday, December 14, 2018

Writing through Trauma: Two Published Memoirists Share Their Experiences with Writing and Finishing Their Books

Two of my past students released new books this year.  Katherine Dering, of New York, launched her second memoir, Aftermath, and Judith Mattison, of Minnesota, published her first, I Will Not Break.  Both write about trauma, Katherine about grave mental illness and loss and Judie about abuse.  Not easy subjects, so this week I interviewed each of them about their journey through writing these books, how they mined their difficult subjects, and how they took care of themselves during the process. 

Katherine Dering has written two memoirs that deal with trauma: a prose book, Shot in the Head, a Sister's Memoir, a Brother's Struggle, and a poetry book, Aftermath.
She began her writing journey with a story about growing up in a traditional Catholic family, leaving her religion, and going into a business career. But she couldn't finish it. She kept adding chapters about caring for her mentally ill brother, Paul, until she finally decided to write about taking care of Paul as a book on its own.
"From the time I decided to write Shot in the Head," Katherine says, "until I sent it to a publisher covered about 18 months. It was published about five months later." Finding that focus of her brother's story was almost a high. "I wrote day and night. I cut, pasted, borrowed, cried, and it all came together, as if someone else was writing it and I was just the transcriber. I asked my siblings to review sections they appeared in and we had friendly, supportive conversations that I used to eventually produce a book they all loved. And since I am one of ten children, that is saying a lot."
The hardest part about writing this trauma story was revisiting the difficult moments, and acknowledging to herself that she could have done more to help him. "I cried. I felt guilty," she says. "He was so ill, so scary." Her brother had acute, treatment-resistant schizophrenia. "I never really thought through how dire a position he was in - suffering from acute, treatment resistant schizophrenia, unable to distinguish between reality and his delusions. As I cared for him he became more of a person, and I was at least glad that I finally got to know him before the end."
Shot in the Head was published in 2014 by the small press, Bridgeross.
But that wasn't Katherine's only trauma memoir. After her teenaged nephew died of a heroin overdose, through the death of her daughter-in-law's mother from incurable, progressive lung disorder, and the passing, a few months later, of a good friend from pancreatic cancer, Katherine wrote poetry. "It seemed like the losses were piling up, and all I could do, writing wise, was write a poem now and then. Only after another year had passed did I perceive that a compilation of my poems told a story." Aftermath, her poetry memoir, was the result. It was published by Finishing Line Press in 2018.
After each book was published, Katherine did readings and author signings. "Every time I read a few chapters or spoke about my family's encounter with schizophrenia, with my poor brother's mental prison, with his poor health care and death, or with all the losses from the three deaths, I cried again. It was like picking at a scab that kept bleeding and wouldn't heal."
Only in the last year or so, as she's moved on to other stories, has she felt the story of her brother really begun to heal.
If someone is swept up in a difficult situation, she says, it is hard to see the forest for the trees. Writing about it may help it come into focus. But jump in, she encourages writers. "See what you can do. If it is too difficult, set it to one side and do something else for a while, then go back to it. Sometimes, as happened to me, an avenue for approaching the story will come to you and because of all the donkey work you did to gather facts and setting, you will be able to put together a finished whole that feels authentic.
Katherine's memoir in prose, Shot in the Head, is available on amazon and her memoir in poetry, Aftermath, are available from Finishing Line Press and will be on amazon in January.

Judie Mattison, who recently published her memoir, I Will Not Break, says that she took eight years to write her story. She wrote in stages. "At first," she told me, "I thought I wanted to create a novel around my basic story. I was afraid of reactions to the truth, and it was interesting to create possible fictional scenes that fit the situations. But as an experiment, I took one scene and put it into first person. When I decided to write first person, everything went more smoothly. It was real and the memories were accessible. It was me - my story."
Judie also says her own self-doubt about being a writer slowed her down. She studied different writing-craft skills and "gradually things fell into place," she says. Her best help was a small writers' group of four who encouraged Judie and over time she began to reveal the true story to them. There was a point, Judie says, when the group decided on less critique and more affirmation, just to be able to continue writing their stories.
Throughout the process she read memoirs of all kinds. That helped too.
"But I did find times," she says, "when I felt simultaneously driven to tell the story and reluctant to continue. I went to a counselor for a few months and that support kept me on target with writing this memoir." She feels it's important that people understand and believe the writer when he or she begins to risk telling the true story. "The telling is essential," Judie says. "It frees the storyteller whether or not it ever becomes public."
But that telling can be exhausting too. "There were times when, after relating an experience, I was worn out," Judie says. She had to rest before she tackled another part of the book. It also helped her to write about her internal quest, using these questions: "What am I afraid to write about and why?" "Am I being too hard on myself?" To remind herself that it was alright to rest and take care of herself.
"Trauma is often misunderstood," Judie says, "and far more powerful than we realize. It is common to "forget" details of what happened. Often it involves feelings of shame and low self-esteem or recurrent fear. From time to time I would want to give up so that I didn't have to face misunderstandings or possible embarrassment for other people in the book. I was afraid of the reactions of outsiders."
However, she adds, if we have a trauma to write about, just putting it into words on paper is a way of feeling in control of the event(s).
Judie's book was published in 2018 by New Sun Press and is available on amazon.

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