K Chiucarello, author of Water Works featured in Volume 72.1 of Shenandoah, speaks about the aftermath of trauma and the journey to writing about it in the following essay. Read Water Works here.
A day before my thirty-first birthday I flee my ex and nearly forget how to speak.
I blow out birthday candles in a haze. For weeks I walk around avoiding mirrors. I go to dinner with friends and skirt any touches –– a hand on the thigh, a kiss on the cheek. I hallucinate strangers on the metro attacking me with a fork. After I leave the violence my ex introduced me to, I wonder how I am going to get through a portion of the relationship that never once occurred to me would become the brunt of my problems: the aftermath.
A friend recommends taking a workshop around the theme of failure. She says, It’ll be good for you to sit in a room of strangers. You can just listen, she says.
I thought maybe if I relearn language or if I can understand how to frame sentences around the abuse I experienced it could be ‘healing’. I called it that: healing.
At the workshop we read Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women and for the first time I see that stories can be a puzzle and still make sense if they manage to get themselves into the right hands. I begin memorizing Anne’s lines and repeating them back to myself in the hope that her story of shock could transfer onto my story of shock. I re-read one line so many times that I begin to question the meaning of words while I also start to believe that any words can go together to make something larger. Anne says, To feel deeply, or to admit to feeling deeply, is also inadmissible, though not as inadmissible as to admit to having been un-free.
I start writing incredibly shitty poetry, going to workshops and sharing fragments of anger, the roundness of my ex’s face, of her hands ploughing my body. No one says a thing. Teachers critique me as if I belong in those rooms, rooms filled with poets who knew how to break a stanza or knew the gravity of spacing. The poets hid how embarrassed they were for me. Maybe they had all been there once, searching for some small meaning by stringing together phrasings that naturally don’t belong together.
I start writing stories that are sadder, less angry, sometimes funny. I decide I’ll write a novel, as if novels just materialize from the past, and I try nine different ways to start it, always beginning at varying points in the abusive relationship: the end, at the beginning, more towards the middle.
I last like this for three years, scrambling and telling myself that there was a story in there somewhere, if I could just unearth enough, that I am worthy of telling this story.
I enroll back in school and receive feedback for work that starts a newer and softer form. During a meeting with Lucy Sante, after she reads a twenty page essay I had written on water forms and the shiftiness of grief, she tells me, Maybe you’re not ready to write about this. I’m sure Lucy saw my face drop. She immediately says, And that’s okay.
I become furious and hungrier, insistent that I am ready, that I want to publish, that I want to shove papers in the face of my ex and say, See, everything we went through wasn’t all for naught. Watch me do something with this.
I think what people mean, when they say writing is ‘healing’, is that you think you can feasibly get revenge on the thing that hurt you, whether that thing is inanimate or whether it is a person. What people mean when they say writing is ‘healing’ is that they think it’s possible for something to become whole or sensical once something has been published, receiving some sort of value or validation.
I listened to an interview with Carmen Maria Machado detail how she came to write In The Dreamhouse, that she spent long hours writing incredibly horrible essays around hurt and loss and abuse, that she wrote pieces of the memoir in nearly a fugue state, that at times she thought she couldn’t make it through. It’s no wonder. I am approximately fifty thousand words into my manuscript that centers around queer domestic violence, and during certain revision sessions I’ve found myself rereading about violence that undoubtedly happened to me, wondering, How can I make this hilarious? Is this even how it went down? Does truth matter if I call it fiction? What’s a synonym for ‘bruise’? How can I smooth this sentence out so that a reader will find beauty in the ways that I was punished? Will my story help even one person?
The first time a piece of mine was picked up, one that centered around that abusive relationship, I immediately sat down on the floor and had a panic attack. I thought briefly about pulling the story. It suddenly became a reality that other people were going to have those pieces of me, that my ex could feasibly be reading this on the other side of a screen, seething a way to break our restraining order. I pictured my house aflame.
I think often about the comment that Lucy made and I feel desperate to attach myself to that writer I once was, a writer who thought writing through trauma was the only way to heal the situation. Whenever I see writers now publishing at breakneck speed I try to remind myself that not everything has to be up for consumption, not all of my work is meant for others, and that it’s okay to keep things to myself, to write through the confusion alone, that the purpose of writing is not for the publishing but it’s for the inquiry and the curiosity, for untangling a problem that seems to big to manage internally.
When I share a piece that I’ve written about that time in my life, I get comments or emails saying that I’m so brave and people say that they’re sorry I had to go through something like this, but that maybe it’s kismet? I’ve written fellowship and residency Statements of Purpose and feel nearly obliged to highlight my adversity, that shout my worthiness of support. It remains the most difficult aspect of writing through trauma, to remove myself from what others make of the piece and to remind myself that this isn’t all I have to give.
Recently Richard Mirabella wrote an essay on the time it took for him to finish his debut novel, Brother & Sister Enter The Forest, a book that follows a young man confronting his past with a violent boyfriend. Mirabella notes that it took him five years to finish the novel, that he consistently needed to remove himself from the pressure of producing and that the lesson of patience was an abounding one. I have found that writing through my own trauma, through domestic abuse specifically, requires leaving your body in various ways. It means removing yourself from perfection, and therefore the standard of the publishing world. It means steeping in your own flaws and the undoubtedly messy nature that is bundled up in the action of abuse. I have found that I need to be ready to write about my abuse from a neutral perspective, one where I am not bitter or angry, but more interested in understanding the full brunt of the why. The thing that kills me the most is that to write through this experience means attempting to understand my ex, writing her with empathy.
It seems practically a double-edged sword, that occasionally a writer must resurface in publication to prove to how mutable a writing process is, while simultaneously they must protect themselves by keeping drafts in Google Drive. A writer has to say a small prayer that the more they write the more language will keep up with the trauma they are unearthing. To write trauma successfully a writer has to live with the fact that they know the plausible ending to the story, yet the effects of that same story are expanding in tandem with the writing of it. To write trauma is to know that you’ll never wholly capture the wide birth of it and being at peace with that fact sometimes that is the only way to let something so fluid fully go.