Guest Post: Reliving Trauma through the Creative Process

Let me begin with a teaser for next week: I’m working on a post about creativity lessons we can learn from the newest winners of the President’s National Medal of Technology and Innovation. I had the good fortune of attending the recent White House ceremony, and I’ll bring you a taste of that as well as lessons these innovators can provide us for our own creative pursuits.

This week I’m pleased to feature a post by a talented writer and fellow Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing alum Melissa Cronin. Melissa is a memoirist with a powerful story to tell; I was stunned when I first read an early chapter of her book in a VCFA workshop not just by the power of her prose but by the fact that the trauma she was sharing was one that was familiar to anyone who follows the news. (I won’t spoil it here, you can read her post below.)  In this guest post, Melissa identifies a challenge of memoir writing; doesn’t the process of writing about a trauma in your past merely force you to experience that trauma again and again?

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Melissa playing fiddleOn July 16, 2003, at 1:47 pm, to be exact, daylight turned black. The moment an elderly driver plowed through the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market in his Buick, mowing me down. Sixty-three people were injured. Ten died. With a ruptured spleen and multiple fractures, I spent a month in California hospitals. When I returned home to Vermont, I spent another three months in a wheelchair. During that time, I kept a journal of my thoughts, dreams – and nightmares. I had worked as a nurse for fifteen years, and was determined to be back at the bedside in the neonatal intensive care unit where I worked by January 2004. During my initial appointment with my orthopedic surgeon, she said, “The hard part will come later.” At the time, I didn’t understand what she meant.

A few months after the accident, when a psychologist diagnosed me with PTSD, I recalled my orthopedic surgeon’s cautionary statement. I recalled it again, three years later, when a neuropsychiatrist diagnosed me with a traumatic brain injury, and again, in 2009, when I finally realized my nursing career was a chimera of my past.

More than six years later, with my bruises long ago faded, and my wounds healed, leaving only numbed scars, I was ready to write my memoir, The Peach. It was time to write a story about collective healing, discovering consummate love, and the quest for a new, meaningful identity. It was time to write about how to forgive someone you never met and who caused you unspeakable harm.

But “the hard part” snuck up on me again when writing particular sections of the memoir. Even though I have no memory of the accident, aside from holding a peach and hearing a loud pop, my skin tingled and my mouth stung with the taste of blood when writing about a visit in the hospital from Tina, the bystander who came to my aid at the accident scene: “Tina pointed to a spot on the floor next to [my] wheelchair, explaining that a person lay next to me on the sidewalk covered in blood, screaming. Then she pointed to my feet as she described how another person lay there with her legs mangled, twisted in the wrong direction.”

melissa at desk. jpgThought I was whipped-lashed into the past, I managed to press further into reflection: “Tina had made a difficult choice, perhaps one of the most difficult decisions she ever had to make up to that point in her life. She had knelt at my side rather than someone else’s. What happened to the others? Did they live or die?”

My body swayed with vertigo when I wrote about Tina’s baroque description of the crash scene while were at dinner the evening before I returned to the farmers’ market, for the first time since the accident more than six years earlier. “There was blood running down the street,” and “The rescue workers labeled each victim with tags … Green. Red. Black … Black was for the dead.”

Again, I continued, wrote through the disequilibrium into deep reflection: “I could have asked Tina not to share the details … but I let her because I needed to know, even if they were gruesome. And, not only was it evident that Tina needed to speak about that day, she was ready to unearth the details, unlike the day a couple of years after the accident, when I called her to ask if she had ever spoken to anyone about the horror she had witnessed and she said, ‘I’m fine.’”

Though re-living a trauma is no fun, it now dawns on me that immersing ourselves in the past, even if it’s for a few moments, might be exactly what we need for telling reflection to surface from the mucked-up crevices of our brains. If I had not forged through the skin tingling, mouth stinging, vertiginous sensations I experienced when crafting these scenes, I might not have stepped off my metaphorical curb into the street, where the risk of being mowed down again is very real.

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Melissa Cronin Head Shot 2Melissa Cronin received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in Brevity, Hunger Mountain Journal, and the blog Writerland. Her personal stories have been published or are forthcoming in Chicken Soup for The Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries, and Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness. Melissa’s work received “Special Mention” in the 2013 creative nonfiction contest held by Hunger Mountain Journal and “Honorable Mention” in the Writers Showcase story contest held by The Preservation Foundation. She has written a memoir, The Peach – a story of collective healing, and the search for a new, meaningful identity after an elderly driver sped through the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, striking seventy-three pedestrians. Melissa lives with her husband in South Burlington, Vermont, where she is a contributing writer for her local newspaper. You can connect with Melissa on her website at melissacronin, on Facebook at AuthorMelissaCronin, and twitter at CroninMelissa.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

15 Responses to “Guest Post: Reliving Trauma through the Creative Process”

  1. I would suggest that all of us are always in need of coming out of hiding. This has obviously been a very painful emergence for you. Having accomplished this, you can probably go all the way.

  2. I think you’re incredibly brave. Not running from our past is one the hardest choices to make, but when we make it, I believe it gives us a new sense of acceptance and freedom. Good for you. I wish you the best on your continued journey.

  3. Exactly 6 years ago this month, I also went through a violent episode in my life. I was victime of abuse from a violent sociopath bullier, 2 attempt murder followed by 3 years of harassment and death threath… and I got no help, I was all alone. Yes, PTSD ~ like it or not ~ is my lot since then and I am just able to start writing about it now… even though it is pretty tough. I still have vivid dreams about what happened, the attacker is still bouncing in my thoughts whatever I do to erase her, I still have enormous problems to sleep and to eat, I am still a nervous wreck when out in the world, I still just want to cocoon myself in my tiny apartment and never have to go out, and all these other little things that make my life painful… physically, morally and emotionally.

    The impact of this trauma on my life is humongous. I am now unable to work, unable to write properly ~ at least to my taste ~ as I have problem focussing (I am a writer and journalist), I am now on hardship… all those undesired problems that render my life really hard to stand.

    But, very deep, I know that if I can write this book it will help me to exorcise her out and maybe, help somebody out there to see similar events coming upon them and get out in time. Every one of my friends who know what happened and who know her, want me to write this book. These events I went through are so weird and… should I say… unrealistic, unbelievable that it will make ~ they say ~ a best seller and a captivating movie.

    It takes great courage to pass through these events again and, like Melissa, I will do it.

    • Sounds like you have been through a horrific ordeal – so sorry. But, please, keep writing and you’ll get there, I promise. It may take years to find the structure to your story, but you’ll know when it’s right. You may not be able to work in the traditional sense, but you are working, every day.

      • Yes… not obvious to find the good way to write it… novel or memoir? As the person still living and now moved near where I am… frightening but… I want to tell so… like you say, hard to find the right structure… but I write everyday and it will be birth soon… even through tears and shivers… thank you for your kind words and thank you for your courage🙂

  4. It’s hard to believe it’s been over 10 years since that horrible accident occurred. Thank you for sharing your stories (the article AND the comments) and I hope you continue healing as time goes on. Trauma like this has got to be one of the most difficult things to get past, if ever😦

  5. Melissa, thank you for sharing this with us. You’re a braver person than me, that’s for sure.

    My current w-i-p includes aspects of difficult times in my life, which also left me with PTSD among other things. However, they’re hiding behind the cloak of the dystopian science fiction genre, so only those that know me well might recognise them. The coward’s way out? Maybe, but I’ve never held any delusions about my heroism (as in, lack of it) anyway😉 Writing this novel in first-person POV was about as close as I got to ‘confronting’ the demons of my past (even if that first-person isn’t supposed to be me.)

    I’m so glad you’ve been able to create so many positive things out of such a terrible event.

    • Patrick, I don’t see it as a “coward’s way out” at all. You wanted to write fiction, you are writing fiction (happy to hear this!) and parts of you are in it. It can be cathartic—and even beneficial to others—either way🙂

    • Wendy, you are definitely not a coward! You are turning your trauma into art, and however you choose to do it is all that matters. Thank you for reading my post, and for your feedback. Treat yourself well.

  6. Reblogged this on bloodytoez and commented:
    As a young boy, playing the violin was the first time I felt that I created something that I could call my own. Then I excelled at playing the violin by playing in large crowds. In November 2006, a chemical explosion rocked my street corner in my town Danvers, Ma. This was a troubling moment in my life and the first time when I felt life wanted to leave me for good. It tend to be afraid of loud and abrupt noises. This is still tough for me today but doing anything creative helps me get through the day. Melissa’s story is similar to mine in which we are trying to over come a traumatic event. Creativity can overcome sadness and pain, if you allow it too.

    • Drew, I’m glad you have found some semblance of peace through creativity. I find that not only when writing but when playing the fiddle I enter a “zone” that somehow feels protective. Yes, I agree, “Creativity can help us “overcome sadness and pain.” Thanks for your thoughts.

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