The title of this post is something of a misnomer, for there is more than one challenge inherent to the creative writing of trauma. The most frequent claim in trauma theory is that trauma resists representation because it is, by its very nature, an event or experiences unregistered in the psyche in the usual way and thus a kind of absence. Nevertheless this absence reverberates and asserts its oblique presence by way of ‘often delayed, uncontrolled repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena’ as influential trauma theorist Cathy Caruth describes it.
Deciding, finally, after years of resisting suggestions to do so, to write my own traumatic history, which involved not just one defining traumatic event, but a myriad of traumatic experiences including growing up with domestic violence and sexual assault (both as a child and young adult), heralded in several unsettling and unfun preoccupations.
Surprisingly, I discovered that it was not the much-discussed difficulty representing trauma that gave me pause—I considered that the exhilarating challenge, and I already knew that I would have to depart from the well-paved roads of conventional narrative to pull it off. Neither did personal discomfort nor public exposure of my past most bother me as I faced the blank page. Rather, it was a nagging concern about how I would be viewed as a writer.
My central fear was that my book might be labelled ‘mis-lit’ (misery literature) and I nursed an associated trepidation about being cast as a Professionally Traumatised Person or A Person with a Rocky Past Telling Their Tale of Woe rather than a literary writer making a significant contribution. And sure enough, after Traumata was published in 2018, an early, otherwise fairly positive, review came right out with the unwelcome tag ‘confessional.’ Even now, whenever a reader applauds me for my bravery in writing Traumata, I want to say, ‘yes, yes, but what did you think of the writing’?
My keen awareness of this assumption that writing one’s own trauma is primarily cathartic and not as valuable in literary terms as fictional explorations of trauma went some way toward shaping my project. Partly because it is my natural bent as a writer and partly because I hoped to refuse implications of a therapeutic motivation, I was determined to write experimentally. I set out to write a ‘wildly hybrid’ book and to work with a heightened focus on what experiments with language and form could do to illuminate individual and cultural operations of trauma.
I could not have told my story in a conventional way even if I had wanted to. The fact that the trauma I set out to write was so multifaceted and unfolding over a lifetime made accessing reliable recall a daunting prospect. When it came to sitting down and writing the book, the most perplexing aspect of the process was the unreliability of traumatic memory. A traumatic event or experience is one that has happened too fast, too overwhelmingly or violently to be witnessed by the psyche in the usual way and it is this crucial failure of sense-making in the first instance that makes trauma so compelling to write and read when done well. Trauma is, as Caruth so eloquently puts it, the site of ‘a gap that carried the force of the event’ and in a way writing it amounts to making a record of ‘a record that has yet to be made’ in the words of Dori Laub.
Though old gaps called my words forth, the problem of how to write what was uncertain, at times ungraspable and sometimes unprovable, doubled back. I was recounting events 50, 40, 30 years old that flickered fuzzily on shaky ground before stalling like shuddering unfocussed film frames; the unreliability of traumatic memory and the memory disintegration of time fused in such a way that had I set out to write a factual autobiographical account of my life story I would have faced instant failure.
From the earliest conception, it was plain to me that mine would be, both out of necessity but also as a conscious writerly choice, a book that foregrounded the dilemma of writing unreliable memory, and this paradox became both the key and the driver of structure and narrative. Transparency was my modus operandi and I wove my struggle with traumatic recall into the narrative. I dug into faded fragments with poetic prose. I turned to research. Sometimes I let a particular event hang in the air undefined. I recounted being an alcoholic teenager coming to out of drunken blackout in a cheap Bondi hotel room to find a near-stranger fucking me before qualifying the story with, ‘At least I think that’s what happened going by flash-bulb grabs of memory.’ Later, I related, in detail, a menacing scene and then declared I could not be sure if it actually happened.
And in the very first pages, I explored the way memory works, including the question of ‘false memory’, drawing on multidisciplinary research and concluding with: ‘This is murky territory. We want to rewind memory, like tape, to imagine it as mediatised, captured certainty … Instead memory slides around inside us like blood and between us like a sticky mutating membrane.’
It is tempting, both as a person and a writer, to feel you must know all, that you need be sure and without doubt, and it is liberating, I think, on both fronts to release oneself from this stranglehold and embrace the insistent ambiguity of certain distant past experiences.
This is a profoundly problematic statement, of course, when it comes to the lived reality of many who have found the courage to speak their traumatic truth only to be diminished, denied, or worse confronted by those who refused to believe, who required factual evidence that simply wasn’t available, or who had/have self-serving reasons to want to discount the testimony. And for obvious reasons, it would not stand up in court. But in the literary realm and the moment of truth in the garret, my bold assertion was that writing trauma matters whether the experience being conveyed was crystal clear in the mind, somehow preserved by memory against the odds, or as evasive as evaporating water.
While I appreciate the theorists’ point about the unrepresentability of trauma, I wanted, as a creative writer, to trouble this claim, to push language as far as I could toward those secret, scarred places, personal and social, that want witnessing. Language may be, as they say, itself metaphor, in that the word I use to describe a ‘cat’ varies from language to language and in none is the word capable of being or actually reproducing the cat. Trauma, too, can be approached like a metaphor, in the understanding that while at one level the event and its coherent, concrete, recollection may be out of the reach, words can circle and gesture toward it. Words can be woven around it such that it comes into view, risen from the grave of trauma denied and made alive with the woundedness and wonder of human experience mapped out with symbols on the page.
Meera Atkinson is the author of Traumata (2018) and her work has appeared in many publications, including Salon.com, Best Australian Poems 2010, Best Australian Stories 2007, Meanjin, Southerly, and Griffith Review. Meera was the recipient of the Varuna Dr Dark Flagship Fellowship for 2017. She lectures in creative writing and English literature. www.meeraatkinson.com