Published in the Fall 2008 issue • And in This Corner...
Writing through trauma
In the beginning, the blank page scared me. But learning to tell my own story set me free
Most of my life I’ve felt ashamed: ashamed of growing up poor, ashamed of being abused and neglected as a child and ashamed of being black in a world that idealizes whiteness. Writing wasn't a conscious decision in the beginning. Writing was just the thing that was most accessible to a poor, black immigrant child.
I wrote cryptic poems for most of my teen years, poems that documented my loneliness, depression and suicidal feelings. I started keeping a journal after I left home at 17. A teacher who had read my poems and encouraged my writing gave me a beautifully covered blank notebook specifically for my writing.
Leaving home didn’t free me from all of the pressure to not talk about my feelings, not tell anyone my business or my family’s business. In the beginning, the blank page was threatening. Writing words on paper could be dangerous. It could be evidence used against me later. A lot of what I wrote in the beginning was just a statement of the facts. Sometimes those facts were heartbreaking and I forgot that I wasn’t supposed to tell or trust or feel and wrote the whole truth. Later when I went back and read those words, my world didn’t shatter. The weight of the silences that I had been carrying began to lift. Eventually I became more confident (in my journal at least) and wrote more of the truth about my life, my past and what hurt—still. And the world stayed intact.
At the beginning of my writing journey there were so many critical voices in my head, messages that repeated in my thoughts and rested in my unconscious; lies that I had internalized and stories that I had been told. Swirling around in my head, they remained powerful, but when they touched the air they lost their power. In the book A Return to Love, Marianne Williamson writes, “It’s not our darkness that we fear, it’s our light.” Part of me feared what would happen if I wrote the truth of my life. If I wrote, my liberation became possible.
Writing became a way for me to bear witness to my life: I wasn’t crazy, I wasn’t friendless, I wasn’t unlovable and I wasn’t unworthy. All of the lies that I had been told began to unravel. I was writing my way out of shame. The shame of what others believed about me because I was black, poor, neglected, immigrant, female and, later, queer. I was writing my way out of all those lies. I could only get to the other side by going through, by sitting with the nausea, pain and memories and by tuning in to the low hum of anxiety.
Writing is how I connect, first to myself and then to others. Three years ago, I started teaching autobiographical writing workshops for women at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore. The workshops offer a safe space for truth telling. At first, I was a bit embarrassed by the therapeutic feel. I wondered if the writing was just therapy or if it was legitimate on its own. I kept telling myself, “I’m a writer, not a therapist.” But time and time again I was humbled by how thankful the participants were for the space to write and speak honestly about their lives.
Writing is a way to retrieve and grieve the past. Sometimes we don’t appreciate what we survived, what we witnessed, what we experienced until we write our stories down. Writing can help us begin the process of healing. It can create the security and strength to mourn for our younger selves. We can finally tell our story or choose to tell a different story.
We wonder why we’re so scared, so angry, so lonely. But when we write our lives, the present becomes clearer. Writing is a way to make sense of the present and leave a legacy for the future. We give words life when they leave our hearts and take form on the page. The act of forming words makes them concrete and seeing those words on paper makes them undeniable.
I like to go back and read my poems from my early teens or journal entries from my twenties. I’m awed, humbled and amused, but mostly I’m thankful that I took the time to put pen to paper. I look back on my writing and see what it is: a love letter to myself.
Dianah Smith is a writer, curator and community organizer living in Toronto. Please visit her website for more information on upcoming workshops.