Women, Writing and Trauma

Thank you to those of you who have commented on my blog and welcomed me so warmly to the blogosphere! 


This week sees students scrambling to get work done before Easter break, not easy during this mini-heat wave in the UK. It also sees me waiting to hear from my agent about a novel I submitted to her a while back (this wait has gone on a long time, with occasional encouragement followed by months of silence, though she assures me that it will sell and I must be patient… I am not quitting my day job).  I have had a short story accepted by an academic creative writing journal, though (no money, small readership, but good for my resume!) And I am putting together an edited collection of essays with a colleague of at another university. The subject is Life Writing and Human Rights – so another bestseller no doubt!


But this week I am also thinking about writing and trauma – a subject in which I have must interest.  In particular, I am curious about writers, and in particular women writers, who make use of personal trauma (whether or not they are conscious of being traumatised) in their fiction.  An obvious example about which much has been written is Virginia Woolf and her childhood sexual abuse. (See this essay for a good academic essay on the subject- I will attach a copy to the blog if I can figure out how to do it – otherwise just paste this into Google): Emily Dalgarno. “Ideology into Fiction: Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Sketch of the Past’”. Novel: A Forum on Fiction. 27.2 (Winter 1994): 175-95.


To be clear, my interest is not so about the sad stories of these women’s lives (though re-reading Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, Alice Walker and others, is a salutary experience) but rather in the way in which they turned the  sorrowful events of their lives into fiction: Mansfield’s illness and long-term invalidism, Louisa May Alcott’s ambivalent and violent feelings towards her father, Alice Walker’s bb-gun blinded eye- each of these terrors has been turned, often repeatedly into fiction (note Mansfield’s use of windows and enclosed rooms in her fiction, Louisa Alcott’s missing fathers and hot-headed heroines in her children’s fiction and her incestuous fathers and daughters in her pseudonymously published sensation fiction [see Stern’s, Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott] and Alice Walker’s Story “When the Other Dancer is the Self” http://enloehs.wcpss.net/resources/kingsberry/propaganda.pdf



In various places, Virginia Woolf refers to the power of some of her memories, and they way in which they informed not only her fiction, but her very identity.  In the brief memoir “A Sketch of the Past” which Woolf wrote in 1939  she speaks of a particular memory of childhood, noting that “If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills–then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory”.  My own bowl stands upon two memories – too sad to share here – but one involving not being heard at a crucial moment and the other the need to keep silent about a terrible secret.  Yin and yang memories both to do with the inherent power of storytelling.  What is the memory upon which that the bowl of your life and your storytelling stands upon? A very good question, I think.


Further reading in this area, and my current recommendation: Rachel Cusk’s new book Aftermath. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Aftermath-Marriage-Separation-Rachel-Cusk/dp/0571277659.


Rachel recently did an interview with journalist Bonnie Greer (http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/bonniegreer) as part of our Kingston Writing School Series http://fass.kingston.ac.uk/writing/

The interview will appear soon on this website – but in the meantime here is the link to an interview with Rachel you might like! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGRPM9tV5sI


For purposes of full disclosure I should mention that I am friends with Rachel Cusk and that I even appear in this book (in a small paragraph, blink and you’ll miss me – and I get no commission for recommending it!)  But I am telling everyone to read it because I think it is, sentence by sentence one of the best things I have read in a long time – though the subject matter is ethically troublesome and many people have and will shake their heads. A well-balanced review here:


 I care about the writing and Aftermath is breathtaking, post-trauma writing.

3 thoughts on “Women, Writing and Trauma

  1. I appreciate this post so much. I have experienced trauma in my life, and I’ve been trying to decide how and if it should be incorporated into my writing. It’s an intriguing question, and not one I’m sure can be answered. I like your references as well.


    1. Thank you for your comment, and I am glad it was interesting for you. I am especially interested in how some artists are able to channel their suffering into art – we all suffer to some extent, but some are able to make that into something beautiful or moving in a way that I find hopeful for the rest of us.


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