November 15, 2016

Writing to Feel Whole in Times of Trouble

Today, we continue our series with Jen Cross, who shares how writing has helped her navigate these turbulent times.


It's been hard to write this week. I sit down to the notebook and my words dry up. Are you triggered in the aftermath of this election? I know I am. I feel as though I’m watching my abusive stepfather given the keys to the castle, like he’s the one who just won the presidency, like he's the one that my fellow Americans actively chose to support.

I sit down to write, and what floats behind my eyes is: What words are there to say? What difference does it make if I write or don’t write, if I speak or don’t speak? I spoke before the election, didn’t I? And what good did it do to tell?

I put down the pen, turn back to Facebook, begin to scroll through the most recent atrocities, overwhelm myself to numbness.

The day after the election, I did write. I wrote how angry I was. Anger feels more powerful than fear or grief— old grief, I mean. The grief that still lives in my body, in my lungs and liver, the grief that lives under my tongue and behind my heartbeat. The young girl asking, the teenage girl asking, “Why do you choose him? Why do you believe him? Why don’t you believe me when I tell you he is hurting me? Why are you questioning me, telling me guys are just like that, telling me I need to change my attitude, telling me he was only trying to help, telling me it didn’t go the way I said, it couldn’t have gone the way I said, telling me I need to calm down — it couldn’t have been as bad as I’m making it out to be.”

I didn't write how scared I felt, how exposed, how vulnerable. I didn't write into that big question—why the abuser is chosen so often, it seems, over the one(s) they abuse?

I didn’t write about those things. I wrote rage, and then I stopped writing.

It’s an old silencing, an old quieting of the fingers, of the tongue, of the mouth — and old muteness that takes over at times like these, when what gets triggered is that old feeling of hopelessness and utter impotence.

We fought so hard. So many of us fought so hard. And still — this. Still, the abuser won.

The muteness says: nothing you say is going to make any difference. Your words aren’t important. Your voice doesn’t matter. No one can hear you — and if they do hear you, they’re not going to understand, or they’re going to downplay or deny, or they’re going to tell you right to your face to shut up.

The muteness is an old self-protection strategy. It says: Keep quiet if you want to get through this relatively safe. Swallow your screams and shouts. Swallow your rage. Swallow your indignation and disbelief. The psyche taught us something important in those years we were surviving abuse, many of us. It taught us not to speak. It taught us so many different ways to keep silent.

We come to believe the story that our muteness tells: that our voices were stolen, that our voices were taken from us.

More often, though, the truth is that we are ignored. Our voices work fine. We say no, and are ignored. We act out, and are punished, and ignored. We sometimes tell directly, and many of those tellings are ignored — and then we get in more trouble (as this new ostensible-president has threatened to sue those who have come forward with stories of his abuse, harassment, and violence).

After years of being ignored when we who have survived child sexual abuse tell (in all of the brilliant and creative ways we do tell) what was being done to us, we so often internalize the story that we are without a voice. Isn’t that easier to believe, easier even to live with, than the reality that our words and our behavior was actively ignored by those non-perpetrating caregivers and other adults who were supposed to be paying attention, supposed to be protecting us? Supposed to be listening to us?

This week, that old deep loss has gripped me every time I think about writing. And so I force myself to do it. I make bargains, promising myself I can go back to the bad-tv reruns, the bag of popcorn, after my three or five pages. Just write. Just let the words come. I am “making” myself do it because I know I will feel better, more whole, and more sane on the other side. I will feel less impotent, even.

The writing doesn't fix everything. It doesn't change what happened. But writing gives me back more of my whole self in this aftermath.

In the process of freewriting, I feel my power return—even just slightly. Just a wave of possibility. I
remember how loud my voice is, and was. I remember how eminently capable I am of telling my own truths, and in how many different ways. I remember that I can poetry my truth, I can testimony my truth, I can metaphor my truth, I can song my truth, I can nonsense my truth, I can fragment and I can puzzle it back together. I remember that no one can tell me how to tell my own story, how to language my own emotions, how to word what I was told (both directly and indirectly) never to speak.

And in the writing, I feel a little more whole – a little more broken, too, sure, but also more complete, more honest, more present.

One of the prompts I return to often, when I want to get a freewrite going, is “What I really wanted to tell you was...” or “What I really want to say is....” and then just following the writing however it flows. If I get stuck, I repeat the prompt. Write it again: What I really wanted to tell you was... Some days it works better to write it in the third person “What she really wanted to tell you was, or what he really wanted to tell you was, or what they really wanted to tell you was...”) I try to keep writing, not to stop to edit or correct: this notebook writing that I'm describing, it's not for anybody's eyes but yours. This isn't for a Facebook post or a blog. That writing can come later. These words right now, these tellings, these are all for you, allowing to flow free and powerful that voice that has been within you all along.

Thank you for all of your words in these difficult days – the words you write, the words you don't write, the words still tucked beneath your breastbone, waiting for the time when you feel it's safe enough for them to come out.

A widely-anthologized writer and performer, Jen Cross has written with sexual trauma survivors and other writers for nearly fifteen years. In 2003, Jen founded Writing Ourselves Whole, an organization that offers transformative writing workshops, creating spaces in which the true and complicated stories of the body can emerge. Jen’s fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in over 30 anthologies and other publications, including Nobody Passes, The Healing Art of Writing 2010, make/shift, Visible: A Femmethology (Vol. 1), and Best Sex Writing 2008. She's the co-editor of Sex Still Spoken Here (CSC Press, 2014). Jen is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at San Francisco State University. Find out more about Jen at

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Rachel. Absolutely powerful and right on. Keep up your much needed, greatly courageous work. If you ever want a shoulder or sounding board, I'm here for you.


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