But I’m Not a Therapist: Reflections on Literacy Work with Survivors of Trauma

“But I’m Not a Therapist” by Jenny Horsman is especially poignant to my experiences at SpeakOut! thus far. She raises many relevant points of concern pertaining to work with individuals who have experienced trauma in the past, as well as continue to experience it secondarily through remembrance and emotional processing.

I see trauma as being ever-present in the workshops with the men at LCDC, in addition to feelings of regret, guilt, loss, and pain (to name but a few). In fact, I view these emotions as characteristic of much of the work that is written both in class and outside, during the week. I am constantly surprised at how quickly many of the writers share these extremely personal stories with the other men, as well as the facilitators who, in many cases, they are meeting for the first time. Despite the content of their stories and writing being very personal and emotionally-vulnerable, the men are still quite eager to read their writing to the group or even have the facilitators comment on it in private. When I think of “a door being opened,” I think more about the writers finally finding an outlet through which to express and process these deep-seeded, long-felt emotions. Participating in the writing workshop provides the opportunity and initiative for them to take note of their own mental state and what is on their mind, which for many, are the struggles and/or pains of their past. Sharing their work is their own choice: if they feel comfortable, they will share, if not, they write and keep quiet (or don’t write and just sit and reflect). I would hope they do not feel obligated to share, just because they are attending the workshop as that could prove further stressful when dealing with trauma.

I am continually surprised, though, at how quickly many of the writers are able to take an ostensibly very simple, straightforward exercise–found poetry, for example–and transform it into something very personal and revealing. In fact, I often feel that the men’s default theme for writing is one of a personal nature, rather than say, fantasy or fiction writing. Just the other day, we experimented with writing pantoums, very structured poems in which certain lines are repeated throughout the work. One of the other facilitators suggested taking lines from the poems we brought as samples, in order to assist in the writing process (and also in light of having less time for the exercise than initially planned). However, nearly all the writers disregarded this suggestion and instead used their own words as the template for the pantoum. Within ten minutes, many of the writers had produced extremely insightful, deeply personalized poems about their pasts: some wrote of love (namely, of loves lost), as well as feelings of persistent regret, inability to forget, or even forgive themselves. One man, in particular, wrote his pantoum about scabs. He wrote about constantly picking at these scabs from the past, unable to leave them alone. Funnily enough, it seemed we facilitators were the ones who used less original writing in the poems!

Referring back to creating a safe space for the writers to share and re-experience trauma [through writing], as well as how to respond to such work, I think back to Jenn Matheson’s talk at the recent training. Her insight into how to work with those who are discussing trauma was incredibly invaluable. The simple phrases and body language cues she discussed, I think, will prove to be extremely beneficial in our work. In addition, I believe modeling positive feedback or even reception of a writer’s story when they share (i.e. Mindfulness: giving a writer your full, undivided attention) are also important aspects of the facilitator’s role.

As stated earlier, though, I have been very surprised at how open and receptive the men have been to sharing their work/traumatic stories, listening to those of others, and also providing support or feedback. Although the other facilitators and I have read the “group guidelines,” it seems as though many of the men already come into the group with these expectations of mutual respect. Because many of the writers come to write and “process their feelings in more healthy ways” (as was stated by a newcomer to the group last week), I believe they understand, or at least discover quickly, the reciprocal nature of the workshop: in order to feel safe when sharing their own stories, they must also provide that safe space for others.

Jenny Horsman discusses creating an appropriate balance of pain, pleasure and joy in workshops. This issue resonated with me, in terms of knowing how much time or attention to give to a writer’s traumatic experience or story, while also not over-emphasizing it so as to create negative attention for the writer. I think this is where the insight of Jenn Matheson could indeed be utilized, but still wonder if I might be misinterpreting the writer’s needs in a particular situation.

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