The Artful Academic: Writing Unspeakable Moments

By Brandy Renee McCann

Dissociation is a common experience among those of us who’ve experienced trauma. We’ve all experienced mild out-of-body experiences where we lose touch with the present moment—for example, zoning out during a conversation or binging on a TV series to get respite from a stressful period. Even intensely positive experiences can lead to surreal disconnection when we think, “Is this wonderful thing really happening?”

From a developmental perspective, chronic dissociation, or a dissociative disorder caused by previous trauma, is the feeling of being outside one’s body even when overwhelming events such as those centering on abuse, fear, or shame, are not actively occurring—that is, the out-of-body state is “triggered” by something relatively harmless. Part of my intellectual and therapeutic practice has been learning how to be mindful of when I’m entering a dissociative state. And part of my spiritual practice has been learning to bring myself back into my body through grounding exercises, which can be as simple as standing barefoot outside, or noticing the breath moving in and out of my body.

What’s this got to do with writing? Well, everything, if you’re writing narrative. A story is basically: Something Happens, then Character Responds. 

For example, early in Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Demon Copperhead, the young narrator gets punched in the jaw by his new step-father. The boy says: “My spoon flies out of my hand onto the floor. One ear is ringing, my cheek burns. I stare at him. ‘What did I do?’” Interesting in the passage that follows, as the step-father starts justifying his action, the narrator begins to get lost in his thoughts—to disassociate—but then he forces himself, as an act of defiance, to stay in the present moment, to sit motionless at the table, intentionally not eating, until his step-father finishes his lecture and leaves the house. The boy says, “That’s the win I get, if there is one.”

How a character responds to intense experiences is the crux of action in story-telling and reveals much about a character’s personality.

The same is true for creative non-fiction, especially memoir. In a piece about mining feelings of shame for writing material, memoirist Sonja Livingston says: “Writing derives its power by noticing the unspeakable and going there.” Livingston doesn’t just describe the things that she had been ashamed of as a poor kid: she embodies them on the page. For example, she focuses on the sensory experience of hearing a social worker interviewing her out-of-work, single mom. She noticed the vulnerability in her mother’s voice, how young she sounded.

Writing is a way of getting back to those once unspeakable experiences and embodying them.

Noticing what brings a character, or one’s self, back into the body illustrates their growth. In her memoir, Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, Margaret Renkl explores the grief associated with growing older and losing one’s elders. Renkl’s grief is intense yet ordinary, and like so many love poems, the writing could have felt lifeless and trite. But Renkl’s juxtaposition of the details of her family’s history with the details of the natural world around her suburban home bring life to this collection of short essays. In one essay, “Swept Away,” Renkl writes about how a moment spent sweeping her sidewalk takes her back to her grandmother’s house where she is a small girl being taught to sweep from left to right: “the bristles scraping the tops of my bare feet, the broomstick grazing the top of my head as I bend to watch it whiff the air above the acorn crown and the twigs and the brown petals” and so on. This embodied experience takes her even deeper into memory as the essay unfolds.

Another way that authors explore intense experience is to capture the feeling of dissociation by sliding into the surreal and speculative. I’ve been playing with a speculative turn in revising an essay I wrote a couple of years ago about a time I experienced sexual violence. The original draft felt flat, no matter how careful I was attuned to the nuance of the situation and my own conflicted feelings and shame. The writing didn’t do justice to the experience nor the experiences of so many others who’ve survived sexual violence. Lately I have been rewriting the essay in third person as a modern fairy tale, where the emphasis is not on the act of violence, but on the girl’s quest afterward to find the words—or something, I haven’t worked it out yet—that will make sense of what happened to her. I’m finding that for emotionally difficult material, using speculative elements can open up narrative possibilities and free me from that stuck, zoned-out feeling which can arise when retelling a traumatic event. Still, it is important to remember the details that will trigger the girl as she makes her journey–the cheap, pilling sheets on her skin; the smell of plywood and ashtrays and breath mints; and the way the lamplight penetrated her closed eyes.

They say trauma lives in the body. And it is the body we have to attend when writing the unspeakable.

Read Brandy’s other work here at Reckon.

author Brandy Renee McCann

Brandy Renee McCann

Brandy Renee McCann, PhD is a writer and social scientist whose work is focused on life in Appalachia. Her creative work has been published in Reckon ReviewStill: The Journal, Change Seven, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, The Dead Mule, and other literary venues. Brandy’s scholarly, collaborative work on aging in Appalachia can be found in a variety of peer-reviewed journals including the Journals for Gerontology: Social Sciences, Journal of Rural Mental Health, and Journal of Family Issues among others. Brandy is a research associate and project coordinator at the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech. To learn more about the family caregiving research in which she’s currently involved, visit here: Her social media handle is appalbrandy.