AWP2015: Mining the Gap: Trauma, Memory, and Reimagined Pasts

Panelists: Elizabeth Kadetsky, Jessica Handler, Denise Grollmus, Rebecca McClanahan, Elyssa East

Joan Didion wrote that we tell ourselves stories in order to live.  But how do we tell those life-saving stories if we can’t remember?  How do we write when we rely on our own and others’ shifting, incomplete memories? How do nonfiction writers maintain what Jessica Handler calls pride in our “fealty to the truth” when current neuroscience reveals that traumatized brains change, revising memories, even potentially coding trauma into the DNA we pass onto our offspring?  

With so many people experiencing, narrating, and writing personal and cultural traumas, these questions are relevant and essential.  This panel of writers focused on how gaps inform our memory on writing, trauma and violence, concluding that “a good trauma memoir is one that examines and then deals with the paradoxes of what we don’t know.”  The not-knowing becomes one of the central themes and organizing principles when writing trauma.

Panel organizer Elizabeth Kadetsky opened by explaining how her readings on the neuroscience of trauma informed her drafting of a cycle of essays about her mother’s illness and death by Alzheimer’s. She cited Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s definition of trauma as “unassimilated scraps of overwhelming experiences” and described narrative techniques characteristic of traumatic experience: erased fragments, nonlinear repetitions, broken timelines, paratactic sentences, and modular jumps.  Her own takeaway as a writer, one relevant to this audience, was understanding how the traumatized mind redraws experience in a repetition/compulsion manner and that gaps are not to be overcome in fashioning trauma narratives, but treated as central to the form.

Jessica Handler, author of memoir guide Braving the Fire, elaborated on how our brains lose memory with trauma and how we can work with the absence of memory in the texts we’re writing.  She too asked,  “What if we regard the state of not knowing as an opportunity….an element of your story?” She advised, “Consider the absence of information a conflict in your story.  And what is plot but conflict?  We can write about the absence of information.”

Rebecca McClanahan, picking up on the difficulty of representing trauma itself, discussed the importance of developing instead a “reader-felt sense that something is being understood even in the writing of it, in the re-membering.”  This reinforced the primary theme of the panel:  that the point of writing trauma is not to discover the truth of trauma so much as to discover what shines through when we turn to face what we do not and may not ever know.  The story then is not a story of the event itself so much as the story of our own “encounter with the wild thing” that cannot be tamed by overused words and harmful concepts like “closure.”

Finally, Denise Grollmus and Elyssa East focused on engaging with other people’s faulty or obscured memories, reminding us that the rewriting of memory around trauma is not just a literary problem, but an ethical one.

This panel, well-informed by current research in trauma, neuroplasticity, and PTSD, effectively translated the literature on trauma into meaningful considerations of craft and ethics for nonfiction.  The panel smartly resisted pop-psychology notions of “closure” as the ultimate goal of this vein of writing, embracing instead the value of the encounter with those “unassimilated scraps.”  Writing is not experience itself, but an artifact of the experience.  These writers accept that truth and encourage us all to write and appreciate the questions, doubts, and gaps themselves.   


Encounters with Trauma: Reading Recommendations by Panelists

Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude

Simone de Beauvoir, A Very Easy Death

Anatole Broyard, Intoxicated by My Illness

David Carr, The Night of the Gun

Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Dorothy Gallagher, How I Came Into My Inheritance

Mikal Gilmore, Shot Through the Heart            

Stephen Kuusisto, “Night Song”

Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz

Norman Mailer, The Executioner’s Song

John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers

Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water


Chauna Craig has published creative nonfiction in Fourth Genre, Superstition Review,, Lime Hawk, and elsewhere.  She teaches at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and her first short story collection will be published by Queens Ferry Press in 2016.

Visit Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies to browse our recent issues (Fall 2014 and Spring 2015), explore our classroom resources, and to subscribe to the journal (it’s free!).


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