Insights
Green check mark burst shape
Premium
Member Log In

Writing About Painful Experiences

Before you write a first draft, you might consider writing The Healing Draft.

6
minute read
Published on
July 8, 2024

A few years ago, a colleague asked me to meet with one of his clients. “Her manuscript was due to the publisher months ago,” he said. “She seems to be blocked. Can you help her?”

When I met with Lorraine, I learned the book in question was a memoir about living with grief after her child’s sudden death. “I sit down to write,” she told me, “and suddenly I’m flooded with memories I don’t want to think about. It’s too much. And if I do get some words written, I shut down for days.”

Dealing with the emotions that come up when writing about painful experiences can be quite difficult. I encourage everyone on this path to get support from a therapist, practice good self-care, and take frequent breaks.

“I’ve done all that. I am doing all that,” she told me. “Revisiting this stuff is still so hard. And when I read what I’ve written so far, I wonder if it’s too raw. I’ve lost track of the point.”

Writing about past trauma is hard. Period. So what can you do? How can you process all the feelings that come up so you can share these important stories in books and on the stage?

Stop trying to write a first draft fit for books and the stage and start writing a first draft just for you.

Writing can be healing—for you, and for your audience—but it’s darn near impossible to achieve both at the same time.

When you write about a traumatic event for the purpose of sharing that story publicly, with readers and other audiences, that objective puts undue pressure on you. Now you’re thinking about people consuming the story. How will it be received? Will anyone care? Are you sharing too much? Are you holding back? If you write about a loved one, will you hurt their feelings? Will they react badly? Will readers or audiences judge your actions or your choices?

You start to wonder if your story is worthy of sharing. You think, Is it any good?

Think about that in the context of the focus of Lorraine’s memoir. “Is this story any good?” is the last thing she needs to worry about when writing about losing her child. Seems absurd, right? And yet this is the pressure so many people put on themselves. We’ve commoditized trauma and pain, and that is a big reason why it’s so hard to get these stories down.

The Healing Draft 

My advice to authors and speakers who are writing about a painful experience for the first time is to focus on what I call “The Healing Draft.” Write the story just for yourself, with no other objective in mind. Get it all out knowing you may never share it with a living soul. You may save it, or you might toss it. It’s okay to burn the journal, tear up the yellow legal pad, or delete the files from your computer.

Knowing you don’t have to publish or speak about this version of your story, you’re now free to write down whatever you like, your memories as you experienced them. The process will certainly still be painful, but when your only objective is to tell yourself the story, managing the emotions that bubble up is easier. And you can give yourself grace.

Then, when you’re ready—and not before—go back to the story and look for the scenes and insights that may be helpful to others.

After finishing their Healing Drafts, most authors feel better equipped to dig in and craft a shareable story. New York Times-bestselling essayist and memoirist Roxane Gay once said, “I wrote toward a stronger version of myself.” I love that quote because it shows the healing power of telling yourself the story.

The science of writing about trauma 

Science backs this up. In 1986, social psychologist James Pennebaker—one of the top researchers on trauma, disclosure, and health—and his student, Sandra Beall, published a study on the benefits of “expressive writing.” In their study, 46 students at the University of Texas at Austin were randomly assigned to write about “a traumatic experience or a superficial topic.”

Students were tasked with writing about their topic for 15 minutes without stopping, for four consecutive days. They were also given a series of tests to gauge their mental and physical health—at the start of the study and six weeks after its completion.

“The results of that first experiment were like nothing I’d ever seen before,” Pennebaker shared in a 2011 video. “We found that when people wrote about these traumatic experiences, it changed them… It upset them, but they kept coming back. Hardly anybody stopped the experiment.”

“All of this was profound, in and of itself,” Pennebaker continued, “but what was most interesting was the degree to which writing about upsetting experiences made a difference in people’s health… and then other labs started to get involved. Study after study showed that writing about traumatic experiences had a significant effect on their physical health, mental health, and a variety of behaviors.”

In her July 2021 article for Harvard Business Review, “Writing Can Help Us Heal from Trauma,” Deborah Siegel-Acevedo writes about expressive writing and shares findings from subsequent studies that discovered how to go about writing about trauma:

“The most healing writing, according to researchers, must follow a set of creative parameters. And most importantly, it can be just for you. It must contain concrete, authentic, explicit detail. The writer must link feelings to events—on the page. Such writing allows a person to tell a complete, complex, coherent story, with a beginning, middle, and end. In the telling, such writing transforms the writer from a victim into something more powerful: a narrator with the power to observe. In short, when we write to express and make sense, we reclaim some measure of agency.”

Four Creative Parameters 

Using the guidelines from Pennebaker and other researchers is a good starting point for your Healing Draft. You might consider using these four creative parameters as you begin writing. 

#1 Write about your painful experience for 15 continuous minutes, four days in a row. 

If you want to keep writing after the 15 minutes are up, go for it. If not, move on to other tasks for the day without guilt, knowing you will return to your story soon enough.

#2 Use descriptive language and include details. 

Setting the scene is an easy way to unlock your memories. Describe the environment—the place, the people, the weather, the mood. Or use mindfulness techniques to describe yourself in the story. Start with your feet. Were they on the ground? What did the ground feel like? Were you wearing shoes or barefoot? 

#3 Describe your feelings. 

At each turn of your story, tap into how you felt in that moment. Try not to intellectualize or judge the feeling; simply name it.

#4 Take a break. 

On the fifth day, take a break from writing your Healing Draft. If you need more than one day, take two. Then come back to the exercise and start a new four-day sequence.

However you go about it, writing the Healing Draft version of a painful story can help you process it and make sense of it, which, in the end, will help you tell it for others. This is true for all painful experiences, not just those that would “make a good movie.”

This is your story.

When I was a ghostwriter, I remember one author saying to me, “I don’t have a good story. Nothing tragic happened to me.” After 20 years writing self-help, business, and other personal and professional development books, I can say this with certainty: a story is not better because it’s traumatic.

It’s important to remember that you don’t owe anyone your pain. Your story is your story. Yes, it can be helpful to readers and audiences when you share painful experiences, but it’s entirely up to you if you want to publish your stories or include them in your speech.

Lorraine did end up writing a Healing Draft of the most painful parts of her story, which helped her to focus just on her feelings and not on the manuscript. Within a few months, she started writing her memoir in earnest and completed it. And because she allowed herself the time to write the story just for herself, she was better able to navigate the experience—and her memoir is better for it.

Full Transcript

Read Full Transcript
X Mark icon
Don't
Check mark icon
Do
Black right arrow icon
X Mark icon
Don't
Check mark icon
Do
X Mark icon
Don't
Check mark icon
Do
X Mark icon
Don't
Check mark icon
Do
X Mark icon
Don't
Check mark icon
Do
X Mark icon
Don't
Check mark icon
Do

|

Craft a speech worthy of life’s biggest stages.

GRAD

|

Speech Writing Mastery

Get visionary feedback, step-by-step instructions, and rallying support as you write a life-changing speech.
Learn more
X Mark icon
Dont
Check mark icon
Do
X Mark icon
Don't
Check mark icon
Do
,
X Mark icon
Don't
Check mark icon
Do
X Mark icon
Don't
Check mark icon
Do
Education graduation cap black icon
Learn from
AJ

HEROIC

Speakers

Learn how to give speeches that transform how people think and perceive the world. We’ll teach you how to write, perform, and get booked.
Learn more
X Mark icon
Dont
Check mark icon
Do
Loading
Someone is typing...
Person icon
No Name
Set
Moderator
(Edited)
4 years ago
This is the actual comment. It's can be long or short. And must contain only text information.
Person profile icon with blue background
No Name
Set
2 years ago
Moderator
(Edited)
This is the actual comment. It's can be long or short. And must contain only text information.
Load More
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Load More