Magic & Instinct in Writing Prose about Trauma

A few weeks ago I attended a great event held by Electric Literature on  Magical Feminism, an editorial discussion with Marie-Helene Bertino and my friend and colleague Elissa Washuta. It was a really inspiring discussion. You can watch the video back here:

Halimah Marcus interviewing Elissa Washuta & Marie-Helene Bertino

I really liked what Marie-Helene Bertino had to say about the process of working through, writing through intimate partner violence. “The supernatural on the page gives the survivor an escape,” Bertino told us, also describing it as a “a portal.” Bertino also said that experiences of violence can make us stronger writers: My experiences have ruined me for some things but they have built me for some things … like observing human beings. I have been able to feel more joy. … In Parakeet, her (the protagonist’s) senses literally separate and fly to different corners of the room. It’s literally what trauma feels like. I would never want to go back and lead a typical life because it has enabled me to have a superpower. I know the worst a human can do.”

I found all this very interesting in the light of some fairy stories I have been writing as a way to process trauma. You can read the first one ‘The Woman Who Loves a Bear’ in Waxwing now. The story is on one level an ordinary fairy story, perhaps an allegory for the things that women suffer now, but there are also a series of notes in the margins where I challenge my own choices and perhaps even the genre itself. Fairy stories though are definitely a portal for finding a route through trauma.

The other speaker at the ‘Magical Feminism’ event was Elissa Washuta, who talked a lot about instinct and intuition and the forces that guide us when we write. Washuta experimented with allowing her instinct to guide what she was writing about when it came to processing trauma in her new book, White Magic. She said: “All these coincidences – we’re told they are insignificant. I documented them. They led me to believe that there was a power I was in conversation with. Letting the logic of trauma create narrative structure is one of the most powerful things I have ever done.”

I know what she means. In a recent nonfiction piece, ‘Daphne Becoming,’ for About Place, the writing came about in a peculiar way. It started with a shock when one day I was driving the kids out to the lake, and a patch of woods that we usually drove by had been decimated. It just looked horrific: the black and broken stumps of trees, trunks left where they’d fallen. I felt devastated and I started thinking about the presumptuousness of human beings in the way they treat nature. It doesn’t seem that different to me to the way in which privileged people treat women and minorities, and so the idea came to me for this essay just by following my nose.

I wonder if anyone else reading this has found magical portals in telling stories about trauma, or if following their instincts when processing trauma has taken them to an unexpected story?