This is a book review of Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma by Jen Cross in which I discuss Seven Benefits of a Writing Practice, go over my personal experience reading the book and list some of my favorite quotes.
I recommend the book Writing Ourselves Whole by Jen Cross.
Writing practice can catalyze the recovery process; engaging in a writing practice allows for de-repression, self-connection, self-listening and self-expression in a safe loving container we provide for ourselves.
Writing in free-form way, with self-acceptance, knowing nobody else will ever read what we are writing (unless we decide to share it), has a lot of therapeutic benefits. A writing practice is a great tool for learning and developing self-care.
I’ve been studying self-care for a while now. The main problem with self-care is that sometimes we have to delve really deeply into our early wounding to build a life around self-care, and re-map our body sensations to open to goodness and safety, rather than use self-care as a Band-Aid for living out a trauma-based reality. The thing about a writing practice is that it’s a form of self-care that actually does resurrect some of the deeper parts of ourselves that are unfamiliar with the concept of self-care, the deeper parts that are lost, injured, and waiting for attention. Writing can address both the deeper re-organization of the internal landscape, building self-care from within AND it can also reveal to us the kinds of things we need in this moment, today, that would lead to greater self-care for the adult self who is trying to figure out and improve their life.
Below, I go over what I personally found to be the most healing in each Chapter (for the first half of the book).
Before getting into each Chapter, I will go ahead and summarize the main benefits of a writing practice I learned from reading the book:
Seven Benefits of a Writing Practice
that I learned about from the Book Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma:
- The act of maintaining a writing practice for yourself is a radical and powerful form of self-care.
- Making time to be selfish with your writing – writing for yourself, writing whatever arises in you – catalyzes healing and recovery.
- A writing practice builds relationships with various parts of ourselves and strengthens those relationships over time. It’s a way to resurrect internal architecture.
- Writing practice can save us. Writing practice can save lives.
- Sharing the writing that comes out of our writing practice can enable us to reach other people who need to hear our words. Our words can inspire in others more courage to save themselves – the many selves in themselves – in numerous ways.
- Writing practice encourages us to be persistent with our voice and story, even in a world that wants us to forget what is, in fact, most urgent in us.
- Writing practice encourages us to keep speaking our story onto the page in many different experimental ways without repression, censorship, any kind of time limit or limit on how many times it needs to be told or how many ways it needs to be told. Writing Practice allows the things inside us to emerge and to have their own unique way of living and existing in the world. The things in us deserve this; they deserve a voice.
Writing Ourselves Whole – Chapter by Chapter Book Review
Chapter: suturing the rupture: what writing about trauma can do (page 1)
What I got out of this Chapter:
Reading this Chapter increased my desire, motivation and inspiration to use writing for my healing process in a consistent way.
1. Be more selfish.
A lot of time the focus of my writing is on helping others but I’ve come to a place of lifelessness and drudgery. This Chapter inspired me to be more selfish. To put more focus on healing myself instead of helping others.
A personal writing practice can also be a corrective mechanism for unhealthy selflessness and too much focus on caretaking.
2. Helping yourself helps others.
This self-centric / self-exploring writing practice actually will increase my ability to help others.
Writing can help me connect to my life force, and that life force can come out more in the work I do to help others, making it higher quality.
3. Resurrect your vitality / the life force running through your veins.
Writing practice can be a way to encounter life and vitality in writing again if your writing has gone dormant or stagnant for a while.
My favorite parts of this Chapter:
1. The exploration of how trauma can rob us of our words, damage our words, take our words away and how it’s important to do the work to reclaim our words and build our own relationship to our words.
Trauma includes loss of language and healing trauma includes finding language again.
2. A study at the University of Texas, Austin found that 20 minutes a day for four days of writing about one’s most difficult life experience improved both physiological and psychological health. I like this reference because it demonstrates real and concrete benefits of maintaining a daily writing practice. This kind of information is very convincing.
Writing practice improves both physiological and psychological health.
3. Cross’s definition of trauma resonates with me: A state of shock in the body and or psyche; it’s a rupture, a bifurcation, a disassembly.
This definition is a lot more inclusive than many. It includes all kinds of experiences that leave a deep mark inside us. Sometimes these experiences are long-term life situations. The trauma is being created not by a clear, life-threatening event, but by an atmosphere that constantly shocks us by being wrong to us in some way or unacceptable to us in some manner. For example, take the case of someone living with a person who yells at them for doing something perfectly normal like speaking. That is a kind of shock because it makes no sense. This is just that person’s normal everyday life; it may not appear traumatic at all as it is common or routine. But it’s still leaving them in a subtle state of shock, unknown to themselves, multiple times a day.
This idea can be expanded to include other things, like institutions. For example, legal procedures or governmental institutions that violate basic human rights can leave people in shock. It can feel shocking when an organization goes against an intrinsic sense of morality or doesn’t do what they profess to stand for. These traumas can be somewhat invisible.
These experiences of harshness and meanness leave many smaller marks that layer and accumulate over time into a deeply felt wound. These kinds of everyday experiences of shock constitute a serious trauma.
We have to be able to name these things to overcome them and we need language to assign the names: Trauma. Shock. Disassembly.
The people who cause trauma thrive by weaving lies around us that we don’t immediately see. Finding language – finding and using specific words – can unravel webs of lies that have been woven around us. Consistent, selfish writing practice can break apart these confines of lies by naming them over and over and over again, until they lose their power over us.
“Writing practice is what finally broke into and through those lies. Writing brought me, and so many of the writers I know and have written with, into a different relationship with words, language, stories and with the words, the language and stories used against us.” (Page 7)
Chapter: writing that changes its writer (Page 11)
What I got out of this Chapter:
I learned that something exists that is called “transformative writing practice.”
This is the basic formula:
A regular routine + free writing = transforms the writer
My favorite part of this Chapter:
There is no end, there is no being recovered. There is simply all this imperfection and sloppiness.
I liked reading that part because it helped me to feel more open to embracing it all. It helped me to open to the understanding that there is no end to strive for. Issues will keep on coming up in different ways.
I like this idea because it validates the person I am now instead of seeing her as just some mess, some transitional unimportant entity that is dragging herself through the mud of all these issues, not really doing anything useful or important except waiting to arrive “there.” And seeing only the fictional future me as the me that actually matters – the “recovered” me, the one who has arrived “there.”
The truth is that that fictional recovered person may never come to exist and it’s healthier to feel like the person I am right now matters greatly, even with all these imperfections.
“Know that this place you’re in right now will transform.” (Page 14)
This is a very hard concept for me to grasp for some reason. It always feels like this painful condition is forever and that I’m trapped and really there’s no end in sight; there’s no way out. I think that this sense of being trapped is part of trauma. So trying to apply this is this idea of “everything changes,” to myself and my life can seem kind of scary but it’s actually really helpful to understand that things may get better and things may get worse; things always do.
Chapter: the page has room for my incomprehensibility (Page 18)
What I got out of this Chapter:
I feel more inspired to do free-writing about childhood trauma, and to follow my intuition more.
“The page has room for as much as you can give it.” (Page 19)
“You give the chaotic story a bottleneck to push through and it will frame itself into a kind of sense.” (Page 19)
“You never write yourself the same way twice.” (Page 19)
“So we write what we know, and we write our unknown.” (Page 20)
Chapter: we are not trauma but we know the words for it (Page 23)
What I got from this Chapter:
Make sure to pay attention to body clues that let you know if your system wants you to stop writing or keep going. It’s only by paying attention that we gain the embodied experience of what the body is trying to communicate. We need to patiently learn what our own body signals are over time.
For example, suddenly feeling really tired might mean for a particular person to stop writing for now and return to it later. For someone else it may mean they need to persist and go deeper. If we pay attention, we can begin to understand our own clues and what they mean.
We may accidentally miss a body clue telling us to stop and then get in over our heads, get triggered or dissociated. This is OK because it’s a learning opportunity.
In terms of taking care of ourselves, even though for some people having a daily practice is important it’s also important to allow things to come out in their own time. This is especially true when it comes to writing about trauma. It’s important for us to take care of ourselves around this process.
One way to do this that I have found is that after a writing prompt, I wait 15 to 20 minutes to see if my system is really ready to write about this topic. If I’m off doing something else and then I feel the sense that I’m not ready, I skip that writing prompt and then I find or create a different one to give to myself.
“This isn’t work we need to rush through. We are building a relationship with our deep inner self, our surviving self, our material, or memory, our creative genius.” (Page 23)
“When you write trauma, your body will fill up with memory and emotion. Consider how you want to take care of yourself, how to thank your body for this effort of recollection and creation, for tangling itself back up in the old (sometimes not so old) memories, how to communicate to your psyche: I will take care of us through this process of reclaiming and restorying.” (Page 24)
“Listen to what your body tells you … This is your intuition speaking to you. Sometimes these body messages will mean, Write more now. Sometimes they will mean, Get me the fuck out of here.” (Page 24)
“We call out the names anyway. We tell the true stories anyway. We describe tactics, smooth smiles, rage. We teach each other lost languages.” (Page 25)
“Say everything you wanted to say, everything you did say, everything they should have been able to hear you say.” (Page 26)
“We give the whole story of our lives to the page.” (Page 26)
Chapter: finding your own routine (Page 27)
What I got out of this Chapter:
I actually never knew you could completely invent your own writing schedule. It does not have to be a daily practice. It can be tailored to your own style, schedule, needs, processes.
I learned it’s important to allow myself to find my own writing rhythm and writing schedule.
In relation to how to structure your writing within your life, everyone is different and the idea is to try to sense what your writing or your muse is needing or asking for in terms of its creative flow and movement, and then figure out how best to give it that. There is no correct schedule. There is no correct place. There are no particular rituals to do in terms of writing practice. We all need to come up with our own ways that work best for our own creativity and personality.
Some people like to write every day. Some people like to write when they feel like it. Some people like to slow down the process and carve out large chunk of time to really go really slowly and delve deeply. For some people it’s okay carry around a notebook and just to fit their writing into small times here and there and that works out for them.
“I encourage you to give your writing what it needs, whenever you can.” (Page 29)
Chapter: what they take (Page 32)
What I got from this Chapter:
In this Chapter, it felt really good to hear the words of someone who also lost a lot of time, possibilities, potentials and other selves and lives. Someone who also watched other people go forth into life, not knowing how it was that they did that. This is a really hard truth to contend with. I do like the affirmation that we are resilient. I agree with this chapter that while we are resilient and creative, the losses that we endure are still there and they are still facts in our life no matter what.
“We are reclaiming what another human being – or, sometimes, a whole society – decided to ruin, to take for themselves, to spill all over and into and leave covered with his (or their) garbage. We are not garbage. We deserve all the effort of cleanup. We deserve the time it takes to have every bit of our ecosystem attended to during the cleanup process …” (Page 35)
In this Chapter, I realized I can create my own writing prompt inspired by the Chapter if I am not ready to tackle the one given.
I wasn’t ready for the writing prompt on page 36 yet (“Take it back”), but I was ready to do my own writing prompt which was – What is in me that continues to poison me? What is it in me wants me to become intact?
If the writing prompt given is not quite right for me in that moment, the Chapter I am in will still inspire a writing prompt in me that is right for me.
Chapter: Put on your own oxygen mask first: writing as radical self-care (Page 37)
What I got out of this Chapter:
More motivation to do radical self-care.
This Chapter increased my understanding of what doing radical self-care might look like in my life.
“There’s no good time [for writing practice]. There’s always something else really important to do.” (Page 38)
“For me, developing and sustaining a daily writing practice has been about learning to put on my own oxygen mask before I try to help anybody else.” (Page 39)
“We who are survivors of intimate violence often don’t believe we deserve what we love.” (Page 40)
“Through this practice, you develop a relationship with your storyteller, that part of you that got ignored and walled away for safekeeping during the years of your trauma.” (Page 41)
“It’s discomfiting to act in direct opposition to the voices of those who told us we didn’t deserve to live, much less have joy, pleasure, creativity, and celebration in our lives.” (Page 42)
Writing Prompt. The writing prompt on page 44 was transformational for me; it had it had a huge impact on reducing my suicidality because I identified something my childhood behind my suicidal urges. This is important because I’ve been suicidal pretty much every day and it can get pretty bad. See, writing practice can save lives.
Sometimes the writing prompts in the Chapters are really on point for something I’m going through at the time and really help me go through my healing process.
Chapter: getting our whole mouth back (Page 45)
What I got out of this Chapter:
Let things come out.
This chapter inspired me to really let go and allow everything to come out when writing; to free, liberate, and de-repress my writing process. Everything can be spoken to the page.
“The longer we tell the story that our voices were lost or stolen, the longer we believe that story, the longer some part of us remains silent. Writing down our story undermines that narrative, fissures it, creates the space for real stories to emerge.” Page 46
“Writing ourselves whole is getting our whole mouth back, our whole throat back, our whole consciousness back, our whole creative genius back, our whole intuition back, our whole language back. Writing ourselves whole is claiming all the words and all the stories for ourselves to do with as we wish.” P. 47
Chapter: our stories are our world. (page 51)
This Chapter gives me more space to create myself – to write myself – into different stories.
Writing can be embodying. Getting more into our bodies, more embodied, is a huge part of trauma healing. Actually when you write about your body’s experiences honestly it can help with this process of occupying the body more fully.
“Writing our real, complicated, embodied stories – and allowing those stories to be heard and held by others – can be a way back into our full, complicated, hungry, embodied humanity.”
Chapter: what’s outside the broken world? (page 58)
This chapter encourages us to open to transformation through our writing. It’s possible to question our own identities and perceptions in the safe zone of writing practice…
“When I start to question these stories, before the experience is liberating, it’s terrifying – I feel the earth shifting under my feet and dropping away. For a time, there’s nothing to stand on once we move away from the stories that have shaped us and we have not yet found the words for the selves we are still unearthing.” Page 63
“We are free to allow for the remaking of ourselves” Page 65
“We may have felt like part of us died when we were violated – but we did not die. We lived.” Page 67
Reading through the Chapter prepares you for the Writing Prompt. Together, they lead through a very rich writing experience.
I had to slow down and do my own Writing Prompts in-between Chapters at this point. I needed to stretch out the process after each Chapter by spending more time allowing the Writing Prompt to unravel additional personal Writing Prompts that arose from within me.
Chapter: permitting permeability: rewriting our desire (Page 67)
This Chapter makes me wonder about what I want that I have been denying myself in order to stay in control, things kept deeply buried to keep me safe. I want to use writing as a place to experiment with reducing the rigidity and allowing life to touch me again slowly in ways that are okay and good and helpful.
“After a while, through this writing, something dangerous and beautiful arises. Once I have conscious access to desire, to any desire, it becomes harder to deny the other things I’ve longed for but pushed aside. Once those long-buried longings come careening out, you’re going to want to have someplace to explore them…” Page 71
OK, so to delve into the second half of the book, you will need to get your own copy. 🙂
The Chapter on desire was triggering for me, I will admit. But there are so many encouraging reminders in the book to take time away or skip a Chapter or to take care of one’s own self and timing, I felt comfortable taking time away from the book. I think that, if I work with the book again, I will simply skip over this particular Chapter because none of the other Chapters really triggered me all that much. I’m extremely trigger-able when it comes to sexual trauma though, such that even just reading a few sentences about “desire” triggers me a LOT, so I have to be ultra careful which Chapters I choose to read and which I choose to skip over.
Again, I really love this book and recommend it. I’m always blown away at the therapeutic value of writing and Jen Cross offers an incredible guidebook for developing your own writing practice.
May the Writing Practice be with you!
Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer located in San Francisco, California. She is currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.