Writing the Red Flags

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This past weekend at Tybee Island was the first time I’ve set foot on the beach since I was caught in the rip current in Southampton, NY in 2018.  I thought I would feel fear, but when my sister and I went out last Friday night, it was low tide, the water warm, and the waves almost gentle.  In other words, the ocean felt safe to me.  It was a different story the following morning—the wind was crazy, the waves at high tide so rough that I just couldn’t make myself go in.  There was also a red flag warning—and can you get any more obvious than a red flag literally warning you there’s danger?  Three years ago I ignored the warning, and we all know how that turned out. I learned my lesson.

I think writing is the same way—there are times when writing feels easy and safe (and of course we love those times!), but there’s also those red flags that tell us that maybe we need to reconsider, or even back away.  That’s not to say we shouldn’t “write what we’re afraid to write”—we should, absolutely, write our lives, our stories, our poems that challenge us to be our most authentic selves.  Sometimes that means we write about difficult or painful memories.  Sometimes that means we share what we’re afraid will make us look ridiculous, or damaged, or imperfect.  Some danger is good.  Too much danger and we risk losing ourselves.

What do I mean?  I think there’s a chance that we can give too much of ourselves away when we write.  After all, we are “baring our souls” in one way or another—and when we write about unprocessed trauma that’s when the red flags go up.  We can unintentionally re-traumatize ourselves when we really mean to heal.  Of course, writing about the things that have shaped us is necessary, but I wonder how much good we accomplish if writing about an experience that was painful, terrifying, or devastating makes us revisit those dark places?

What boundaries do we have in place that will protect us?  Have we gone through counseling to process our trauma?  How do we know that what we write won’t revisit trauma on someone else?  If we don’t have boundaries, and we haven’t had the benefit of therapy, we are putting ourselves in danger of revealing too much and re-opening old wounds.

That’s always a danger with writing, I suppose, because to write and share something means you risk exposure—you invite the audience in, and once an audience is involved, you’re not entirely in charge of your work or the interpretation of experience anymore. There’s danger to the writer in the act of audience consumption of work.  How will the audience react?  Will they judge the person you were when you experienced what you experienced?  Will they discount your interpretation of events?  Will they harass you?  Will they reject you?

I think about my own experience trying to publish poems about past trauma in my life.  It never goes well.  I’m not afraid so much about sharing my life—I’ve had plenty of therapy, so I’m well and truly “processed.”  I just think I’m really bad at it.  (And honestly, does the world need more poems or a memoir about child abuse?  I doubt it.)

Not every experience that’s happened to us (or we were involved in) needs to be written about and shared.  Maybe that’s the difference.  Maybe, now that I think about it, we should always write the red flags—what scares us, what seems dangerous.  That’s what journaling is for—it’s a controlled environment:  we are both writer and audience, and there’s little chance of discovery and judgment.

But sharing traumatic experiences in published writing can be as dangerous as a rip current, where even the strongest swimmers can drown.  Are we prepared for the fall-out, to ourselves and to others?  If we’re not ready, then the work should probably stay private.  At least for now.  When the waves are less rough, we can always venture back out.

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