Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Writing Through Trauma, and What Happens When You Don't by Jess Riley

One suggested prompt this posting cycle was “writing through trauma.” In my own life, I haven’t experienced nearly as much trauma as others, yet I still can point to several traumatic events—two of which I’ll publicly write about, the first being my divorce.  

The kick-off to my first marriage was a big, old-school Wisconsin wedding with full Catholic mass, hundreds of guests at dinner, and a blues band to go with the free beer at the reception. (The fact that I hired a blues band should have been a clue, but …) I thought I was golden. Set for life. Yet there I was months later, on what should have been my one-year anniversary, telling my sweet Grandma why I was getting my own apartment. Fail.

I spent the summer crying and reading self-help books with titles like Something More: Excavating Your Authentic Self. (Blech.) I filled journals with melodramatic, self-indulgent drivel. (Which reminds me--I really need to find them and burn them in case I die in a car accident one of these days). But even at the tender age of 25, I knew two things: First, half of us get divorced. I was only getting mine out of the way sooner than most. Second, I was 25! You’re so resilient at 25; even if you fail at something, the odds of trying again and succeeding are enormous. 

Fast-forward to five months after my first novel was released. I was basking in a fourth printing, on top of the world. It was October 2008, and I was at the Wisconsin Book Festival with friends, awaiting a call from my agent with my editor’s offer to buy my second novel.  The economy was in free-fall around us, shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs daily, yet I was golden. Set for life. (Wait, where did I feel that before….) 

The call came while out to lunch with my author friend Danielle Younge-Ullman and her father, whom she gets to see a handful of times a year. I’d had second-hand information that led me to believe things were going well behind the scenes, but when the call came, it contained nothing but bad news. I remember how cold my heart got, how all the air felt sucked out of the restaurant, how jealous I felt of the other diners, just eating like everything was fine in the world. I spent the afternoon bawling in a spectacularly public flame-out.  (Poor Danielle tried to console me as best she could, but when you’re crushed, you’re crushed.) Now, I want to go back in time and slap the hell out of the entitled, cocky jerk I was back then. Who did I think I was, King Midas? Millions of people were being told to pack up their stuff and get out of their cubicles for reasons that had nothing to do with how well they did their jobs. And I was special? Immune to this kind of thing?

Still, I took it pretty hard. So hard that I immediately stopped reading and writing. I couldn’t stand watching others continue to do well while my own writing career was in a death spiral. I figured I just sucked (oh, fragile ego), so maybe I’d be a dentist now or something. You know, easy career change. Months passed, and I got busy at my day job, which came as a small relief. One night I began to feel a deep, pulling pain that I described to J as “a dump truck driving around my uterus.” The pain grew so intense that I begged him to take me to the Emergency Room. I was there half an hour when the pain got so bad I actually threw up, which felt like an awful kind of validation. (See, I told you it hurt like a mother!) They gave me morphine, which softened the edges, and an ultrasound that revealed … nothing. I was sent home with a prescription for Vicodin. Two days later, the pain subsided, and I went on with life.

A month later, at the funeral for one of my husband’s best friends, I felt the familiar, heavy ache begin again. Still, I tried to power through, because I had grants due. I figured it would go away on its own. By the next night, I could only find relief on my hands and knees, crying and sweating and writhing for hours as waves of pain ripped through me.  It took a lot of Vicodin to sleep.

The next day I could barely stand, and I was back at the ER. More morphine (Aaaaahhhhh…) More tests. I remember looking up through the fog of delicious painkillers to see my gynecologist’s friendly face.  Though I’d mostly just endured awkward conversation with her while she gave me a breast exam or had a finger in my butt, she had come to my book launch party and I’d seen her at Target once, so I felt like we were buds. “You’re going into emergency surgery right now,” she said.

“Hooray!” I said. “Get whatever it is that hurts the f*ck out of me NOW!”

Okay, I didn’t say that, but I remember thinking a weak, ‘Yay!’

Turns out one of my ovaries had a cyst so big it twisted over on itself, cutting off blood supply to the rest of the organ. It was getting ‘necrotic,’ which … just yuck. 

As I healed, my sister gave me Christianne Northrup’s book Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom (not quite another Woo-Woo book, but close), which had a section all about ovaries and base chakra and such. Turns out that our ovaries are connected to creating—life (babies), food, gardens, crafts … and art. 

So the irony of it all is that by NOT writing, it could be that I manifested my own trauma. And my extended tantrum could have short-circuited my ability to have kids.  All that stopped-up creativity, swirling and building, turning on me because I gave it no outlet.

I don’t know. It’s one theory. But when you’re a writer, writing feels as essential to you as breathing. You are compelled to do it. You sometimes wish you weren’t. And there I was, averting my eyes every time I walked by a bookshelf, by my desk, denying a very basic, crucial part of who I am. Not allowing myself to breathe because I was afraid to.

I am writing again, but I don’t have children, perhaps because I refused to write a few years ago. The silver lining is that our house will be paid for this fall and I’m going to Alaska next summer. You might think of me the next time your toddler punches you in the face at Target, or the next time your teenager tells you she hates you—and I will think of you when I don’t get to play Santa at Christmas and die alone with my cats when I’m ninety.

The bottom line is this: when writing is in your blood, keep writing. No matter if it hurts. No matter if you’re afraid to be rejected, if you feel like a failure. Take a tiny break if you must, but get back to it as soon as you can. Forgive yourself for not being perfect. Take rejection as a challenge to rise to the occasion. Channel your anger, your pain, your joy. Don’t. Take. Anything. Personally. Write down the walls. Burn it later in the sink maybe, but never stop.  Keep your girl (or boy) parts, y’all. Mind-body connection.  

*I’m co-writing a novel with Danielle this summer, which shows you how awesome she is.  I mean, I was truly a pathetic, freaked-out wreck that afternoon.
If you're still with me after this TMI Woo-Woo blog, feel free to visit my other blog at No more ovary posts, I promise!

(Jess Riley is the author of the novels Driving Sideways & All the Lonely People and the novella Closer Than They Appear; her third novel, Mandatory Release, is out this July. Stay tuned by following Jess on Facebook.


  1. That last paragraph was the punch I needed today. Thank you for your honesty and humor. Looking forward to your books!

  2. Wow, that's a LOT of STUFF, Jess! But good for you for powering through... or not when it seemed the better choice! I'm glad you're back writing. It's not a cure all but it can deliver you from yourself!

  3. Jess, thanks for sharing so much of yourself and your experiences with us in this post. Lots of words of wisdom here... Also, you reminded me that I have some old journals I should burn ;).

  4. LOL! It IS a lot of stuff. :)

    I still haven't burned the journals, but I need to get on that....

  5. I just want to let you know how good this post made me feel. :) I'm glad you got through the tough times. I hope that you don't die an old cat lady and that you'll find someone who is right for you. I've been having second thoughts about writing of late and this article makes me realize how grey my life would be without writing. Thanks a lot!

  6. Oh, Jess! My heart aches for all you had to go through!! But I love that you were able to find a silver lining, and better yet-- a real reason to write. I find that when I'm writing, it's when I feel best. But I could have written that bit about trying not to, about walking past the computer.

    I kind of want to read those journals. Self publish them!!

  7. And ps, you look super hot in your new author photo!!

  8. I'm glad you powered through, too. This was a great post. And I agree you look hot in your photo. I still want you to come to NYC for an Authors Unbound reading. Maybe we talk post-Alaska?

  9. Great post. Damn sorry about the ovaries. I'm telling you, the babies and kids are great but talk about taking your stomach and turning it into knots several times a day!

    Glad you're writing again. And don't be so hard on yourself, kiddo. All those things were hard.

  10. What a post, Jess! I couldn't stop reading. I love the open-hearted honesty. It speaks to me! What a journey and still are a brave, strong, creative force! Thank you for your words.

  11. What a brave and honest post -- bravo!


  12. I LOVE YOU! You have time for everything one way or another! xoxoxoxo PS, your picture is awesome, you are awesome, your writing is awesome, everything is awesome awesome awesome!!! I'm so glad I took a chance on a possible psycho killer for a roommate at a writer's conference way back when!! xoxox

  13. Aw, thanks to all of you for the wonderful comments!!! :)

  14. this post is so beautiful. I think it's one of the best writing that i have read. thanks for share this great post.

  15. This is not just physical trauma but emotional trauma leads us to express our emotions and theology personal statement is the best way to express what you have in your emotions. This is some more like a love bird story as well.