writing shadows, spilling secrets
on language and liberation
I have been journaling for most of my life though I am not as prolific these days. These days, I am often turning to words because I feel I have something to say to others. I rarely type when I can help it (still dealing with carpal tunnel) and I have nearly perfected the art of speech-to-text. Scratch that. I am still catching misheard word errors in every other tweet.
This past week, I found comfort in the words of bell hooks, in her book Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work:
“I remember childhood as time in anguish, as a dark time—not darkness in any sense that is stark, bleak, or empty but as a rich space of knowledge, struggle, and awakening.” —bell hooks, Remembered Rapture, “writing from the darkness”
Now, if you’ve been reading my writing for awhile you know I love finding gems like this, that illuminate what can be beautiful in the dark. We do not often think of darkness as luminous. For me, it has always been. hooks writes about how writing kept her alive and helped her confront her shadow self. In a world where no one believed her, she could write to believe herself. Poetry, she names specifically, helped her write about her pain and offered her the safety of transcendence.
But she also names the shame writers often feel, through her own experience of confronting the worst parts of herself in writing without the element of affirmation.
“A distinction must be made between that writing which enables us to hold on to life even as we are clinging to old hurts and wounds and that writing which offers to us a space where we are able to confront reality in such a way that we live more fully. Such writing is not an anchor that we mistakenly cling to so as not to drown. It is writing that truly rescues, that enables us to reach the shore, to recover.”
—bell hooks, Remembered Rapture, “writing from the darkness”
I sometimes struggle to know if I am doing the latter in what hooks suggests. Am I writing in such a way that it offers myself—and those who read—the tools to “confront reality in such a way that we live more fully”?
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As I have studied trauma, I know there are things that cannot be conveyed in words. Bessel van der Kolk1 said there is no relationship between talking about your trauma and healing from it.2 This reads to me as an exaggeration—I've had many therapy sessions that felt freeing to me. The truth of these words though comes alive in the body—We must remember the mind is part of the body.
Words can help us repair our sense of self in our conscious mind. Understanding what narratives shape the reality of your life can be an open door to writing newer life-giving narratives.3 Knowing what life-denying theologies are at work in your understanding of life events may lead to the reconstruction of life-giving theologies. But what makes words true? Especially when you can use language to delude yourself further. What is the point in writing, when it feels like picking the same scab over and over?
Yet, it is in wrestling with words that I am still here. And in this wrestling, I know many others who write to make meaning where meaning can be made…and those who write to expose the senselessness that surrounds us.
hooks approached writing as a place of transformation. She ends this chapter with an invitation to “enter the shadows,” and understand the wounds. She ends by pointing to a body of work that was made possible because she wrote to get free.
I haven’t read enough bell hooks to know if she ever comes back to these sentiments to make a point similar to van der Kolk about language and liberation.
Trauma thrives in secrecy, and writing has been my songbird. Even if the songs are sung in code, at least they are heard.
Words offered me the space to imagine freedom before it was possible. To say what was unsayable and inaudible before my testimony could be received by generous ears.
I must end here because I have no conclusion that will satisfy the rift I see between words and freedom, but I will end with this poem I found in my drafts. In my journals, I used to write to a beautiful, liberated adult version of myself. I asked her about the things my anxious young mind wondered. I imagined the possibilities that would be part of her world. I would list facts about myself at whatever age I was writing, in hopes that she would joyfully look back at those lists and reacquaint herself with a younger Rose.
This short poem mirrors that4…and also holds the hope I wish to live in—the one where writings and imaginings touch lived reality.
I wanted to know if you grew up to be who your parents needed you to be and if maybe you found room to be who you needed to be for you I wondered if maybe you once saw a shimmer in your own skin and if the patterns of wandering you know in mind ever became habit to your bones
As problematic as he is…I cannot seem to forget these words.
From an interview with trauma researcher and literary critic, Cathy Carruth.
The term “life-denying” came off the page for me while reading Chaplaincy and Spiritual Care in the Twenty-First Century, ed. by Shelly Rambo and Wendy Cadge.
Except it is a very recent me, writing from the perspective of a younger me to an older me. Yes, I trip myself out like this regularly.