Minnesota Humanities Center

Why We Write

Posted May 26, 2020

Writing one’s trauma memories is cathartic and is a path to healing. I use the term healing in an ambiguous way—hose who have lived through trauma know that one never forgets; the goal is to learn how to integrate those trauma experiences into ones’ life. Where might you begin?

Select an event from your military experience. I call this first step the Outer Story—it’s safe to write, just objective facts.

  • Where—where did it happen?
  • When—when did it happen?
  • What—what happened?
  • Why—why did it happen?
  • Who—who did it?
  • How—how did it happen?

Again with the same event, explore the Inner Story—it can resurrect some surprising emotions.

  • Smell—what smells do you recall?
  • Sight—what could/did you see?
  • Sound—what did you hear?
  • Taste—tastes recalled from that day.
  • Touch—what touched you, what did you touch?
  • Intuition—sense or hunch something wasn’t right?

As your story develops, you may at times get angry, depressed, frustrated—I did. Why? Because I came to realize that I was not in command. Consider these elements as you write:

  • Actions Beyond Your Control
    • Other actors (enemy and friendlies)
    • Weather
    • Equipment—Humvee, tank, rifle
    • Food and water
    • Air/ground support, medevac
    • Were you angry?

In looking at “Muddy Jungle Rivers” I realize now that each “chapter’ is a memory of an individual experience—some traumatic, others not. But it took me eleven years to write the book—most of the chapters were written as class work over many years. The book itself, as it developed, went through countless revisions as I resurrected ancient memories. My point is this: The repetition of reading and writing those memories allowed me to take control and move beyond the trauma, though triggers will always be there to remind me.

Affield’s fourth nonfiction book is scheduled for release early 2021. He does PowerPoint presentations on memory retrieval, research, and veterans writing therapy. He also facilitates a Veterans Writer Group at the Bemidji VA Clinic. Affield can be reached at wendellaffield.com

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John S. Wright, Professor Emeritus University of Minnesota Headshot
By: John S. Wright, Professor Emeritus University of Minnesota