Give It a Name

“You call it excavation; I call it being triggered.”

My Memoir I class was midway through the term, which meant everyone had submitted pages for critique, and written homework assignments, and jumped into writing exercises many times in class.

It means everyone has spent some time digging around in their past, and facing what emerged.

We were talking about that excavation, how it yields discoveries, epiphanies, surprises. Those are good things for a writer. Discoveries, epiphanies, surprises — they’re material, fodder for our stories.

One of my students reminded me that excavation has a flip side, though. “You call it excavation,” she said, laughing. “I call it being triggered.” She got a big, knowing laugh from the room, then. They are survivors of another kind, writers who have churned up their demons, and named them.

When we say “trigger” here, we’re talking about trauma triggers —something that forces a trauma survivor to re-live the painful event from their past. A mugging victim, for example, might be triggered by watching Law & Order. Or by passing a stranger on the sidewalk who wears the same cologne, the same hat, as their assailant.

To be a writer is to chase down your triggers. It’s one of the hardest aspects of this craft, and one of the most rewarding.

I was reminded of this recently when reading the tributes to Pat Conroy, author of The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini, who died March 4th at the age of 70. Conroy wrote seven novels, three memoirs, and a cookbook, all of them examining themes of domestic abuse, suicide, mental illness, and loss — the heartbreaks of his own past.

Conroy got triggered every single time he sat down to write, even suffering nervous breakdowns while completing his novels. Still, he pressed on. Not in spite of being triggered. He sought them, on purpose.

“Writing has been not therapeutic for me,” he said in an interview with NPR, “it has been essential. If I get it on paper, I have named the demon.”

It’s hard to over-state the thrill of naming your demons. When you plunge through tears and nausea and insomnia, and emerge with a discovery, with understanding, you know you have scored a victory. You get the last word on your past, and from it create something new, something less toxic, more beautiful.

If you’re like Pat Conroy, that beauty can lift others out of their pain. That’s one reason why his novels are so beloved.

For Conroy, though, writing was even more urgent. “An untold story,” he said, “could be the one that kills you.”

I can think of no better reason, when your heart is pounding and your stomach is roiling and you’ve used up all the Kleenex in the house, to press on, and to name your demons.

Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty

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