Facing Down Trauma With Writing: an Interview with Tom Glenn

by Steve Berberich

Writing can be used to do more than entertain, inform, and educate; it can also help authors cope with traumatic events that they have experienced. Author Tom Glenn writes stories from a perspective of his post-traumatic stress injury from the Vietnam War and his personal trauma from working with AIDS patients in the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Tom will be one of over 30 distinguished speakers participating in the 2014 Maryland Writers’ Conference. His session, co-presented with Shirley J. Brewer, is titled “Healing Through Writing: Survival and Craft.” Here’s a sneak preview of some of the themes and topics that Tom will be discussing in his presentation.

Many of Tom’s prize-winning short stories came from the better part of the thirteen years he shuttled between the U.S. and Vietnam on covert intelligence assignments before being evacuated under fire when Saigon fell. His writing is haunted by his five years of work with AIDS patients, two years of helping the homeless, and seven years of caring for the dying in the hospice system. These days he is a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books where he specializes in books on war and Vietnam. His Vietnam novel-in-stories, Friendly Casualties, is now available on Amazon.com. His article describing the fall of Saigon and his role in it was published in the Baltimore Post-Examiner this summer, and Apprentice House has just published his novel, No-Accounts. His web sites are tom-tells-tales.org, vietnam-tragedy.org, and friendly-casuatlties.org.

Healing Through Writing: Survival and Craft
Shirley Brewer, Tom Glenn

9:15-10:00 in the Craft of Writing Track

In this presentation, novelist Tom Glenn and poet Shirley J. Brewer explore the dark world of trauma: PTSI (Post Traumatic Stress Injury), accidental death, murder, and violence. Healing takes place when the writer faces the trauma, and begins to order chaos through writing. Survival is possible. Transformation is within reach. Hope may once again light the path. Participants will learn tech- niques to address personal traumatic experiences through their own writing.

Find out more about Tom Glenn and Shirley Brewer on the Maryland Writers’ Conference’s Speakers, Panelists, and Agents page.

Steve Berberich: How does writing help?

Tom Glenn: Writing down what happened forces you to face trauma. Soldiers and Marines I knew who suffered from post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI) wanted to ignore it and pretend it wasn’t there. They didn’t want to talk about it or think about it. But until you face the trauma and come to terms with it, it continues to haunt you.

SB: What do you do about that?

TG: The only way to overcome PTSI is to bring the crucial experience to the conscious level and think it through. Writing down what happened and owning your own role is one of the best ways to do that. Once it’s on paper or screen, it exists outside of you. You’ve begun the job of bringing order and dispelling chaos. Then you can start coping with it.

SB: You refer to the condition as Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), and not Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Why?

TG: The term “disorder,” according to Webster, is a derangement of function, an abnormal physical or mental condition. “Injury” is much more precise. It connotes that external forces have acted upon the victim and inflicted damage. PTSI is a wound in the same way that a bayonet laceration or bullet wound is. Two writers I quote in the presentation, Karl Marlantes and Grady Smith, both refer to PTSI damage to the soul.

SB: Do you recommend specific writing techniques to heal that wound?

TG: Shirley and I offer these guidelines: Be specific; don’t write immediately after the traumatic event; be honest; avoid excessive sentiment; make use of the unexpected and surprise (meaning describe what the normal situation was before the wound was inflicted) ; listen to your own inner voice; and don’t be afraid, write it.

SB: Your own inner voice?

TG: Very important and very hard to do. Sometimes the inner voice is buried deep in the unconscious. The psyche tries to suppress horrific experiences to prevent suffering. But our inner voice often speaks the truth when the conscious mind is trying to deny. Sometimes you have to put yourself into a sort of hypnotic state and let the suppressed memories flow out.

SB: How can this approach help someone to be a better writer?

TG: I believe that the best fiction comes from the unconscious. In my case, I get an idea in my mind, much of the time from my Vietnam experience where really God-awful things happened. That image won’t go away until I confront it. At the conscious level I piece together an answer to the question, “how could this have happened? ” That becomes the germ that finally turns into a story. My very best work flows out of me in an almost semiconscious state in which my mind sees the images of what happened and I write it all down as if translating a movie to the page.

SB: For five years in the ’80s, you volunteered to care for men dying of AIDS. How does that relate to writing about traumatic experience?

TG: That effect on my psyche was very similar to PTSI. I did everything I could to help them and in the end I couldn’t stop their deaths. And that really hit me. I was having nightmares and flashbacks. I said to myself I’ve got to work this out. So again, I began to write about it. The result was my novel, No-Accounts.

SB: In that book, you created fictional characters to tell the story. How does a fictional character in these situations help you deal with trauma and perhaps help you be a better writer?

TG: First of all, this was a story I had to tell. My memories wouldn’t leave me alone. So I put myself in a dream-like state and watched as the characters appeared and spoke to me. They became more real to me than the people I see in my daily life. I asked them questions, watched them, listened to them. They told me their story and commanded me to write it down. Once the book was done, I experienced a peacefulness I hadn’t known before. Did it make me a better writer? I don’t know. The best I can say is that I must write about things that are important to me. The other way to express that is to say that I write what my psyche tells me to write. If I violate that dictum, the result is trivial.

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