This has been a tough week, one of the hardest I can remember. I haven’t written anything, so am going back to a version of something I wrote for my dissertaton that part-way expresses how I feel.

I can’t sit, can’t think, need to walk, to ride until my day is full of movement, fill my head with the need to look where I’m going as my bike bumps down the path… move until it is time to eat, drink too much, and hope that I’ve drained every particle of energy from my body, that sleep slams into me as I fall on the bed, that I don’t lie still and think …


Notes on my phone.

Facebook updates.

Phrases straggle across the screen.

No full sentences.


I have no time, no paper.

I need a new laptop.

You can’t write this for me.


I’m not in the right mind-set.

I can’t write when it’s winter.

I can’t write while I’m waiting

I can’t write.


I can’t write with you.

Can’t call you.

Can’t text you.

Can’t say it when I call.


My head’s too full.

I can’t walk, can’t leave, can’t think, can’t share this, can’t update my Facebook page.


I can’t write.

I can’t

I …



Essay: Writing trauma

‘First person narrators can’t die so as long as we keep telling the story of our own lives we’re safe. Ha bloody fucking Ha.’ [1]

Experience is not neat, well organised. Life is full of knots, but there is a line through.

War is a terrible experience, so why is so much written about it? Diaries, news reports, fiction: we write war, read it, it fills the shelves in newsagents, libraries and bookshops.

Survivors of war emerge changed. Life is shifted by war: previous experience looks different through the lens of survival, a lens sharpened by the deaths of others. This drives the need to tell the new story, and through that find the re-formed self. Those who have been through life changing experiences are often compelled to tell, talk, blog, write, to reclaim their story. Those whose lives are swept away by trauma, write in order to take control … only I can write my story.

Writing in the midst of trauma may not reach the whole experience. Paul Fussell quotes Robert Kee, a RAF flyer in the second world war, writing about his diary: ‘From all the quite detailed evidence of these diary entries I cannot add up a very coherent picture of how it really was to be on a bomber squadron in those days … No wonder it is those artists who re-create life rather than try to recapture it who, in one way, prove the good historians in the end.’ [2] Writing after trauma takes time. Walter Benjamin notes in The Storyteller, ‘ten years later … poured out in the flood of war books’[3] and this is reflected by Siegfried Sassoon who wrote his memoir around ten years after the war.[4] Time shifts experience into something else.

In writing trauma there are a number of participants: the person who has had the traumatic experience, and the author. Sometimes they are the same person. Every author requires a reader to function as witness. This paper is grounded in triangles where borders between experience and fiction shift. This is exemplified in Siegfried Sassoon’s experience in WW1, his poetry and memoirs, and Pat Barker’s fictionalised version of his experience. It also rests on my creative writing, my writing about other people’s experiences, and my critical and autoethnographic analysis. Overarching both these set-ups is the two-fold question: why write trauma, why write trauma that belongs to someone else? In this section of the paper I examine trauma and the need to write, of those who have experienced it, those who write it, and those who witness it on their behalf.

In Regeneration, in the conversation from which this dissertation takes its title, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon discuss pig keeping, poetry and ergotherapy, the theory on which Dr Brock is basing his treatment of Owen. Owen says, ‘He thinks we – the patients – are like Anteaus in the sense that we’ve been ungrounded by the war. And the way back to health is to re-establish the link between oneself and the earth, but understanding ‘earth’ to mean society as well as nature.’[5] The whole conversation is grounded in earth: the men joke about keeping pigs after the War (and insist that pigs are clean animals – not dirt, not death). They discuss how Hercules lifted Antaeus off the ground and talk about Owen’s poem, The Inspection:

Some days ‘confined to camp’ he got,

For being ‘dirty on parade’.

He told me, afterwards, the damnèd spot

Was blood, his own.

‘Well, blood is dirt,’ I said.

‘Blood’s dirt,’ he laughed, looking away,

Far off to where his wound had bled

And almost merged for ever into clay. [6]

In giving Owen departing instructions to work on his poetry, Sassoon says, ‘You’ve got to sweat your guts out’,[7] an earthy description of writing, made all the stronger as both men have seen men’s guts exposed. In a world of strangeness and uncertainty, where life teeters on an edge and the abyss of death is visible, writing can be grounding. In a world where, ‘Men who broke down, or cried, or admitted to feeling fear, were sissies, weaklings, failures,’[8] writing was a legitimate outlet. At a time when talking about feelings was riven with conflict for men, writing provided a foundation, a place to process life changing trauma.

Trauma is hard to face but it cannot be ignored. Adorno raised questions about the possibility of writing poetry after Auschwitz. He then wrote, eleven years later, time shifting his perspective, ‘The abundance of real suffering tolerates no forgetting; Pascal’s theological saying, On ne doit plus dormir, must be secularized. Yet this suffering, what Hegel called consciousness of adversity, also demands the continued existence of art while it prohibits it.’[9] Humans are compelled to write trauma, read it, view it again. Trauma prohibits art, but demands it, and Walter Davis suggests in his paper, Death’s Dream Kingdom: The American Psyche After 9-11 , we may be compelled to live it again.[10] One must sleep no more, no longer. A decade passes, it is time to wake up from the repeating dream, and seize it, take control, create art and poetry, create a new self. Adorno continues: ‘it is now virtually in art alone that suffering can still find its own voice, consolation, without immediately being betrayed by it.’ Art and writing are different from factual portrayals of traumatic experiences. Images of war burn in the mind, remain as scar tissue. Owen’s poetry does more than any list of facts to convey what happened. Writing, poetry, photography reach across time and space and allow us to create memorials to the past, new stories for the future. Those who have experienced trauma can feel that they have created something that stands apart from them, that can be exhibited, and as a result there are witnesses to their pain.

Artistic recreation and repetition of trauma, of tragedy, has occurred over thousands of years. War writing is not always but often tragic. AD Nuttall suggests in his book Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure? that there have been different answers to his titular question at different times.[11] In ancient Greek theatre, audiences enjoyed catharsis, ‘The purification of the emotions by vicarious experience’.[12] No one really dies: horrible events are controlled and resolved. Even a death in a tragedy comes with a sense that it is the correct resolution. But it is more complex than simply rejoicing in death under control. There is a battle between our innate aggression – one primitive instinct – and our need for civilisation, for Eros – love. Reading, writing tragedy, where the end is a death of some sort that is simultaneously wrong and right, allows us to feel this conflict. Tragedies are consoling because they are in the past, complete – but unsettling because they resonate with now. They must have a message that transcends time. The strongest message to be written is death, we cannot escape it however fast we write, read, run. Tragedy is Walter Benjamin’s death in the misapprehension that he would be deported back to France from Spain as he tried to escape the Nazis. Tragedy is rooted in reality, in one death, the death of millions in war, in works like Wilfrid Owen’s Futility which highlights the pointlessness of life:

‘O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth’s sleep at all?’[13]

The dreams of shell-shock victims forced Freud to reframe his concept of dreams as wish-fulfilment: a compulsive repeating return to traumatic experiences did not match up with his pleasure principle. Ellmann writes that in comparing the compulsion to repeat to his grandson’s game of ‘Fort – Da’, Freud found that it ‘resembles tragic drama, which inflicts upon the audience the painful experience of loss, while wresting pleasure out of the aesthetic mastery of that experience.’ Freud concluded that, ‘The compulsion to repeat overrides the pleasure principle’.[14] This compulsion to repeat links to writing trauma and the death drive. Freud himself writes, ‘the goal of all life is death’.[15] I feel this in my writing, can see it in the writing of others: there is a desire for the outcome of publication, the need for an end, for death. This paper repeats a theme that drives through my writing, compels me to write trauma. Freud wrote, ‘the aim of the second [drive] is, by contrast, to dissolve connections, and thus to destroy things … we also call it the death-drive’.[16] Here is a conflict: writing creates rather than destroys, the desire to destroy connections seems in direct opposition to the desire to create. However, in writing, creating one thing destroys something else. Writing a fictionalised memoir of a traumatic experience destroys feelings of lack of control. Perhaps for the author who has not experienced the trauma but is writing someone else’s trauma, as Barker is, writing trauma is still about making sense, about taking control. There is still compulsion to repeat. An event like WW1 compels people to make sense of it over and over again. Considering the death drive further, Bennett and Royle explain: ‘everyone at some level (consciously or unconsciously) is driven by desire to die, to self-destruct, to return to a state of inanimacy. By a sort of uncanny reversal or displacement of perspective, then, life would not be about living, progressing and developing, about pleasure, vitality and staying healthy.’[17] This contributes to the need to write trauma: life is about the desire to die, to find an end, to read, to write an end. Nuttall suggests that Freud’s death drive is: ‘Contrary to popular belief… not primarily a wish for one’s own death but a desire to inflict death on others.’[18] This makes sense in the context of writing and reading fiction about traumatic experiences where one safely inflicts death on others. Nuttall expands on catharsis, and develops it into the idea of exercising emotion – different from passive purging – imagining, watching, dreaming, writing tragedy is in fact preparing ourselves for possible futures. He writes, ‘For the process to work, two things need to be the case: first, the situation must be hypothetical rather than categorical (as football is hypothetical warfare, not actual) and, second, that it should nevertheless involve a probable relation to real danger.’[19] The better the writer, the more real literary danger feels. This is about seizing the death instinct and the human fear of death, embracing the conflict on a safer page or stage, and preparing ourselves for what must come.

Returning to Ellmann’s concept that we write to gain pleasure from aesthetic mastery, what does that mean now? Writing gives us a controlled, albeit temporary, solution to pain, to death, to the desire for death and the need to control it, practice it. Given the popularity of crime stories, war stories, detective stories where the end is neat and the pain we experience imaginary, I suggest that, in line with Freud’s death drive, some part of us is addicted to pain, to death, but beyond that, addicted to the idea that we can control it, that there is a neat resolution where death feels right. It is present in humour when someone else’s pain is entertaining, neutered as the clown stands up and grins after a fall. We rate a good book as one that seduces us to think it is real, we relish life experiences in safety: a commuter reads a thriller on the train, transported to a world rife with adrenaline charges, yet arrives home safely. The book-buyer’s life is safe: books supply something that we crave. Readers and writers are as much experience junkies as those who climb, abseil, skydive. Addiction, repetition: we seek that thrill again and again.

Peter Brooks expands on the idea of story and repetition in Freud’s Masterplot:

‘Narrative always makes the implicit claim to be in a state of repetition, as a going over again of a ground already covered: a sjuzet repeating the fabula, as the detective retraces the tracks of the criminal. This claim to an act of repetition – ‘I sing of’, ‘I tell of’ – appears to be initiatory of narrative. It is equally initiatory of Beyond the Pleasure Principle: it is the first problem and clue that Freud confronts. Evidence of a ‘beyond’ that does not fit neatly into the functioning of the pleasure principle comes first in the dreams of patients suffering from war neuroses … : dreams that return to the moment of trauma, to relive its pain in apparent contradiction of the wish fulfilment theory of dreams.[20]

That returns us to trauma. In writing trauma we seize control of the dreams that will not go away, we become our own heroes, we create our own plot, meaning and end. There is pleasure in rereading a book, trusting the author for resolution. Even if the end is death we feel a sense of rightness in that end. Echoing Nuttall’s concept of the shift from passive catharsis to active exercise of emotions, Brooks writes, ‘the essential experience involved is the movement from a passive to an active role … claiming mastery in a situation to which he has been compelled to submit’ … ‘by this choice he asserts an active mastery of what he must in fact endure’.[21] In Barker’s book, Owen starts a sentence and Sassoon finishes it: ‘”It’s mad not to write about the war when it’s-” “Such an ‘experience’”.[22] They laugh, expressing the insanity, conflict and compulsion in writing about trauma. They write, must write, must take control of the dire situation that they find themselves in at the front, they continue to write until Owen at least is stopped by death. Brooks continues his explanation, ‘We have moved from a postulate of repetition as the assertion of mastery … to a conception whereby repetition works as a process of binding toward the creation of an energetic constant state situation which will permit the emergence of mastery and the possibility of postponement.’[23] Mastery repeats, across Ellmann and Brooks’s writing and within Brooks’ piece. Mastery is about authority, power, dominion, skill. Authorship is rooted in authority, takes skill, gives power and dominion over one’s characters. A number of papers link shell-shock, and indeed Regeneration to the issue of gender.[24] In brief and inadequate summary, shell-shock is allied to female hysteria, forced on men by the relative immobility of trench warfare. Mastery is linked to manhood: ‘The term master was originally applied almost exclusively to men …, is still normally used of a masculine referent’.[25] The battle to overcome a ‘female malady’ is won with mastery of a situation by writing. Mastery seems inextricably linked to that which is taken away by disempowerment, the futility Owen feels in his poem of that name, the irony that Owen and Sassoon use when discussing why one should write about the war. In both the Sherston and the Regeneration trilogies, being a soldier involves following orders without asking for a rationale, taking orders that seem nonsensical, and waiting without any knowledge of exactly what for. Following, taking orders, waiting: all passive actions. Writing is in this situation a way to exercise the emotions, as per Nuttall, to develop mastery, as per Brooks.

For the writer of today, for myself, perhaps for Barker, writing gives mastery over the unfathomable. We seek to deal with the fear of death, to anticipate disaster, to practice it, to fend it off by gripping it tight. We write trauma, because events like WW1 do not go away. It is not the achievement of mastery that is the goal, but to travel through life with hope of mastery. Death is less terrifying if one feels that one can come closer to it, examine it and walk away alive.

Returning to the question of the person who tells, who writes, their own trauma, Adorno writes,

‘Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living–especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living.’[26]

Adorno reconsiders his statement that has echoed throughout writing since he made it. He addresses the question of how you can live after Auschwitz, how you can live when you could have died, should have died. For me, living and writing go hand in hand. He focusses in, further examining those who have escaped by accident and that links to the work I have done with Joe, to the writing of other trauma survivors. Whatever the event, whether individual or with global impact, survivors have to address the question, ‘Why am I still alive?’. This returns us to the function of writing a story: to create meaning and resolution. When death touches you, it changes you, and this needs to be documented: where was I, where am I now? Life’s value shifts: trauma can raise the value of life, but at other times can make it feel pointless. Men returning home after war lose the ability to live without adrenaline rushes.[27] When you have come through trauma there is guilt: why them, not me? Writing assuages this with the ‘duty to tell’ – something that rings through Siegfried Sassoon’s statement.[28] Writing is grounding, as Sassoon and Owen discuss in Barker’s Regeneration: it creates the certainty that the person plagued by dreams requires if he is to go on living. ‘Going on living’ is the opposite of death: it is hard and cannot be taken for granted post-trauma. Going on living when others have died brings with it not just guilt but the duty to bear witness. This is present throughout Don McCullin’s autobiographical narrative, Shaped by War as much as it is in Sassoon’s statement.[29] Ulrich Baer extends the duty of witness to those who see photographs of trauma. This is another motivation to write; to share the burden of being witness in the hope that if more people understand what has happened, is happening, it will not recur. Dori Laub extends this idea further as she explains how the process of narrating a traumatic event is part of the development of the trauma, where the ‘“knowing” of the event is given birth to’.[30] Narrating a life-changing event becomes a critical continuation and part of the event itself: the listener becomes a co-owner as he ‘comes to partially experience trauma in himself’. I write to process trauma, to share the burden.

Time brings events into focus again: with the 100th anniversary of WW1, a nation remembers, reads the war again. The attacks on September 11 2001 are the most recent ‘game changer’ in the way that WW1 was and continues to be. 9/11 compels us to revisit trauma as each anniversary drags us back. Corporate memorialising brings demands for stories: look in libraries, on TV schedules, on the internet: we are re-witnessing.

In a strange echo of the numbness and mutism that Prior experienced in Regeneration, one of Prior’s men, Hallet, is shot in the face with ‘a hole where his left cheek had been’.[31] He is returned to England but does not live long. In his dying hours, impaired by the damage to his face and jaw, he repeats the word shotvarfet, which Rivers eventually translates as ‘It’s not worth it’ The question of whether it is worth it, whether war justifies so much death and pain, is whole point of the Regeneration trilogy from Sassoon’s statement to the end where Prior and Owen go over the top. The question of whether it is worth it is that same question that we seek the answer to as we write trauma. As those who have experienced trauma seek to imbue it with meaning – I’m scarred, I’m new, I’m better – we seek the same message. We need to know that they neared death and passed it by. We hope to see that others have mastered death, and we might too.

At the end of the Regeneration trilogy, Billy Prior sees Wilfrid Owen die, ‘his body lifted off the ground by bullets, describing a slow arc in the air as it fell.’[32] Prior witnesses Owen’s death in his own last moments, traces of Anteaus. We read a story to the end, to the death. We continue to the last page to seek purpose, pause to take in the dying moments of the story, then seek a new book. The search for narrative meaning continues.

[1] Pat Barker, The Ghost Road (London: Penguin 1996) p118.

[2] Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford University press 1975) p311.

[3] Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’ p362.

[4] Sassoon, The Complete Works of George Sherston

[5] Barker, Regeneration, p123.

[6] Wilfred Owen, The Inspection [Accessed July 2015]

[7] Barker, Regeneration p125.

[8] Barker, Regeneration p44.

[9] Theodor Adorno, ‘Commitment’, New Left Review I/87-88, (1974) [Accessed July 2015]

[10] Walter A Davis, ‘Death’s Dream Kingdom: The American Psyche After 9-11’ Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society, 8(1) (2003) p130

[11] A D Nuttall, Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure? (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996)

[12] OED [Accessed online June 2015]

[13] Wilfred Owen, Futility, [Accessed July 2015]

[14] Maud Ellmann, Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism, (London: Routledge, 1994) p7.

[15] Sigmund Freud, Adam Philips, Ed. The Penguin Freud Reader, (London: Penguin, 2006) p166.

[16] Freud, p93.

[17] Bennett and Royle, p39.

[18] Nuttall, p74.

[19] Nuttall, p76.

[20] Peter Brooks ‘Freud’s Masterplot’ from Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984) p97.

[21] Brooks, p98.

[22] Barker, Regeneration p123-4.

[23] Brooks, p101.

[24] Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady (London: Virago Press 1987) p171. Lena Steveker, ‘Reading Trauma in Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy’ in Susana Onega and Jean-Michel Ganteau, Eds, Ethics and Trauma in Contemporary British Fiction, (Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi 2011) pp21-36.

[25] OED [Accessed online July 2015]

[26] Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, English translation by E. B. Ashton (London: Routledge 1990) p362-363.

[27] Paul Allen, The Warrior’s Code of Honour, [Accessed June 2015]

[28] See Appendix 1

[29] see Appendix 2

[30] Dori Laub Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (London: Routledge 1992) p57.

[31] Pat Barker, The Ghost Road (London: Penguin 1996) p196.

[32] Barker, The Ghost Road p273.

Prose poem: Mail up!

This is a prose poem from my dissertation based on the format of Field Service Postcard that soldiers were issued with during WW1.Field Service postcard.jpg


Mail Up!

NOTHING is to be written that tells the truth. Feelings not required will be erased. If I say what I mean the post card will be destroyed.

 I can’t tell you

 I am



quite        unable to tell you.

 I have been            shot at



I am                         sickened



I …

I have received your




 My body follows at first opportunity

 I have received no way out.


at all.




[Postage must be prepaid on any letter or post card addressed to the sender of this card.]