Today we’re exploring a topic that every writer is going to want to tune in and learn about: a trauma-informed approach to writing.
To speak to that, I’ve invited Michelle Stiffler on the show to help us see how trauma-informed writing can transform both us and our words.
This is one of the longest interviews I’ve published, but I believe it’s one of the most important.
Let’s get right to it.
Michelle Stiffler is a certified trauma specialist, trauma-informed trainer, and co-host of Arizona’s Trauma-Informed Faith Community podcast. Eight years of nonprofit work shaped her trauma understanding, and during this time she created the trauma-informed culture and processes for Arizona’s first trauma-informed faith-based organization.
Michelle is a married mother of four, plus two sons in law and a proud Mimi. She’s on the board of the Redbud Writers Guild, and her work has been published with Fathom, (in)courage, Guideposts and others, as well as the Women’s Devotional Bible in The Message. Michelle writes at OneMoreTruth.com
Enjoy the interview in video format, audio, or read a lightly edited transcript below:
[00:01:17.520] – Ann Kroeker
On this topic of trauma-informed writing, and being a trauma-informed writer, should we be offering a trigger warning for anybody who’s tuning in?
A Safe Conversation
[00:01:28.000] – Michelle Stiffler
I always like to offer a trigger warning simply because the word trauma itself, even if it’s paired with the word informed, sometimes just the word trauma can do something inside our bodies where we kind of tighten. We start to think about what trauma might be.
So I would just give that warning so that people can kind of come into this podcast episode comfortably. We’re not going to dive into anything deep or heavy. We don’t want to burden anybody today, but it just kind of gives you a sense, like, check in with yourself. If you’re tight, if you’re thinking about things that are uncomfortable, just be free. It’s going to be a safe conversation.
[00:02:07.050] – Ann Kroeker
I love that invitation, your sensitivity and your empathy. Thank you for helping them feel comfortable.
I understand that there’s this increasing awareness of trauma-informed anything and everything, and at the same time, I’m not that personally informed myself. So I’m probably going to ask you some really basic questions, Michelle.
And I’m thinking about my audience, too. There may be people who are deeply involved in this whole movement or idea, but if a writer is hearing about this for the first time, can you define what is trauma-informed writing and what is a trauma-informed writer?
Define what is trauma-informed writing and what is a trauma-informed writer
[00:02:46.890] – Michelle Stiffler
For our purposes today, trauma-informed writing is defining an approach for writing.
When I come to my computer or when I come to the page and I intend on making my writing public, I’m coming with the lens that reminds me that trauma is very prevalent and that people broadly have experienced all kinds of adversity.
It could be little “t” trauma. It could be big “T” trauma. And I want to come to the keyboard thinking about how I can best serve people if they’re going through something hard or if they haven’t yet resolved something hard.
I don’t want to burden anybody with too many details, and I want to be able to provide even just one step further in healing or in some sense of wholeness.
That’s what trauma-informed writing would be.
A trauma-informed writer is basically saying that they live by the principles that the trauma-informed movement has in place. There are six of them. Those principles are:
- Trustworthiness & transparency
- Peer support
- Collaboration & mutuality
- Empowerment, voice, & choice
- Cultural, historical & gender issues
As a person, I want to be a safe person and we can get into this a little bit further later. I want to be somebody who’s trustworthy and transparent. I think transparent is sometimes an ambiguous word in the sense that we think vulnerability means.
[00:04:06.590] – Michelle Stiffler
I just share all my details. Transparency is just letting people know where things might go and it’s like, “Hey, you can trust me.” Like we said in the beginning, “I’m not going to burden you with too many details.” There’s a sense of support from that writer.
There’s a collaboration and mutuality that looks a little bit different when it comes to writing because writing is so solitary. I may not ever meet the people who read my writing, but I do want to come to the keyboard with a sense of, “Hey, we’re all humans. We all understand the human condition from our own experience. And I’m with you in that.”
There’s a sense of camaraderie, there’s empowerment. We always want to empower our readers to feel like they know what to do next. Not coming at them as if like, “Oh, you poor soul, you don’t know anything,” or “You’ve experienced this terrible tragedy.” It’s more like, “Let’s look at the strengths in this.”
And then also—and this one was recently added by the CDC in the past couple of years—but coming in our writing with a sense of sensitivity for different cultures, historical trauma, gender issues. Just being aware of how we use our words and our language so that it doesn’t feel exclusive or hateful.
There’s always a sense of compassion for people of all walks of life.
[00:05:27.480] – Ann Kroeker
This sounds vitally important for every writer because it sounds like, from what I’m hearing, all of this is focused on the reader and the effect on the reader, which I was kind of imagining. It was more about the writer and the writer’s trauma. Can you distinguish?
Is it all about the reader and how they’re receiving our words?
To be trauma-informed, you don’t have to be someone who has experienced trauma?
The trauma-informed is speaking to how we are addressing the reader and empowering the reader and all those eight incredible pillars of this principles.
[00:06:09.830] – Michelle Stiffler
I think writing about trauma is very different from anything that we could call trauma-informed.
A lot of us have become writers because we experienced something that was difficult or we had to wrestle with something that, even if it’s parenting, it was like, “Oh my goodness, this is challenging. And I think I need to figure out how to process some of these things that I’m going through.”
So we can certainly write about trauma, and that may have nothing to do with being trauma-informed.
If I’m a trauma-informed writer writing about my own trauma, then I am coming with those six principles and I am being more careful about the details that I share. So it’s not what I’m writing about necessarily, it’s how I’m writing about it, which I think is necessary for all writers, regardless of the topic, we always want to know how we’re writing about it.
And I think there are two parts. If I am thinking about my reader because I’m a trauma-informed writer, then there’s a lot of dealing with myself that I have to do before I ever come to write a single word. Or rather, there’s a lot I have to do before I ever publish a single word, before I ever hit that submit button.
[00:07:20.430] – Michelle Stiffler
The work is always going to be inward so that what we offer people outwardly is helpful and beneficial.
There’s a lot of personal work, so they kind of go together. We are thinking about the reader, but the only reason we’re able to is because we’ve also dealt with some of our own things.
That’s not to say it’s tidy, finished, completely resolved. We’re never going to get there. So we can get past that idea of perfect, but it means that we’ve at least put in some of the work to make sure that we’re coming from a place of fullness.
I think even at some of the most empty times in my life, there’s still a way to go about living with a kind of fullness that people can understand. Even if you’re still in the middle of it, even if it still feels dark, even if you’re waiting on that clarity about what to do next, we can still live from that place of fullness.
[00:08:15.370] – Ann Kroeker
Just to kind of drive this home or make it super clear, what I’m hearing is basically every writer will want to become a trauma-informed writer because of the principles that are going to open us up to using language in a way that respects the reader and addresses these principles.
But at the same time, there may be some people, some writers, who are tuning in today, and they are someone who does directly also write from and possibly about their own personal trauma with a capital T or small t. Am I hearing you right?
[00:08:54.960] – Michelle Stiffler
Yes. And before you would ever come into any kind of writing and want to say, “I’m a trauma-informed writer,” I would advise anybody to really think about what that means for you.
Give it a year of really living that way. Set up some disciplines for yourself so that you are coming into your writing from a place of your own fullness sense of healing. Like you’ve worked through the content of your life enough to share it.
I would say it’s not something like, “Oh, I listened to the podcast. Now I’m a trauma-informed writer because I understand it.” It’s an investment in a lifestyle. Anybody involved in the trauma-informed movement has committed to a lifestyle of caring for themselves so that they can be compassionate towards others.
So, yeah, write about your trauma. But if it’s not something that’s considering those six principles that we talked about, then it might not be trauma-informed writing. It just might be you writing about your trauma.
[00:10:00.370] – Ann Kroeker
That line you said that, “It’s caring for yourself to be compassionate toward others.” That seems like something we should all put on a Post-It in front of ourselves while we’re writing to think about that, regardless of the kind of writing we do.
You talked about these practices we might want to start doing for the next six months to a year or more. Tell us a little bit about that. What does that look like? In a practical way?
Give us examples of practices to help us care for ourselves so we can be compassionate toward others.
[00:10:26.400] – Michelle Stiffler
In a practical way. And I can give just my own experience in my own discipline. I started probably three or four years ago.
Every morning I go outside for prayer time. I’m a person of faith, of Christian faith, and that’s my time where I’m just praying. And it’s a lot of sometimes it’s a lot of quiet.
Become aware of what we’re thinking about
For example, I’m just placing my heart close. And as things come up, maybe I pray one sentence. Maybe I think about questions, but I become more and more aware of what I’m thinking about.
I think we don’t appreciate a statement like that enough. We don’t always know what we’re thinking about. And that can be problematic. How is anybody else going to understand how to interact with us if we’re not aware of it and if we can’t be honest about what we’re thinking about first?
This work helps me understand maybe what I’m feeling or an emotion that’s possibly been going on for who knows how long.
The more you get into these practices and disciplines, I think your turnaround time gets a little bit faster.
I might notice that I’m carrying a lot of anger with me. I might notice that something has made me just incredibly sad and that I’m working through something sad.
[00:11:45.450] – Michelle Stiffler
And it helps me ask better questions of myself so that during that prayer time, I can kind of start to unload things.
Journaling is where thoughts start to form
And then later I’m going to go to my journal. If something came up that’s worthy of me, like processing, I’m going to spend some time there because that’s where a lot of thoughts really start to form.
Friendships to let me go deep
I have relationships that I foster with people who can let me go deep, who let me feel safe, who want me to be the best Michelle, essentially. There’s no specific focus. I don’t have to be a certain something, but they want the best for me because this is my life and they want me to grow.
Tend to the basics of life
And then just the basics. I think just being aware of the basics of life:
- making sure I eat well
- making sure I exercise
- how’s my sleep?
- am I getting enough sleep?
- is there a need that I have that I haven’t addressed or that I’m ignoring being aware of those things, too?
Those are some of the practices that have been very beneficial for me. And I can’t generalize for everybody, but I think those basic needs that we’re so quick to kind of ignore are the ones that really if you think about the people in your life that you’re like, “Man, I love that person…I don’t know what it is, but every time I’m with them, they’re just like a presence of peace.” They’re probably very invested in the basics of their lives, and if they’re a person of faith, they’re invested in those basics that you just can’t ignore.
[00:13:19.990] – Ann Kroeker
These are unexpected writing practices for some people, perhaps because maybe on a writing podcast or a writing show, they’re expecting to hear about what pencils we use and and what our little writing routine is. And your writing routine is so much more…I’ll just say holistic. It’s pulling from all angles of your life to make sure you’re addressing those deep things so you can arrive more fully and full to the page.
So I think these would be fabulous tips for people who just want to be better humans so that out of that can flow the ideas and words that they have.
But I was really thrilled to see that you eventually move from your quiet state to one with a keyboard or a pen for your journaling time, because I see so much from my clients that I work with and just my own life, that writing and articulating…
You were talking about being aware of what we’re thinking, but then to articulate what we’re thinking on the page is absolutely vital and almost magical.
That is part of the awareness of what I’m thinking. And for me, sometimes it doesn’t come in the quiet moment that you describe for yourself.
[00:14:33.220] – Ann Kroeker
For me, sometimes it is during the act of writing that I discover what I’m thinking, and then I can take that to the world in my writing or to the world in my interactions. Thanks for sharing your experience. Did you want to say something about that?
[00:14:48.040] – Michelle Stiffler
If you are a writer, you almost have to spend time journaling
I was going to say, I think if you are a writer, you almost have to spend time journaling. There is that articulating, and it really is that magical process, for lack of a better way to put it. Because as you’re writing it, you look and you say, “Oh, my goodness. Well, there it is.” Otherwise it was just buried.
And no, it might not be during a quiet time. I might be vacuuming and all of a sudden while I’m processing something, in my mind, I have an idea or I have a better understanding of something.
And yeah, then I’m going to go back to that journal and get it in writing so that it’s something that I can use later or kind of work with and see what else is there. Pull it further, stretch it a little bit more. Because if it’s going on with me and it feels like a discovery, it’s probably true that it’s going on with somebody else and it’ll feel like a discovery for them as well.
[00:15:39.530] – Ann Kroeker
Right, so you have the private writing, personal writing practice, and some of that may never go to the public in any kind of written form. It could certainly go into a therapy or counseling session and be part of your healing process, or it could just be a private practice.
But then, what I’m hearing you say is that some of that—some of those insights, some of the epiphanies or whatever—might emerge on the page as you realize what you’re thinking and feeling and you’re coming to this better space, a better place in your life. It could inform, if you will, your writing. Then the ideas and thoughts end up showing up in what we actually write. And like you said, click publish, and it goes out into the world. Is that what I’m hearing?
[00:16:23.600] – Michelle Stiffler
[00:16:24.720] – Ann Kroeker
It’s a little both? We have the private practice, some of which may never see the light of day, but is making us the person we need to be—the writer we need to be to then compassionately share our thoughts and words?
I just feel like that’s something we don’t talk about enough in writing circles. Because, for example, I might be working with people to help them develop their craft or work on a book proposal. So much practical work makes us better writers.
But I think what you’re saying is this is the core of what makes you a better writer. And we can talk about it being trauma-informed as a way to think about that, because you’re not only dealing with your own wholeness, but you’re also finding ways to compassionately engage with others as a writer.
[00:17:05.900] – Michelle Stiffler
Yes, I think one way that I used to put it when I was a nonprofit work and I would teach or I would mentor some of the women that we served, I would say, “We’re here to kind of help turn the light on for somebody who might be one step behind.”
Not that we’re positioning ourselves as experts by any means. There’s such a level of humility to trauma-informed anything. It’s an ability to say, “I don’t really know everything, but I can be here with you. I can turn the light on for one more step. I can offer a presence of peace, so that you have something to take away.”
But yeah, I think the humility part is huge, and that’s a shift, because sometimes we think that we’re learning something or we’re doing something, and of course it’s a gift.
We do want to be generous to our readers, but there has to be just both that compassion and that humility that you’re able to say, “I’ve figured out enough to talk about it in a way that hopefully will help you. But I’m not going to pretend that I know everything, and I’m not going to talk about experiences that perhaps aren’t mine.” I think that’s a big piece of it, too.
[00:18:19.700] – Ann Kroeker
This is veering from that sage-on-the-stage type of writer that was always sort of lauded and expected maybe a decade or more ago. I think we are shifting to more the relatable kind of writer, but now I think this is even more than just sort of “Bleh, here’s my life on the page,” and saying, “No, let’s slow down and give people something a little bit more.”
I love this idea of humility, being more humble in how we bring what we have to offer.
But you also touched on something which is this level of being a professional. And I feel like, given the topic, given that it’s about trauma and capital T or lower “t” in somebody’s life, or topically, what we might be writing about or the audience we might be addressing.
Do you feel like a trauma-informed writer would need some sort of qualifications?
Do they need to be a professional, like, I don’t know, like a trained professional, like a psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, something like that, to be able to feel comfortable and confident stepping into that space for themselves and to earn trust from the reader?
[00:19:26.140] – Michelle Stiffler
That’s a good question.
I’m a big fan of learning. So read everything, research everything, be broad in the things that you want to know about and go to many different places to understand things better.
The beauty of the trauma-informed movement is that it is designed for nonprofessionals. So it’s designed for people who I mentioned. One of the principles is peer support. You see that a lot in, like, recovery groups. Somebody who has gone through the recovery process then gets certified to become a peer supporter, and they are that person who can say, “Hey, I’ve been through a similar thing, and I just want to be a support for you.”
So that’s the beauty of the trauma-informed movement. It’s for anybody, but there is an investment in how much you understand or how much you’ve been willing to learn.
Somebody who wants to be in the trauma-informed writing space…
- You’re going to want to know a little bit about neuroscience and why the brain does the things that it does.
- You’re going to want to know a little bit about somatic practices and why the body has the reactions that it does in certain situations.
- You’re going to want to understand all of those trauma responses that we talk about fight, Flight, Freeze, and fawn.
What that means when maybe you’ve seen that, how you see it in yourself.
There are a lot of books that are certainly in the spotlight in the trauma informed movement. You’ve got The Body Keeps the Score. I was reading recently, It Didn’t Start With You, a book about epigenetics, the idea that we may even carry some of the trauma of grandparents and parents in our DNA.
You’re going to want to start reading some of these books by the professionals because The Body Keeps the Score is written by a psychiatrist and I believe the same for It Didn’t Start With You. So there are professionals already writing and I would recommend just reading some of those and then figuring out where you want your place to be as a trauma-informed writer.
Maybe you want to go back to school, but I think you really want to consider what it is specifically that you think that will offer to your reader. Because there is a lot of education that you can get that’s free and that’s varied and that maybe because you’re seeking it yourself, it might be a little closer to your own personal design and your own personal experience.
[00:21:56.280] – Michelle Stiffler
But for anybody who maybe is used to scrolling on social media, I always just say like, “Man, have those articles ready. Spend your time reading the things that you want to know about so that it can kind of help you take another step further into the information that’s already out there being written by the professionals.”
[00:22:15.490] – Ann Kroeker
That’s a great path forward. And in fact, you and I are going to team up. And I’ll just briefly say here, because we’re not done with our conversation here, but we are. I’m hosting the event, and you’re training people in a one-time workshop that you can tell them a little bit more about that. We’ll go into detail at the end so that they know where to go to sign up and everything. But can you explain how this training that you’re going to offer differs from this conversation we’re having now?
[00:22:42.520] – Michelle Stiffler
Yeah, absolutely. There’s so much that we can get into when it comes to trauma-informed.
There are things to understand about just how we talk about trauma as an event or trauma as an experience, trauma as the effects. We’re going to get into some of that.
We’ll take a deeper dive into the principles themselves and what that can look like as a writer.
We’ll talk a little bit about things that the movement is already doing and ways that you can get involved if that’s a way that you want to write.
Resources that will be available for anybody who wants to understand more about trauma-informed anything. And it will go deeper; it will take anybody who wants to listen. It’s going to take us one step further.
We’re kind of talking about a lot of things today and we’re getting ourselves in a place where we have better awareness of what “trauma-informed” is. We’re going to go one step beyond that when it comes to the training.
[00:23:38.040] – Ann Kroeker
Yes. Thus the title “Beyond Awareness: The Trauma-Informed Approach to Writing.” So again, we’re going to go into some details just at the very end because we realized we could only go so far in a one-time conversation like this. But I feel like you are scratching the surface.
Beyond Awareness: The Trauma-Informed Approach to Writing
Ann is hosting this interactive workshop, featuring Michelle Stiffler as the trainer, clarifies the trauma-informed approach to writing, why it’s important, and how you can begin using a trauma-informed lens as a writer.
All it’s doing for me is just bringing up more questions. So I have a few more questions for you.
I’m still thinking about the trauma-informed writer who really is going to go all in looking for change in themselves. And maybe this will effect and change their writing, maybe their writing direction, maybe their personal brand, if you will. And maybe it will happen suddenly and maybe down the road it will have a trauma-informed idea with it. Maybe they’ll even attach it to their brand.
But what about the people who probably aren’t thinking of themselves as elevating that within their brand, but they do want to be sensitive and compassionate? And, like you were talking about, one of the principles that has been added by the CDC—that sensitivity for culture, gender, how we use our language—that seems universal. Every writer should dive into that and start to be cautious and careful and sensitive to how we use language in all of our writing, no matter what.
[00:24:55.140] – Ann Kroeker
So how does being a trauma-informed writer in the kind of…maybe we should think…you talked about capital T trauma and lowercase “t” trauma. Maybe we need to almost think about capitalized T “Trauma-informed writer: and lowercase “trauma-informed writer.”
I’m just making this up on the fly, thinking about the person who’s not necessarily going to make that their identity as a writer versus the person who just wants to be trauma-informed and sensitive and thoughtful.
Now that was a long question or a long precursor to the question, but how would you address all of that?
[00:25:30.480] – Michelle Stiffler
I think when it comes to being trauma-informed and we need to be aware of the fact that we live in a culture where we have so much information bombarding us at all times.
And so to be, like you said, a big T “Trauma-Informed,” I want to be aware of the fact that there are a lot of people already in this movement doing a lot of really good work.
So before we ever try to get ourselves into a place where maybe we don’t have enough experience in it to really step in, be aware of the people who are already making a difference in the movement.
Read some of the books, like we said, have a better understanding of what it means to live a trauma-informed lifestyle. So that’s one area that we can be.
The other area, as you said, the small “t” “trauma-informed writer.” We should want to be respectful with the way that we talk. In the past couple of years especially, there’s just been so much polarization and divisiveness between people who don’t care about how they talk about other people, and it certainly isn’t helping any of us. As a society, as people, we’re angry, we’re reactive.
[00:26:40.100] – Michelle Stiffler
We don’t know why we aren’t invested in the work of figuring out why we say the things that we say or why we have the beliefs that we have. So I would invite anybody to at least take what you said an idea of, like: How could I be more hospitable with my language so that isn’t exclusive, so that it doesn’t have some remnants of hate or some kind of resentment so that somebody’s going, “Geez, Louise, that was so angry. I read that, and now I feel like I’ve acquired some kind of bitterness or some kind of cynicism.”
Regarding cynicism: a trauma-informed writer especially should be able to talk about something that maybe we don’t all understand or that maybe bothers us, but without that cynicism that’s underneath so much of what we read sometimes.
And then if you’re going to talk about your own trauma, you really do want to think about how many details you share, and you need to think about why you’re talking about it, how much is necessary to help other people in the world of trauma and trauma healing.
[00:27:55.500] – Michelle Stiffler
The trauma narrative is such a huge piece of the healing.
So the person who comes in and says, “I have this. I had this trauma experience, I can’t talk about it without being triggered,” they’re going to be guided into getting that trauma narrative out. I think sometimes people think that that is what they should offer people. It’s just that whole narrative that has every single detail, the play by play of everything that went on.
I think the trauma narrative is for the person who is working through the healing. I don’t think it’s for everybody.
I’ve written about some experiences in my own life that I would consider traumatic, and I didn’t have to share all the details. By the time I finally hit Submit, I had worked through those personally, like we talked about, there’s that private part of writing so that we can have that public piece of writing.
And if you read some of those pieces, you have an idea of what’s going on without having to know all of the details that, for the most part, a reader doesn’t really know what to do with. We’re exposed to a lot, the news tells us a lot, and we don’t know what to do with those details.
[00:29:08.430] – Michelle Stiffler
And we go through a lot and we don’t always know what to do with those details. So I think that we need to be very mindful of how much we offer people and why those specific words or why that paragraph will walk the reader to the next part of the story and help them get to a place of hope.
Because that’s really what it’s about, going from the hurt to the healing to the hope. That was a long answer.
[00:29:35.000] – Ann Kroeker
That was a beautiful answer.
[00:29:36.790] – Michelle Stiffler
[00:29:37.820] – Ann Kroeker
And it sounds like you’re telling me, I mean, implied in all of this is that there are pieces being written in all different outlets, whether it’s newspaper opinion/op-eds, or it’s articles—maybe even reactionary things on social media.
And some of these things are causing trauma or awakening trauma, and they’re not coming with a trigger warning. Is that what you’re saying here? Then we can be part of the healing, the hope.
[00:30:04.980] – Michelle Stiffler
Yeah, they’re not coming with a trigger warning and they’re not coming with any type of, “Hey, maybe this will work.” It’s just not solution-minded. It’s playing on other people’s weakness.
Oftentimes, it’s playing on this idea that everybody’s ignorant but me. I don’t know how that’s helpful to anybody. If we really want to get people thinking about how to heal, how to get to a better place, we have to put people’s eyes on that. That has to be the focus of, “Hey, this thing is going on over here, but let’s stop looking at that.”
We’re not being ignorant about it, but let’s start looking at what we might be able to do so that you can be okay, so that I can be okay, so that we can all, for lack of a better way to put it, but just get along on some kind of common ground that we can create together.
Not that we won’t have our differences, but how can we just accept that sometimes being a human being is hard because we have to experience things that are just too much. And for some people, especially with childhood adversity, it was just too soon.
[00:31:21.880] – Michelle Stiffler
How do we help people heal and get to a place where what they experienced can be something that becomes an overcoming story to help somebody else in a similar place?
[00:31:37.070] – Ann Kroeker
The world moves so fast, and as you pointed out earlier, we’re getting so much information, and I think that can compel a writer to feel like they need to act fast and get their words out fast.
But one thing I’m sensing from the start of this conversation to this moment as well is this, “Let’s slow down everything. Let’s slow down our personal process. Let’s slow down the words that we choose and be cautious, careful, caring in every word and precise in every word that we choose.”
And that requires this sense of, “Put on the brakes for a minute.” Can you tell me a little bit about that, what that might look like for every writer?
[00:32:20.270] – Michelle Stiffler
Oh, my goodness. Yeah, thank you for even saying that it’s valuable because I feel like so much of my writing experience, it just feels slow and it’s easy to get a sense of, “Oh, my goodness. Everybody else…”
You often use the term, Ann, “Ship it.” There are times to ship it. Sometimes you just get that burning in your belly and it’s like, I just kind of need to share this because I have a little bit of insight when I’m sharing it, or it’s maybe elevating somebody else when I share it. So that’s a different kind of burning.
I think for me, I’m always trying to differentiate, “Does this feel like a sense of urgency, maybe a spiritual sense of urgency? Or does this feel like frenzy?”
Because I think there’s a difference there between, “Now I’m thinking about the quantity of how many things I write…oh, now I’m thinking about the quality of what I write.”
And with that, because we’ve already touched on it, not that we’re trying to get it to be a piece of perfection, because that doesn’t sound like a spiritual sense of urgency to me. That sounds like frenzy and anxiety to me to try to strive for perfection.
[00:33:44.630] – Michelle Stiffler
So I will check in with myself and I will say, “Does this feel like urgency? Like, I want to put my focus on this and continue to work towards this with an amount of diligence and discipline until it’s ready and done?”
Or does this feel like something that’s kind of a frenzy and it’s going to end up being just, “Well, it’s out there.”
Well, it’s important that I honor my voice. There’s a lot of talk about, well, “Use your voice.” I do agree with that. I do agree with sharing your story.
I also think that there’s nothing better than hearing somebody’s voice and somebody’s story when they have a certain level of an ability to offer a lesson. Right?
It’s not just that I went through this thing. I know what I want to say about this thing, and I know what could help people if they’re going through this same situation.
So I think that’s the difference. For me, it’s just checking in with the urgency or the frenzy. You could call it like a hustle. So I’m just going to do the work. If I get distracted today, I’m going to come back to it tomorrow.
[00:34:52.790] – Michelle Stiffler
I believe that it’s worthy. I’m not going to just let it die on the vine. I’m going to keep working with this piece or this idea until it’s something that’s beneficial to my reader.
Yeah, that’s what I think the difference is.
[00:35:06.040] – Ann Kroeker
It’s a great filter. I love it. I love urgency versus frenzy as a really clear difference.
I think we can almost kind of feel it as well as realize it, rationalize it, or think about it. It’s a filter.
And I also appreciate it because there are times when maybe something is so prominent in the news and maybe you have a platform where you live and you could get on the local news station and say, “We need to talk about this.” And it’s literally urgent. Like, if you don’t address it that day, you miss an opportunity to help more people.
So there may be times when urgency steps up and maybe because of your years of healing and wholeness and fullness that you’ve arrived at, you can carry that with you. And then that keeps it from being frenzied in the urgent moment and makes it rich for whoever it is receiving it, whether it’s a viewer or a listener or a reader.
[00:36:05.180] – Michelle Stiffler
Yes, and I think for me too, it kind of gives us this, like, “Okay, I can take a deep breath.”
Because if we really think about it, nothing that we write is wasted. Whether we’re the only ones who read it or whether 3000 people read it, the work that we do is just never wasted.
If we’re working on understanding something better or understanding other people better, it will be useful at the right time. So whatever we’re doing now is preparing us for whatever we might be doing later.
It might feel like, “Oh, I got to jump on this right away.” Just stay in it. Stay in it, keep working on it, keep finessing it, so the idea that you have is something that, when it’s time, you’ll know that you’re ready to offer it to other people.
[00:36:57.620] – Ann Kroeker
I love all of that so much. I imagine everybody’s just hanging on your every word.
[00:37:02.950] – Michelle Stiffler
[00:37:03.510] – Ann Kroeker
Now, if we have these trauma-informed writers sort of emerging, but they’re in process, they have something they want to say, but maybe they listen to what you had to say and they’re like, “Okay, my year isn’t up yet and I’m not at that point of total healing and fullness.”
Although maybe that’s arguable too, that we come to a place of total healing. But I was thinking about your pillars and one of them was collaboration and that’s more about trauma-informed. Maybe that’s trauma-formed and trauma-informed everything.
What could collaboration look like, writer to writer?
Is there a way writers could collaborate?
For example, is there a way maybe we don’t feel ready to fully address it all on our own, so we invite somebody else to co-write an article with us? Or we interview somebody and that’s a type of collaboration? Is that an accurate way to think about that principle as a writer?
[00:37:57.250] – Michelle Stiffler
Yes. Collaboration seems so much easier in the nonprofit world, because you’re like, “Oh, well, we’ll just work with another organization.”
With writing, we’re coming into this idea of so much solitary. So if we’re collaborating, I love what you said, just the idea of, “Does somebody know this? Maybe a little bit better than I do, even?”
This podcast episode is about collaborating. You’re interested. I know a little bit more about it. So we’re talking about it and we can reach more people. And I think that’s really the idea.
And again, to any writer, whether you want to be trauma-informed or not, what could be better than collaboration?
I think it’s just so useful because I want to read something that has texture.
I want to read something that has a lot of facets.
I want to kind of feel like I’m getting several points of view.
And the only way you can really do that is to work with other people. So I could open my lens a little bit reading different books, but it’s still going to come from my mouth, it’s still going to come from my background, and it’s still going to be just Michelle.
[00:39:07.310] – Michelle Stiffler
But if we can open it up so that other people can contribute, I think it always has just a beautiful richness to the readers because of people working together.
It also gives you that immediate feedback. If you’re working with somebody else, you can recognize their body language, which is so essential with having a trauma-informed approach.
If I’m talking about something and I’m looking across from me and the person across from me is tensing up or their eyes are wide, you’re thinking this might be too much and I can ask. And there can be that back and forth.
Even if it’s not face to face and somebody submits a piece of writing and you’re going to share it on your blog, you have the ability to kind of suggest some edits and be able to say, “This produced this kind of response in me. I’m nervous about how that’s going to produce a response in somebody else. Could we possibly find some better wording so that maybe it’s more inclusive?”
And I would suggest even don’t just collaborate with people who look like you, think like you, talk like you.
Collaborate with people who come from a different walk of life, who possibly do come from a different faith community, they come from a different race, they come from a different experience or place in the world that’s always useful as well.
And it gives you just so much more ability to help more people.
[00:40:38.090] – Ann Kroeker
All of this also models the collaboration principle too. So:
1) you’re experiencing it,
2) you’re practicing it, and
3) you’re modeling it, because the reader will receive it and see it playing out.
And I heard, let’s see if I threw out a few ideas and you threw out a few ideas, I’m going to list them and you add any other ideas that come to mind.
So I had thrown out the idea of…
1. Interview Others
Interviewing somebody to include them, maybe in an article or a blog post or something. We’re doing it right now in a podcast interaction. I didn’t know much about it, so I didn’t know anything about it. And I brought you on as the expert to interact with you and you very humbly said you’re a little further along, but I’m going to view you as an expert.
So there’s that bringing on somebody who can really address it and that could be part of your learning too. I feel like this is part of my little journey here to learn more and I’m doing that by collaboration.
2. Co-author with Others
The other was to actually write something together. So, coauthoring something long-form or short-form.
3. Publish Others
And then you talked about maybe having if you have a website and you have a blog on there, you want to invite others to be contributing writers, then having somebody contribute or pitch an idea to you and then you can work with them offering trauma-formed edits.
[00:41:52.840] – Ann Kroeker
And along the way you’re also helping them better understand the writing of a trauma-informed writer and also their own way of precision language.
[00:42:05.990] – Michelle Stiffler
4. Teach with Others
I think you have the option too, of teaching with other people, if that’s available. Training with other people.
There’s such a difference between the written word and the spoken word and how we can communicate our ideas differently because it just doesn’t take as much, maybe refining.
I’m less likely to overthink what I’m saying with my mouth, which also makes all of those spiritual practices and those disciplines as a trauma-informed writer so essential because I don’t want to be running my mouth and then just say something because I was like, “Well, I don’t have to think about it as much because I don’t have to read it back to myself.”
5. Learn from Others in Different Circles
So I would say teaching and training, and just putting yourself in circles where maybe it doesn’t seem like you’re necessarily contributing, but you’re in circles that are just different from your own so that you can learn about different people groups.
6. Volunteer (so You Interact with Others)
Because of my background, I’m always going to say, like, if you have an opportunity, if you have the time to volunteer somewhere and you can get to know people who maybe are in a different walk of life, maybe a different stage of life, do it. Just how much you can learn from talking to people because you’re in the same place.
[00:43:13.550] – Michelle Stiffler
It’s been profoundly beneficial in my life to have been in places where my life was never going to take me unless I made that very intentional choice. And just so much that you can learn from other people because they’ve experienced so many different things from you.
[00:43:30.690] – Ann Kroeker
It’s a different way of thinking about being trauma-informed by different kinds of trauma that you might not have experienced yourself.
Do you feel like every human and therefore every writer has experienced trauma?
[00:43:44.670] – Michelle Stiffler
The key to trauma when we define it is it’s not so much what happened to you, it’s what happened inside of you.
That’s the true definition.
If somebody experienced something that altered the way they viewed themselves, the way they viewed relationship, and whether or not people were trustworthy, if it viewed their sense of what’s true in the world—if they were a person of faith and it altered their view of who God might be—that’s a traumatic experience.
Because what happens is what’s happening inside. And whether it’s something we ever articulate or not, it continues to fester.
You hear a lot of people talking about calling out the lies and speaking the truth or understanding the truth. There is something to that.
Knowing what things happen in your own experience in life that may be because, let’s be honest, trauma is one of those words that it almost feels like I’m not really allowed to call it trauma because it wasn’t really that big of a deal.
Or I can’t tell you how many times in nonprofit work we would get a woman who came in who was experiencing abuse and she would downplay, well, it’s not that big of a deal.
[00:45:05.250] – Michelle Stiffler
I know women who have experienced more or…we would serve somebody maybe who was in a place of poverty and it’s like, “Well, it’s not a big deal. Most of my needs are met.”
So we’re always downplaying the things that happen to us. And it’s a discredit because then it allows whatever’s happening in our heart, in our mind, to just continue and there’s no reins on it.
Whatever I’m beginning to believe about the world, about myself, about other people, is taking shape without my observation. And then it makes me go out into the world and participate and engage in a way that probably isn’t going to serve me very well for very long. It does for a time, but not for long.
And so we have to kind of have those check ins. I would say it’s fair that everybody’s had some kind of adversity. Everybody has that story of like, “Oh my goodness, when I was ten years old, this person said this,” and it changed the way we believed or the way we thought.
And I think that’s really truly at the bottom of what trauma is by definition. Using that definition also means there are the big T’s and then there are the smaller t’s.
[00:46:20.240] – Michelle Stiffler
But all of us have dealt with something that we didn’t expect that was possibly very unfair and caused us to change our design or the way that we were made to do things and say things, the way we express ourselves, the way we create whatever it might be that we contribute to the world. It certainly shapes all of that.
And so it’s fair to say that everybody’s experienced some kind of adversity that they would call their personal trauma. You don’t have to use the word. That’s fine. But we’ve all had things that have shaped us, and that’s really essentially what what being trauma-informed is about—it’s recognizing that, for those people who choose to write more directly about some of that stories that might show up in creative nonfiction or personal narrative or memoir.
[00:47:02.070] – Ann Kroeker
Do you have any advice for how to navigate the fallout that might come from that and how to prepare yourself for that ahead of time that writing?
And when you do choose to move forward with publicly sharing that in some.
[00:47:25.330] – Michelle Stiffler
You mean the fallout as far as any criticism?
[00:47:31.130] – Ann Kroeker
Yeah. From strangers leaving you a review if it came out in book form to people in a social media caption who start insulting you or saying you’re lying, or how could that possibly be true? Or, “Why are you talking about this? This is so off brand!” Or who knows what they might say.
If you’ve been vulnerable, that causes you to revisit that, I would assume, or feel new feelings of trauma. Any advice about just heading into that. Delaying that? Don’t write it if you think that’s going to happen? Any advice at all?
[00:48:09.370] – Michelle Stiffler
Yeah, you’re going to write it. Whether or not you share it is the question.
If you’re in the middle of something—or if you’re in the middle of working on something that’s maybe even old—but for whatever reason, it’s coming up in your life and it’s like, “Man, now is the time. I just have to deal with this. I can see how it’s affecting every aspect of my life.”
You’re going to write about it because it’s just that important.
And then you’re just going to keep working on it, like we said: keep going back to it, figuring out, “How much do I actually have to say to help other people?”
But I would say if the idea of somebody having any kind of criticism about what you said terrifies you, you might not be ready because it’s super re-traumatizing, which nobody needs.
I think you need to know what exactly you’re contributing as far as, like, if somebody said that they didn’t like this piece or “Why in the world are you talking about this?” Ask yourself: Do I feel like the purpose of this piece still got out there? It still had some kind of purpose?
[00:49:11.320] – Michelle Stiffler
Surely it’s still meeting somebody where they are, whether or not everybody loves it or hates it, whatever.
If you can answer the question that it still has some kind of purpose, then maybe that’s your time to go ahead and put it out there. But as much as possible, I would say let it sit as long as it can so that it can kind of go through a refining process. Because sometimes we think that we write something that doesn’t have a lot of, like, “Oh, I forgave that situation, I’m not angry about it.”
But maybe a month later we go back to that writing and it’s like, “No, I think there’s some anger in there that isn’t necessary.” There’s probably going to be a level of anger because that’s what injustice does. It should raise a sense of…I don’t want to call it righteous anger, but it should raise a sense of “that’s not right” within us.
So being careful how much of it is in each piece. But, yeah, if you can’t handle somebody commenting on your work in a negative way, work on that. And it’s not just getting to a point where the piece is going to be perfect and nobody could possibly have anything to say about it, because that’s not reality.
[00:50:20.470] – Michelle Stiffler
I would say continue to work on the healing with somebody. Whether it be with a really close friend, with a therapist, or in your journal, continue doing the work so that you’re okay as a person regardless of whether or not somebody really resonates with what you wrote.
[00:50:36.930] – Ann Kroeker
I think that’s a very wise path because people do…I mean, just sharing our work, it can feel we might use the word, I’m “terrified,” and maybe it’s not because of the concerns about trauma. Maybe it’s just your first time clicking publish on anything. It can be both exhilarating and terrifying.
I think you’re getting close to sort of—was it urgency versus frenzy? There’s probably some similar measurement between, like, “I’m not ready for this because I’m terrified” and there’s something deep inside in the trauma pain space (I’m probably using terrible language to explain it.), versus “I’m just terrified because it’s new and different.”
Is there a way they could this of this? I think you’ve already said it. I’m forcing you to repeat yourself. But is there a way they can just, like, have a little, “Oh, this is how I can tell the difference between which kind of terrified this is.” Do you have a simple way to measure it?
How can we tell the difference between which kind of “terrified” we’re feeling as writers?
[00:51:35.470] – Michelle Stiffler
I think that when it comes to hesitation, I really try to dive into why am I hesitating so that I can decide if it’s a valid reason to hesitate.
Because hesitation isn’t always bad. If we’re doing something new or we want to be vulnerable in a way that may really help people, there is going to be that self protection inside of ourselves that says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Not now. Let the experts do that. Let somebody else do that.” If so, you’re probably not going to help anybody.
If I’m hearing those things, I need to kind of confront where it’s coming from. Do I think that it’s true right now for where I’m at? And if so, it really is kind of being aware of the fact that I’m hesitating on something.
Then I need to answer the question of why.
And then I need to determine whether or not it’s a valid reason.
And it’s not a valid reason, I’m just going to have to do it afraid. Or if it is, I’m just going to have to wait until I’m at a certain level of maybe not confidence. It is that feeling of, like, a sense of dignity. Like I’m going to be okay, even if everybody hates this.
So it’s a different kind of confidence, without the puffed up, “I’m presenting this to the world because I know everything” kind of feeling, but just the confidence that you’re going to be okay if nobody understands.
[00:52:53.630] – Ann Kroeker
I once heard an interview that Lysa TerKeurst did with Carrie Nieuhof, and she talked about how when she’s writing, she she sees herself as being not the sage on the stage, but rather, “Look, I’ve been through a thing that you may be going through now, and I know a way out. I know a way through the forest and let me come back and I’ll walk you through that for us.”
I’m paraphrasing, of course, but do you see that as maybe a moment where you can start to identify? Like, “I don’t have it all figured out and I still have places to ache and I am not maybe ever going to be fully healed from my small T or capital T trauma. But I am far enough along, so I’m not in it with you right now. I’m not going to be sloshing around in the mud puddle with you, but I am a little bit further along, and I can come back through the path that I found through the weeds or the forest, and I can walk with you through that.”
Do you feel like that’s an image that we can borrow from Lysa to think about, to where you realize, “Yeah, I’m in a good place on this piece of it, to walk with somebody.”
[00:53:58.440] – Michelle Stiffler
Yes. And I think it goes, too, with the illustration of just being able to turn on the light. If you don’t know where the light switch is, you’re not ready to turn on the light for anybody.
If you can’t look behind you and see that maybe some people are one step behind, then maybe you’re not far enough along.
I don’t say that to be frustrating. I know it can be very frustrating when we’re dealing with things and processing things, and we do want to get to a place where we can help others. I think that’s really the crux of it all is that when we’ve gone through something difficult, there is that hope inside each of us that it’s like, “I hope I can get through this and help others who go through the same thing.”
I’ve seen that across sectors. That’s usually how people get into the work of helping other people is that they’ve been through something themselves. So that’s a beautiful thing.
And that’s why I say just continue writing and refining so that when it’s time for you to go ahead and say, “Okay. I’m those couple of steps far enough along that I feel comfortable reaching my hand back,” you’ll be ready and your work will be ready for other people, and it will feel like a gift to them instead of another piece of like, “Now I feel more confused” or “Okay, great. Somebody is in the same boat as me, but they still can’t tell me what to do right now.”
It should be a sense of, “I haven’t made it all the way, but I know what to do right now. I know how to go about my daily life just for today. I know how to get through the week, whatever it may be.” I think those are the little steps that we’re looking for: we’ve learned enough that works and we can start to offer that to other people.
And it’s usually very simple. We think it’s going to be so profound and complex and it’s usually the profound simplicity of things that we found that worked and that we can offer to others.
[00:55:54.260] – Ann Kroeker
What a great way to end this conversation. But also if people are enjoying this, there is more coming. And so at the time of this recording, we have not yet hosted “Beyond Awareness: The Trauma-Informed Approach to Writing.” That’s going to be a special paid live training. You’re leading it, I’m simply hosting it.
Tuesday, February 28, 2023 at 2:00 PM Eastern. And so if you’re tuning in after that date, don’t worry, we’re going to record it. There will be a replay and you can watch it any time. Enroll at annkroeker.com/traumainformed, since that’s the topic we’re talking about. So it’s called “Beyond Awareness,” but it’s going to be annkroeker.com/traumainformed. You can learn all about the training there.
Do you want to give them a little preview? You touched on it earlier. Anything that can help them understand or grasp why should they go deeper, why should they sign up for this training?
[00:56:52.080] – Michelle Stiffler
I think we’re not going to be able to escape the fact that now that so much of our culture has become aware of trauma.
We’re going to find just the words trauma-informed everywhere. Because people after some of the things that we’ve all experienced together that were as confusing as the pandemic was for all of us. We found out that we’re all in the same boat and that was a good feeling for all of us.
So now we’re getting to a point where it’s like, “How could I be trauma-informed and be a better human being?” In this case, “How can I be a better writer?”
There’s a lot to understand about what it means to be trauma-informed, and I do want to get into that further. We’re going to talk more about some of the disciplines and just some more practical ways to apply that lens to our writing and possibly some more practical ways of how do I deal with the topic of trauma in a way that doesn’t re-traumatize, because that’s essentially the goal of being trauma-informed-anything, because we don’t want to re-traumatize others and we don’t want to re-traumatize ourselves.
[00:58:00.430] – Michelle Stiffler
And I think that’s going to be the beauty of this training as well, is that while we think about other people, there’s so much to know about how we also think about ourselves as the writer, as the person who experienced things, as the person who continues to go through things.
Even if we’re writing about something that’s ten years old, we probably have something going on in our lives that’s maybe difficult or confusing. So…knowing how to handle ourselves as we become somebody who writes from a place of compassion and offering people another step towards healing.
[00:58:37.750] – Ann Kroeker
I cannot wait. People can walk away with a trauma-informed approach to writing and become closer to becoming trauma-informed writers. They do that internal work so that they can share it with the world when they’re ready, when the time is right and it is essential.
[00:58:50.190] – Michelle Stiffler
I mean, if you look at any magazines that are taking pitches, there’s just always that whole. They don’t want to just know something that you learned about. They want to know, “How are you going to offer our readers one step further?”
That’s essentially what good writing always is and always has been, is we’re able to take people from, “Oh, this thing is happening,” to “How could we go one step further?” And this training is going to be focused on so much of that in the ways that we can do that as writers.
[00:59:24.060] – Ann Kroeker
It’s really for every writer, it sounds like. I mean, everybody can benefit from it at a small investment. We’re keeping the cost as reasonable as possible, pricing it at $20.
Thank you for this time and thank you in advance for all that you’re going to bring to us in “Beyond Awareness,” and I can’t wait to go deeper with you.
But even if people aren’t able to make that or are not going to take that next step, I feel like you’ve given them a rich understanding of what it means to be a trauma-informed writer, to be doing trauma-informed writing, and actually just to become whole-er, fuller, as they move forward in life.
This conversation has been exceptional. It’s been outstanding, and I would love for people to get to know you better. Michelle, how can people reach you online and get to know you better? Maybe sign up for something?
[01:00:14.850] – Michelle Stiffler
Absolutely. I am at www.OneMoreTruth.com, so you can certainly subscribe. Usually monthly I send my thoughts on faith, responsiveness, and being trauma-informed and how can we move one step further.
I’m on Instagram at @OneMoreTruth, and people can feel free to email me if they want to know more about what the movement is about or how they could get involved. I’m happy to talk about it. michellekstiffler @ gmail . com.
That’s generous and bold and so open, which is a great accurate representation of what we experienced here today. You have been so generous and so open. Thank you so much. Michelle, it’s been a pleasure to host you today.
[01:01:08.340] – Michelle Stiffler
Absolutely, thank you.
[01:01:09.940] – Ann Kroeker
Thank you for being here for this vital conversation. Michelle and I both invite you to go deeper on this topic with us through the workshop, Beyond Awareness: The Trauma-Informed Approach to Writing. You can learn more about the workshop at https://annkroeker.com/traumainformed. We’d love to have you join us live on Tuesday, February 28, 2:00 to 3:30 PM Eastern. But if you can’t, no problem. We’re going to record it and the replay will be available after that.
I’m Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach, cheering you on. Wherever we might meet, whether it’s in person, online or right here on this show. I’m always looking for ideas to share with you that will help you become more curious, creative and productive. Thank you for being here. Keep writing.
Curious about trauma-informed writing? Ready to take the next step?
You want to understand this movement — to see if this is the future of your life, your work, and your words. But you can’t find a reliable source who can offer guidance for you as a writer.
We’re bringing you answers in…