The Importance of Taking a Break: Using the writer’s drawer

Especially when we are writing for release, we should make good use of the writer’s drawer.

Writing Traumas to Life

I think graduate school was when I felt the most alive as a writer. It was a time of intense transition for me. I was studying what I was the most passionate about (the craft of writing). I began teaching adults for the first time. I found it vastly more stimulating and fulfilling than working with preschool age children. I became a mother, and with that family transition, I discovered multiple unseen traumas living in my heart. In short, those were the days when Survive Your Story was born.

By the time I earned my MFA, I’d been through the emotional ringer. I didn’t see it clearly at the time, but my thesis was a collection of traumas I attempted to fictionalize in order to accept. Looking back over it, I was successful in transforming truths into lies but, if anything, I’d spent three years giving those traumas more life.

Becoming a Writer in Exile

I was very fortunate that my thesis director saw what was happening and suggested I create some independent study courses in response. He pointed me to one of my advisors with whom I developed a course on writers in exile. With another, I dove into how we explore culture and history in our work. Ultimately, these studies helped me lay my writing to rest.

Once I completed my thesis, I stopped writing for three years. I kept up a mommy blog, but it was more journal than craft. I found myself unable to engage the topics that sang through my body because writing them opened me up to the pain, so I reported on my days, settling further into the deep depression unhealed wounds opened in me.

Avoidance was a safety strategy, and an important one, although the way I went about it spoke less to safety and more to denial.

I had exiled myself from my writer identity, choosing to sink fully into motherhood. And though parenting was fulfilling, it was not enough for me to be fulfilled. So I lived on the outskirts of myself, my mind often turning me back to the page even as my body turned me away, shaking and heavy.

Searching for a Release

There was no one day when it was all too much. I fell in and out of writing over the next several years, always with the idea that there had to be a way to release the stories I was holding onto. I wanted–needed–to let them go so a new and different story could be born.

Surely, a happy story was possible.

If I had known what to look for, I could have found resources on expressive writing and its effectiveness in relieving symptoms of major depressive disorders. But all I felt certain of was that I needed to write. That I had to get past this block in order to be whole.

Confronting My Deepest Fear

Ultimately, it took working with three therapists over six years to bring me back to the page. Each one supported me as I named and accepted different fears. Each one told me every week to write. Write it out. Trust the page.

Each therapist reminded me that I am a writer. I should write.

But it wasn’t until I did the hard work of moving all the other fears away that I found the linchpin: I was afraid of being angry.

Suddenly I could see how I was writing all around anger, trying to make every character kind and understanding. Robbing them of their personal power to avoid the reality that we all get angry. We all hurt and react and maybe scream and cry and rage.

The third therapist lifted the gate. Suddenly I could see the beautiful, seething anger I’d been hiding from for my entire life. She told me, “Go write it. Write your anger.”

I left that final session in a daze. I purchased a book dedicated to my anger and I sobbed over it, writing furiously. I wrote without caution. It all came pouring out in fluid fits and scribbles until I was too weak to write anymore.

For the first time, I wrote without judgement of myself. I had written to release.

Reclaiming My Power

The effect was immediate and immense. I felt lighter, stronger, and freed from a lifetime of fearing own power. Because, yes, my breakthrough was accepting that anger gave me power: the power to know my own needs in harmful situations, the power to act on those needs, and the power to stop myself from doing greater harm through inaction.

I kept writing. I had years to make up for. I created a practice for myself of write, release, write, release. I began burning the stories I was done with. And, after a time, I came back to others and began my practice of recovery.

With that final piece came a clarity of purpose. My love of teaching and writing came together. I began formally doing what I’d been doing all along–even as I was mired in my own stories. I supported others in creating writing practices to release and recover from the stories which no longer served them.

Making Use of the Writer’s Drawer

Here’s a secret: The traumas which went into my thesis are still in the proverbial writer’s drawer; a place to “shelve” your work until you are ready to return to it with fresh eyes.

When we write to release, we need to be ready to let go. I am not ready to let go of those stories. They are still very alive for me. My body zings just thinking about them. And this bit is critical:

We cannot write to recover until we write to release. 

Sometimes that means going backward, uncoupling ourselves from previous traumas until we get back to the Big One.

Here’s another secret: I’ve never thought of those traumas in the drawer as particularly “big.” Yet, there they stay, still unapproachable.

The truth is they aren’t any more of less than any other traumas I’ve unpacked. But they are built off those traumas, or maybe I’m working in reverse and they are actually the root traumas? It doesn’t matter. I’m taking the time I need to address them safely rather than avoiding them.

If you have a story that is too alive for you to handle, place it in the drawer knowing you will come back to it when you are ready.

When to Write Traumas to Rest

Prevent your stories from lighting you on fire.

It is crucial to address traumas when we are ready rather than plugging away at them head on. If we approach a lion with a stick and begin poking it, what will happen? Just like we expect children to put on their coats and mittens before they step out in the snow, we should take safety precautions before we re-engage the page. Especially if that page is hungry, carnivorous and we are walking meat treats.

When I am ready, I will open that drawer and pull out those stories. I’ll work through them one at a time, rewriting them until I can let them go.

How to Know if You Are Ready

You can know when it’s time to re-engage a story when you can approach it feeling balanced and safe, and when you can leave it feeling the same. Ask yourself:

  1. What do I feel when I think about this story?
  2. What do I feel when I look at this story?
  3. What do I feel when I put away this story?

Do you feel uncomfortable but safe? Tired and afraid? Nervous and shaky? Sweaty with dread? Assess your responses and listen to them.

Some stories require additional support. I still work with a therapist regularly. When I’m stuck on a story, I talk through it with him in a safe space. Even if I know it’s just a story and it is not right now, it may still trigger a strong response from which I need help disengaging.

We can create our own safe spaces and practices, wait years to re-engage, complete unbelievable amounts of healing in the meantime and still need additional help with story release. That is okay. Celebrate that you know your personal limits, honor your needs and heal at your own pace.

How to Help Yourself to Readiness

Once you have set up your safe space and writing practice (check out the linked articles above), expand your toolkit.

  1. Create a broad comfort base to fall back. Perhaps you benefit from yoga (see this grounding practice designed for writing through trauma), running, singing or meditation. Perhaps you love to cook, clean or paint. Make a note so you can use these tools to redirect yourself when you become overwhelmed.
  2. Plan ahead to make certain you have the time you need to ease into and recover from writing.
  3. Use the buddy system. Make a commitment with a friend to write together, or write when you know they are available for an emergency phone call.
  4. Check in with yourself. Make a habit of writing when it feels right to establish trust with yourself.
  5. Remember you are safe. Even if you are writing your history, it is past. It is not right here, right now.

We don’t always need to refine to recover. Sometimes release is all that is necessary. But know that you can rewrite your pain the way it should have been to give yourself the experience you deserved. Writing can be an intentional positivity practice that will serve you throughout your life. Whatever your choice, I hope your writing is healing.


Are you interested in releasing a story? I specialize in supporting writers at every level in writing for release and recovery and offer budget friendly coaching options. Contact me about the ways you can work with me one-on-one using the form below.


Shawna Ayoub

Shawna Ayoub is an essayist, fiction writer, poet and instructor with an MFA in creative writing from Indiana University. Some of her work has been published in The Manifest-Station, Role Reboot, [wherever], The Huffington Post, The Oxford Review and Exit 7. Her writing explores the intersections of race, place and survivorship. She writes with honesty about her own experience in order to transform pain.

2 Discussion to this post

  1. I felt post alive as a writer in graduate school too…magical times. This is an inspired and helpful post.

    View Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Latest Stories

Search stories by typing keyword and hit enter to begin searching.

%d bloggers like this: