It takes a special kind of person to lean in to other people’s stories and help them untangle the knotted threads at their centers. It takes a special kind of person to lean in to her own story and give it voice with the hope that others in similar circumstances might feel less alone. Author and teacher Lisa Cooper Ellison is, without a doubt, that special kind of person.
Lisa and I first connected over our shared goal of exploring the psychological journeys memoir writers inevitably face when they endeavor to commit words to the page to make meaning of their painful experiences. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of being on the receiving end of Lisa’s generosity of spirit and boundless compassion on more than one occasion and have witnessed firsthand her gentle yet persistent guidance as a writing companion and friend. Her work as a writing coach and editor has enabled her to build a meaningful network comprised of writers at all levels who understand the value of creative support. As a former mental health counselor, Lisa knows the kind of work that’s necessary to peel back the layers of trauma and find healing. As a trauma survivor and memoirist, Lisa has the added credibility of having done that work herself. She’s in the process of completing a memoir called, Lucky Me that confronts the lasting grief of her brother’s mental health crisis and death by suicide. She’s published essays on the same themes in The Guardian, Kenyon Review Online and other publications, she’s written multiple pieces on the craft of writing, and she’s compiled her insights about trauma writing into her forthcoming book, How to Write about What Keeps You up at Night without Staying up All Night. I recently asked Lisa to tell us more about her writing and her work with other writers, and I invite you to watch our author chat below and read the interview that follows to learn more about this inspiring author.
*Please note that registration for Story Matters: Forgive Your Characters, Empower Yourself has closed. If you’d like your name to be added to the waiting list for the winter 2020 session of this class, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Melanie Brooks: Your current writing project, Lucky Me, explores the intersections of your time in Europe traveling with a heavy metal band and surviving the trauma of your brother’s death by suicide. I know the path to unpacking these experiences has not always been a smooth or linear one. What has propelled you to this place where you are now able to give narrative shape to this story?
Lisa Cooper Ellison: Writing is a trade with a long apprenticeship. Memoirists need to learn not just how to write but how to mine painful experiences for deeper truths. I’ve always known I would write about this period of my life, but it’s taken a long time to unpack the story. Suicide loss is incredibly complex. For the first three years after my brother’s death, no words felt adequate to express what had happened or how much it hurt. I needed time to feel my feelings, work through my trauma, and free myself of the guilt that had knotted itself into my core.
Years of writing journal entries, speeches, and essays about my brother’s death helped me develop the insights needed to tackle this weighty project. In the beginning, all I could’ve written was that my brother died, my heart broke, and I joined my husband’s heavy metal tour. While that’s what actually happened, it doesn’t tell you what these events meant to me or why a reader should care. In the prologue for Lucky Me, I write that my brother’s death was the worst thing that had ever happened to me and the one thing that saved my life. That’s a much richer version of the truth—one I couldn’t access from a place of deep grief.
MB: As a writing coach, you teach classes and workshops on a regular basis, you write a monthly advice column for Moving Forewords called Heart Speak, and you are finishing the manuscript of an ebook that shares your wisdom and insights on self-care when writing about trauma. How has providing support and empowerment for other writers become such a central calling in your life?
LCE: I’ve worked in the helping professions for almost twenty years—first as a special education teacher then as a mental health counselor and now as a writing instructor and coach. Serving others helps me see the greater purpose in what I do. When I face rejections or I feel overwhelmed by a project, the dedication of my clients and students inspires me to persevere. When their stories lead to life-changing insights or they claim their voices and embrace their roles as writers, I am reminded that stories matter. Through writing and revising our stories, we simultaneously make people feel less alone and craft better versions of who we are.
MB: Before diving full-time into freelance writing, teaching, and editing, you worked as a mental health counselor. In what ways has this background informed your work with other writers and how has it influenced your approaches to your own writing, particularly when writing about your own trauma?
LCE: The purpose of counseling is to explore and revise the story of the self. Counselors listen closely, identify pivotal moments, and point out underlying patterns. They encourage clients to mine their experiences for greater truths, think more compassionately about the “characters” in their lives, and revise unhelpful messages about ourselves.
While writing instructors must amass a body of knowledge around the craft of writing, they also need to understand people and their stories. My training as a counselor has prepared me for working not just with stories, but specifically with memoirists.
This work taught me about trauma, leaning into resilience, building safe spaces, and the need for gentleness when working with difficult stories. Catharsis is never enough. To heal, you must make new meaning from your experiences—a process that deconstructs you before it rebuilds you. Deconstruction can be very destabilizing. It requires you to feel the feelings you’ve suppressed and question the stories you’ve always told yourself. To do this safely, a person must know how to regulate their emotions, take breaks, self-soothe, and tap into their resilience. Often these skills need to be explicitly taught.
All the skills needed for trauma therapy are also needed for the memoir drafting process. To write a great scene-driven story, we must relive aspects of what has happened. In the past, I’ve mistakenly believed that writing straight through the most painful parts of my book would lead to relief. This approach left me feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and at times depressed. To finish my book, I had to find a new way of approaching this work. That new way is what I teach my students and clients. It’s also what I write about in my forthcoming book How to Write about What Keeps You up at Night without Staying up All Night.
MB: In a recent blog for Brevity called “Falling Forward: Why Every Draft Counts,” you write, “Writing is a process made up of failures. Projects that stall. Unsuccessful drafts. Rejections. Our job is to learn something from each one.” When rejection and perceived failure evoke feelings of discouragement, doubt, and despair, how do you convince yourself and other writers to find the value in that leg of the journey?
LCE: Rejection sucks. There’s nothing worse than pouring your heart into a project only to be told no. When it happens repeatedly, it’s easy to lose faith in a project or see rejection as a personal failure. In reality, most rejections have very little to do with us. Sure, there’s a bar writing must meet for acceptance in high-quality publications, and sometimes our writing hasn’t yet met that bar or we haven’t yet told the best or truest version of our stories, but many rejections are related to subjective tastes, best fit, and the fact that there are more talented writers than spaces for them to publish. All of this is outside our control.
To value the journey, I encourage every writer to complete three activities. On day one, I ask my students and clients to set an intention for their work—one that has nothing to do with publication. I ask them to think about how they would like to grow as a result of telling their stories. What beliefs, behaviors, or thoughts would they like to change? What would they like to reconnect with inside themselves? Once an intention has been set, I encourage writers to display it in their writing spaces. When projects get tough or setbacks occur, I invite them to revisit their intentions.
The very best intentions are highly personal, actionable, and under our control. When we see work toward the intention as the benchmark for success, publication becomes an added bonus. Intentions for my projects generally revolve around forgiveness or the release of beliefs that no longer serve me.
Next, I ask writers to identify the people in their writing family and when the going gets tough to ask for support. I’m so glad you are on my list!
Finally, we write affirmations for the work—something I can’t live without. I started my essay “Half-Life” in 2015 in anticipation of the twenty-year anniversary of my brother’s death. Over a three-year period, this essay was rejected twenty-five times. After each rejection, I had a brief pity party, said “Beloved essay, I believe in you and the work you can do in the world,” then I revised and resubmitted my work. I had to say this affirmation many times before “Half-Life” found a home at Kenyon Review Online.
MB: When you envision your memoir in the hands of its future readers, what is your hope for what it might offer them?
LCE: Here are my three wishes for this book. One: may it help survivors of suicide loss feel less alone and educate the public about what families go through when someone experiences a public mental health crisis. Two: may it reveal the consequences of isolation and trauma and how one small act of kindness can make all the difference. Three: may it inspire people to examine the stories they’ve inherited or the ones they’ve always told themselves about who they really are.
MB: Thank you so much for taking the time to share these incredibly helpful insights with us, Lisa! I wish you so much success as you finish your book, and I know your future readers, myself included, will be deeply grateful for the gift of your story.