Nonfiction | Memoir | Intensive

2-Day Nonfiction Intensive: Writing the Trauma Essay

Writing can be healing. But writing can also re-traumatize, making it difficult to tell the stories that shape us. In this two-day intensive, writers gain an understanding of how the physiological processes of trauma and shame interact with a writing practice. Together, we’ll sidestep trauma writing stumbling blocks by using activities adapted from clinical practice to safely consider the structure of traumatic events. Drawing on published essays primarily about sexual and domestic violence, we’ll do a deep dive into the ways we might frame our experiences of trauma on the page for maximum power. Along the way, we’ll explore craft challenges specific to trauma, including the fragmentation of memory, the temptation of melodrama, elevating a personal story into a universal inquiry, and owning on the page our complicated, contradictory selves.

Through two days of powerful interactive lectures and exercises that help participants generate, organize, and more deeply understand their material, writers will see new possibilities for their own work. While everyone will be invited to share their work from in-class prompts, we will not workshop pre-written essays together.

This class is not a support group. Nor is it intended to take the place of mental healthcare. But for those who have already begun to resolve physiological traumas, it will offer a stable, supportive environment to begin writing the stories that, well told, have so much to offer society.


- An understanding of how physiological trauma, shame, and social stigma interact with a writing practice

- Exercises adapted from clinical practice that sidestep some of the common blocks of trauma writing

- Craft tools that help writers see their stories of trauma from new angles, with new potential

- A block of time and supportive community for generating and organizing topically-difficult material

- A heightened sense of mission around the importance of telling stories of trauma well

- Follow-up e-mails with an instructor experienced in trauma writing and trained in trauma-sensitive facilitation

- Access to Catapult's list of writing opportunities and important submission deadlines, as well as a 10% discount on all future Catapult classes


Day 1

- Introduction to the class and icebreakers

- Overview of the physiology of trauma, the impact of shame, and the potential for writing to heal us

- Discussion of the “indulgence” of writing trauma and the silencing of our stories

- Generative exercises on chronology, chunking, and fragmentation

- Self- and perpetrator- characterization in the trauma essay

Day 2

- Framing trauma essays and finding context through research

- Generative activity on writing about power

- Understanding melodrama: writing attack scenes and near-misses

- The role of the writer in shaping cultural conversation about trauma

Katherine Standefer

Katherine Standefer's debut book LIGHTNING FLOWERS was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction and the Arizona/New Mexico Book Award in Memoir, selected as a New York Times Editor's Choice/Staff Pick, and shortlisted for the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Prize from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. The book was named one of Oprah Magazine's "Best Books of Fall 2020," selected as the Common Read 2022-2023 at Colorado College, and featured in People Magazine, on the goop podcast, and on NPR's Fresh Air. Standefer's previous writing appeared in The Best American Essays 2016 and won the Iowa Review Award in Nonfiction. She earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Arizona and spent time as a Logan Nonfiction Fellow at the Carey Institute for Global Good. She lives in Wyoming.


"There are few writers for whom I drop everything when I see their byline. Katherine Standefer is one of those few. Her writing is essential to our cultural understanding of sexuality, technology, health care, poverty, and the body. But listing her subject matter misses what is truly important in Standefer’s work, for in it, she employs the pumping heart of the personal to that inform nuanced and well-considered cultural criticism. In truth, I’d follow her words anywhere they would want to take me—and on any subject."

Christian Kiefer author of PHANTOMS and West Coast Editor of THE PARIS REVIEW

"I am a besotted fan of Katherine Standefer’s writing, especially about sex, especially about sex and its relationship to pain and power. When Standefer is away from e-mail, she sends an automatic message reminding her correspondent to “run toward what scares you.” In such blisteringly complicit, precise, and intelligent essays such as 'Animalis,' 'In Praise of Contempt,' 'The Taste of Lavender,' 'Clearcut,' and 'Breaking the Body,' she runs exactly toward what scares her (and you). She refuses to write about sex with either an ounce of sentimentality or an ounce of false cool. Martha Graham said, ‘The body never lies.’ Nietzsche: ‘There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.’ Standefer’s work beautifully and powerfully embodies and proves the irreducible truth that sex is everything."

David Shields international best-selling author of twenty-two books

"‘In Praise of Contempt' takes a no-nonsense approach to sexual morality, and sets forth a surprisingly unconventional theory of how to live and how to love, with some of the freshness of such feminist classics as Virginie Despentes's King Kong Theory or Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex. The sexual stories that 'In Praise of Contempt' contains are refreshingly anti-pious; the author's voice is clear, cool, and committed to an erotics that is blissfully contrarian and unruly. I especially admired the author's insights into the interlocking relation between desire and contempt."

Wayne Koestenbaum judge of the 2015 Iowa Review Award in Nonfiction and author

"This was my first writing course and Kati created a fine introduction to the craft, helping me start on a new and fantastic journey. Kati distilled so much about the craft to create focus and liveliness, without the ideas being overwhelming or out of reach. She inspired an atmosphere of discovery and ease so each student felt her own voice and understood more of her own story in a way that could only occur by group effect. No one wanted the course to end! The impact was deep—changing how I read, think, and write. Kati helped free something in me, dissolving a fear and a holding back, leaving me with excitement to keep journeying in the country of writing."

Julia Jurgens illness writing student at The University of Arizona Poetry Center, Tucson, AZ

"It’s difficult for me to refer to Kati as a ‘teacher’ as she does not simply treat each of her students as someone to teach, but rather someone to inspire. She takes specific care in making sure that she gets to know each student, their interests, their strengths, and their weaknesses, so that she can customize her feedback and optimize their experience in her course. I never felt like I was overlooked, but rather that each assignment I completed and each comment that I made was important. She took a personal interest in each of our work, our processes, our goals, and us. The only improvement I could ask for in her course is to simply have more of it."

Jennifer Sedler former creative nonfiction and narrative medicine student at University of Arizona

"This was my first writing class ever. I was nervous - unsure if I could hold my own. Kati blew away my fears with the kindest breath, welcoming my story and beckoning forth new details, descriptions and angles. It was a revelation; I thought I could only tell my story one way. Kati taught me differently - through prompts, exercises and masterful facilitation. I gained not only new skills, new friends and a new community, but a whole new way of seeing my narrative."

Daisye Orr illness writing and trauma writing student at Seattle’s Hugo House

"Ms. Standefer found hidden writerly places in my soul and encouraged me to dig deeper. I am eternally grateful for the impact her skill has on my writing."

Onita Morgan-Edwards graduate student at Ashland Low-Residency MFA