My husband and I were having dinner at the home of friends last evening. The conversation was lively and interesting, as always. Peppered throughout our discussions, personal stories of loss and illness intermingled with other topics. I was reminded that whether a pleasant evening with friends and family, or in the writing groups I lead for those living with serious illness, it’s the stories we share with one another that are at the heart of human relationships. Stories are uniquely human. In short, we are all storytellers. Our stories, told and retold, they are the way we communicate with others, fundamental to defining who we are, what we have experienced, and how we make sense of our lives.
It’s not only personal experiences, travel, celebrations, or the current political situation that define our stories. Suffering is too. It’s part of the universal human condition, and it’s told and retold in literature, history and memoir. The act of writing is not only about telling our own stories, but about telling the human story. During serious illness, loss or trauma, our stories are even more important to our healing. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book about cancer, author Siddartha Mukherjee wrote: “A patient is, at first, simply a storyteller, a narrator of suffering—a traveler who has visited the kingdom of the ill. To relieve an illness, one must begin, then, by unburdening its story.” (The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, 2010). The wisdom of his words extends far beyond cancer patients, just as meaningful for anyone living with a serious or life-threatening illness.
I’ve been looking back on my years of leading “writing for healing” groups. It was nearly twenty-three years ago that I initiated and led my first group workshop, inspired by my cancer experience and a love of writing. The first groups were for cancer patients, offering a way for them to tell and explore the experience of living with cancer, but, in the process, also explore the deeper aspects of their lives. Since that time, I’ve continued my writing groups, expanding them to heart and organ transplant patients, the bereaved, at risk teens and many others. Despite the many years since the first group experiences, I have never tired of these workshops. Even yet, I am inspired and humbled by the many people who have participated and shared their stories of illness, suffering and life.
Writing and sharing our stories does much more for us than merely describe our experiences. They offer us release of painful emotions, a way to make sense of illness as well as our lives. We rediscover ourselves as we write, not only in illness but who we are becoming. Shared stories are also the language of community. Whether spoken or written, they are fundamental in helping us navigate the loneliness that comes with a serious illness, discovering a sense of community with others who are also grappling with the prospect of early mortality, or an altered life.
“In the exchange of stories,” we help heal each other’s spirits.”
–Patrice Vecchione , Writing and the Spiritual Life (2001)
“One must begin, then, by unburdening its story…” Unburdening our stories of illness or trauma helps to repair the damage to our lives, our sense of self, and the disrupted future we may face. “Decay is the beginning of all birth,” Kat Duff wrote in The Alchemy of Illness (2000). Sociologist Arthur Frank, survivor of cancer and heart attack, commented on his experience: “I did not want my questions answered,” he said, “ I wanted my experience shared.” (At the Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness, 2002). We are our stories, and in the act of sharing them, we affirm our uniqueness and discover what is most meaningful.
While serious illness can change us, perhaps, as poet Jane Hirshfield remarked, it has the capacity to “remodel us for some new fate.” My illness experiences did that for me, but it took me time to realize it impact and change my life. In my teens, I underwent neurosurgery for a life threatening illness, and in my adult years, cancer treatment was followed by heart failure a few years later. Those experiences not only changed my perspective about my life, but how I wanted to define my worth in the world. Following my cancer diagnosis, I made the decision to leave the corporate world for good and return to what I loved most: writing and encouraging others to write and share stories. I have never looked back.
“Recovery is only worth as much as what you learn about the life you’re regaining,” Arthur Frank wrote. But it’s not just illness that teaches us. Any momentous or challenging chapter of life has the potential for significant learning. But that deep learning requires something of us. Maxine Hong Kingston, who encouraged war veterans to write and tell their stories of war and it impact on their lives, had only one rule for the veterans who participated in her groups: Tell the truth. (In: Veterans of War; Veterans of Peace (2016).
Telling the truth of our experiences takes courage. It’s why writing is often called “a courageous act.” We must be willing to dive deep beneath the surface of our life experiences and do some hard soul searching. Yet it is exactly the courage to go deep into our truths that we begin to heal and discover meaning.
Again and again, I witness the healing power of writing in my groups. As participants write, they slowly move beyond the shock, fear, anger or sorrow and began to examine their “whole” lives as the weeks progress. It’s the buried treasure in our experiences that writing helps us discover and unearth to allow healing to begin. Writing offers a “door in” to our deepest experiences and feelings. All it requires is that we commit to writing honestly and deeply, unearthing our pain and suffering so that the healing potential writing is experienced.
…And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.
(From: “The Wild Geese,” In: Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, 1998)
Writing Alone or Together: Getting Started
Where do you begin? Anywhere. Don’t try to force a poem or a narrative into being, to make it “interesting” or “descriptive.” Start with what you know: something as simple as your name and how you got it or what it means to you, or use a family photograph, one of your father, mother or your younger self. Write about the moment you first heard your diagnosis or the shock of a sudden and unexpected tragedy in your life.. simply make a list of “before _____, I was…” and “after _____, I am…” before choosing one to expand upon as you write.
Try writing for just 10 minutes for three or four days. Find private space and time when you are least likely to be interrupted. Set a timer, then begin: a word, a phrase, an event, something you see—the possibilities are endless. Write without stopping; go wherever it goes. Now read it over. Underline any words or phrases that stands out or have more emotional potency for you. The next day, use one of your phrases as a new beginning and write again as before, letting your words go where they may. See what comes up, what changes. Writing is not only courageous, but a reflective practice. It matters less what you write but (as the members of my groups discover) that you write. Your mind and feelings in partnership with your pen, will ultimately take you where you “need” to go.
In the many years since I first began leading these groups, they are now much more numerous and accessible online or in person. Whether you write in a group or on your own, why not explore the healing potential of writing can have for you?
2 thoughts on “Looking Back: Writing and Its Potential for Healing”
That truely is one of your best posts. It captures your personal perspective and experience, it gives motivation and direction for those moved by your message and it wraps up the message you have been converting to all your fans for 23 years. Well done.
Thank you John.
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