We all have a story. Sometimes it is the story of being knocked to the ground – perhaps because of a cancer diagnosis or the death of a loved one. And if we aren’t careful a story like this can get buried within us. We can deny it ever happened and this might lead to physical or psychological problems. Let’s explore how we can find and begin to navigate a story we need to tell.
Ten years ago, at the beginning of his senior year, Ben sat in the back of my high school writing classroom. Against the wall. Over his head was an imaginary sign that read “Leave me alone.” But my job as a teacher was to knock down that sign. And while it took a few weeks, I did. On my third attempt at a conversation with Ben, there was a breakthrough.
Although he had few words for what had happened, he had a story stuck inside. It had shattered his life. He had scrawled bits of it in his classroom journal, but now he would tell me. “Last summer . . . my uncle . . . my best friend . . . died.” Ben had broken his silence.
While he continued to struggle with his words, Ben began to inch forward. In coming weeks he embarked on writing a personal narrative on this tragic death. Still, it would be several more weeks before he would share it openly in class. Even then his story bobbed up unexpectedly. On the day narratives were due I asked if any students wanted to read their work aloud. Ben’s hand shot up — probably as much to his surprise as to his classmates’.
For a few seconds he sat staring at his essay, stunned that he had volunteered, but he found his voice. At first he read haltingly about “his lost friend.” But then Ben found his rhythm and read about the good times with his uncle — reading Rolling Stone, riding bikes, listening to U2, especially “Beautiful Day.” He described a visit to a memorial in Washington, DC, where he watched his uncle cry as he rubbed his fingers across a name. And he noted that Uncle Mark could neither forget this war nor talk about it. Then his voice softened, and Ben ended by describing a not-so-beautiful day when he opened the garage door to find his uncle shot to death. “Self-inflicted wound,” he read. “A suicide.” As students left my class that day, some paused to thank Ben for reading his story. Others paused to pat him on the back, and two girls hugged him. While this story would never be okay, on that day, Ben began accepting his uncle’s death and integrating it into his life story. In coming months Ben began to volunteer and work with local veterans. He was moving forward and trying to make something positive come from his loss.
Over two hundred studies show us that our personal writing can help us heal physically, psychologically, and even socially. In my work with writers, veterans and cancer patients, I have discovered there are stages that can help us find our way to healing and personal story transformation:
- Experiencing pain and grief. When you experience a trauma from a loss, illness, or any serious setback, you will experience painful emotions. While there is no set order for what transpires, initially you might want to ignore or deny what has happened because this helps to endure the shock.
- Breaking the silence. At this time, you find your voice and begin to express your emotions and share openly what has happened.
- Accepting and piecing together a shattered story. In this stage you begin to move your emotions into a logical framework and make sense of what has happened to you and what you plan to do about it. Writing is especially helpful in this stage.
- Finding meaning. Here you make sense of your broken story and integrate it into your life. The story is complete.
- Rewriting or transforming your story. With the pain of this experience behind you, you can move forward with renewed energy to live more fully.
The Story You Need to Tell is a guide to help you find, share, write, edit, and grow from your stories. Here is a sample prompt to help you find a story you may need to tell. If at any point your writing seems too painful, you should put it on hold.
Writing Prompt: Finding a Story You Need to Tell
If you have not written about a difficult experience or trauma, you may want to approach it first by doing a structured writing. By answering simple questions, you can explore your experience and decide if you are ready to move forward with an in-depth exploration. Begin by completing each sentence starter, and follow it with a short paragraph of a few sentences. It should take about ten to twenty minutes.
- The story I would like to explore is…
- What comes to mind is…
- What bothers me about this experience is…
- What I would like to understand is…
- I am hopeful that…
- Perhaps it would help if…
Later come back and review this writing. At this time ask yourself: What have I learned? Is this a story I need to explore in more depth? Decide on your next step.
Based on the book The Story You Need to Tell. Copyright © 2017 by Sandra Marinella. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.NewWorldLibrary.com.
Sandra Marinella, MA, MEd, is an award-winning writing teacher and the author of The Story You Need to Tell. She has taught thousands of students and fellow educators and presented hundreds of workshops to veterans, teachers, writers, and cancer patients about the power of our personal stories and writing to heal, grow, and transform our lives. Sandra founded the Story You Need to Tell Project which provides workshops on the power of transformational storytelling and personal writing to increase well-being. Profits from her book support cancer research and provide educational scholarships to veterans and writers. She lives in Chandler, Arizona. Discover more at www.storyyoutell.com.