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From Tragedy to Art: Meaning-Making, Personal Narrative, and Life’s Adversities

Using expressive narrative writing to transform pain into art.

I recently finished reading Dr. Nancy Rappaport's excellent book In Her Wake, and it reminded me once again that our lives are works of art - or at least they can be works of art if we choose to make them so.
In her book, Dr. Rappaport describes her 18-year journey to find meaning in her mother's death (her mother committed suicide when Nancy was only four years old). The result of this journey is a work of nonfiction art that is poignant, informative, and inspiring. It's a primer for psychologists, teachers, and caregivers who are charged with explaining an act of suicide to a young child and understanding the child's response, as Rappaport looks at parental suicide from her own multiple personal perspectives: that of a child, a psychiatrist, and a mother (Rappaport is the mother of three). She also discusses her mother's suicide from the perspective of other family members, including her mother's (who left notes, letters, and even an unfinished novel that were revealing of her motives and emotional turmoil).
While the informational and biographical aspects of In Her Wake are artful and highly interesting, it is the transformational aspects of the book I wish to discuss; the book is an elegant example of how to use a creative activity (narrative writing) as a tool to promote the healing of life's nagging wounds.

One of the most consistently-replicated findings in psychological research is that writing a narrative about a negative experience in your life (called expressive writing) can lead to improved psychological and physical health. Much of the work on the beneficial effects of writing stems from the research of James Pennebaker at the University of Texas in Austin. Pennebaker and his colleagues have discovered that writing about an emotional life event during short sessions of 20 minutes each on just four consecutive days can reduce the number of sick days people report, improve immune functioning, and decrease dysphoria and anxiety (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005; Pennebaker, 1999). Writing a-la-Pennebaker has also been shown to improve short-term memory and even lead to better school grades (Pennebaker & Francis, 1996).
Why is narrative writing, whether we choose to write in 20-minute blurbs or in a book-length investigation like Rappaport's, so powerful? The psychological explanation is that sometimes events happen in our lives that we just can't incorporate into our mental schema of a just and good world. When this occurs, we are left with a psychic wound that doesn't heal properly. Writing about these events (assuming they are not so raw and recent that we risk retraumatizing ourselves by reliving them) can often allow us to gingerly approach the wounded area of our psyche and begin to apply a salve of contextual meaning. By writing and rewriting aspects of our life story, we get to exercise control over some of the elements of our experience that have either seemed uncontrollable or have been at odds with our overall schema of ourselves and our world.
Quite simply, by writing a narrative about our lives, we are transformed from victims of uncontrollable events into well-informed authors, and our life stories become meaningful works of art. This doesn't mean that we fictionalize the events of our lives to make them have a "happy ending." Rather, through narrative writing we can gain control over painful events by exploring and reframing them in a purposeful way.
Nancy Rappaport's narrative is the result of many years of research, introspection, and professional experience; however, you don't have to be a highly-trained psychiatrist or a skilled writer to receive the positive benefits of writing a personal narrative. Through expressive narrative writing, you may be able to reframe negative events into positive opportunities for growth, and you may be able to better indentify the themes, character development, and plot of your own personal journey. In my next post, I'll provide some suggestions for using the expressive narrative writing technique to enhance creativity and personal development.

Baikie, K. A. & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11, 338-346.
Pennebaker, J.W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science 8(3),162-166.
Pennebaker, J. W. & Francis, M. E. (1996) Cognitive, emotional, and language processes in disclosure. Cognition and Emotion, 10, 601-626.
Rappaport, N. (2009). In her wake: A child psychiatrist explores the mystery of her mother's suicide. New York: Basic Books.

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