Writing and Storytelling for Healing

Research shows that writing personal narratives could help with healing.

Posted Oct 08, 2018

The power of storytelling for the individual and the world at large goes back to the beginning of time and transcends many boundaries. In addition to sharing stories as a way to connect with others, doing so can facilitate the healing process for ourselves and those we’re sharing our stories with. Storytelling can help us learn about the tragedy and comedy of life and make us feel less alone, confused, and troubled. For example, the power of storytelling is particularly obvious in programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, where people come together to share their experiences. Writing stories enables people to construct meaning from the devastating events they’ve endured and helps repair the disruption that can be caused by illness. It can also empower individuals to move forward with their lives.                                                                                          

Storytelling dates back to the beginning of time. In fact, stories are perhaps the strongest bonds we have with other nations and races. Australian aborigines painted symbols from stories on cave walls to help storytellers remember their tales. The Egyptians were the first people to write down their stories; and the Romans, through their travels and conquests, were adept at disseminating stories.         

More recent studies conducted by Broadbent (2017) show that those who wrote about stressful times in their lives before their biopsies had a chance to heal faster. The expressive writing groups in the study were asked to write about their “deepest thoughts and feelings about a traumatic, upsetting experience of your entire life.” They were prompted to express something that they hadn’t discussed in great detail with anyone else.

Joseph Campbell coined the term “the hero’s journey,” which is what we take from birth to death, from innocence to wisdom, and from stagnation to a new life. The hero’s journey is also a path we take to learn about our authentic selves and our direction in life. During this journey, we’re continually posing questions that represent seeds of awakening. Writing our stories is an excellent forum in which to pose the questions that might be buried inside our psyches. Author and clinical psychologist Carl Greer (2014) said that when we write our stories, we stop feeling confused about the events in our lives and thus begin to access the wisdom that we might have lost when we disassociated ourselves from traumatic emotions or insights.

Many individuals turn to writing to deal with difficult times in their lives. During my doctoral research on the healing and transformative power of memoir writing, I interviewed Mark Matousek, who’d written two memoirs. When writing The Boy He Left Behind, he said he was transformed by letting go of the pain from his past. When he began writing the memoir, he felt as if a part of him was missing because, as a child, he didn’t have a father living at home; but while writing the book, he realized that there was really no reason for him to have those feelings of loss. If he hadn’t engaged in the writing process, though, he might not have come to that realization.

(Some other memoirs that have been written as a form of healing include, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do; Reading My Father; The Glass Castle; Lies My Mother Never Told Me; Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter; House Rules; Before the Knife; Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You; and many more.)

References

Broadbent, E., et al. (2017). “The effects of expressive writing before or after punch biopsy on wound healing.” Journal of Brain, Behaviour and Immunity. March.

Krippner, S., M. Bova and L. Gray, Eds. (2007). Healing Stories: The Use of Narrative in Counseling and Psychotherapy. Charlottesville, VA: Puente Publications.

Raab, D. (2014). Creative Transcendence: Memoir Writing for Transformation and Empowerment. Dissertation. The Institute of Transpersonal Psychology.

Raab, D. (2017). Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life. Ann Arbor, MI: Loving Healing Press.