On Life Writing

Writing your story: the healing power of memoir-writing

I know I post on the topic of the healing potential of writing your life story a lot, but I can’t say it too often. In this well researched newspaper article Martha Ross examines the healing power of story with examples from people in a local life writing group supplemented by research results and comments from professionals.

Although some may aspire to become the next Frank McCourt, Cheryl Strayed or Mary Karr, many simply want to explore their lives and experiences, including those pivotal events that might have been difficult or even traumatic. Indeed, it is the confessional nature of memoirs that makes writing them a potentially powerful tool for emotional healing. A growing body of research demonstrates that taking pen to journal or fingers to keyboard can improve the physical and emotional health of people dealing with everything from ordinary turning points, such as leaving home for college, to serious misfortunes or major trauma, like childhood abuse, addiction, a death in the family or terminal illness.

Doctors recognizing therapeutic benefits of reading, writing

In another newspaper article, Elizabeth Hamilton explores the healing potential of both writing and reading. On writing, she mentions poet Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, who “teaches writing as a way of healing to cancer patients, at-risk youths, doctors, families and just about everyone else.” Coke’s own writing has helped her come through her own life experiences that included living with a schizophrenic mother, growing up in a series of foster homes, having cancer, and struggling with drug abuse.

Coke also points out that reading about others’ experiences, such as Frank McCourt’s in his memoir Angela’s Ashes, helps us empathize with them. Hamilton then turns to the work of Raymond Mar, associate professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, whose research has demonstrated that reading both fictional and nonfictional stories makes us better able to empathize with others.

The article also addresses narrative medicine, a movement that “has grown from the idea that both writing and reading literature can help doctors and patients communicate better and discover meaning in the illnesses they battle.” She cites Dr. John Harper, a cardiology consultant at Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas, who founded an annual Literature and Medicine Conference at the hospital. Harper teaches his residents that writing about their experiences is an effective way to release deep emotions:

“If you have an experience and you sit down and write about it, you can pour that emotion out,” Harper says. Purging these thoughts and emotions helps to find meaning in what happened — the death or the survival of a patient — and then allows you to move on with your life.

Teachers, Which Character Will You Play In Your Students’ Life Stories?

We are all the main character in our own life stories, but we are also minor characters in other peoples’ lives. The concept of life story is not limited to writing our own life story or reading other peoples’ memoirs.

Teacher Lori Gard demonstrates the wider application of life story to help teachers understand their students better:

We are not the only characters and players in our students’ stories. The chapters we are involved in are not the only plot in their unfolding life narrative. The setting we observe them in perhaps is not the setting they believe defines the true essence of their life. We as teachers are merely characters in our students’ stories.

Gard also implores teachers to be mindful of the part they are writing for themselves in their students’ life stories:

They all are composing their story, each and every day we encounter them, whether they be sitting in front of us, standing defiantly at the back of the room or laying under the easel. This is their story. Our verse will be significant, for one reason or another. Significant for the grief it has caused or for the joy it has brought. True, we as teachers are but one character. It might seem a small role. But we are crucial in that we are those who can make a difference if we so choose, making the verse or role we write for ourselves as inspiring and uplifting as we choose to dream it to be.