The Story You Need to Tell: Writing to Heal from Trauma, Illness, or Loss

The Story You Need to Tell: Writing to Heal from Trauma, Illness, or Loss

The Story You Need to Tell: Writing to Heal from Trauma, Illness, or Loss

The Story You Need to Tell: Writing to Heal from Trauma, Illness, or Loss


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A practical and inspiring guide to transformational personal storytelling, The Story You Need to Tell is the product of Sandra Marinella’s pioneering work with veterans and cancer patients, her years of teaching writing, and her research into its profound healing properties. Riveting true stories illustrate Marinella’s methods for understanding, telling, and editing personal stories in ways that foster resilience and renewal. She also shares her own experience of using journaling and expressive writing to navigate challenges including breast cancer and postpartum depression. Each of the techniques, prompts, and exercises she presents helps us “to unravel the knot inside and to make sense of loss.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781608684830
Publisher: New World Library
Publication date: 05/16/2017
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 521,616
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Writing teacher Sandra Marinella, MA, MEd, has taught thousands of students and fellow educators and presented hundreds of workshops to veterans, educators, and cancer patients. She lives near Phoenix, Arizona.

Read an Excerpt

The Story You Need To Tell

Writing To Heal From Trauma Illness Or Loss

By Sandra Marinella

New World Library

Copyright © 2017 Sandra Marinella
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60868-484-7



Not Drowning

All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming.

— Helen Keller

Three weeks after my cancer diagnosis, I lay flat-stomached on the gurney. Scared. Vulnerable. I was shaking from the chilling temperatures inside the clinic. This tomb-like room was packed with medical machines. My left breast hung down perilously through a hole designed to trap and explore it. For days I had been pouring over information on cancer websites while medical staff had been busy photographing and now prodding my left breast to determine her fate. I had affectionately nicknamed her "my celebrity breast."

This was my third or fourth biopsy. You begin to lose track. It was the nipple biopsy. I wished I could forget that.

Two women dressed in blue scrubs helped strap me into place. They could see me, shaking from fear and the Siberia-like temps. But I could not see them. The women in blue had slipped behind a door to another room with a one-way mirror. Still I heard them. The door was slightly ajar. The punk-haired petite one giggled. "What a party! Look at Dr. Venn!" she exclaimed. "I posted it on Facebook." More laughter. I coughed, and the technicians realized I could hear them. The door softly clicked shut and a loud speaker above my head started blasting Dido's "Thank You" song. I wanted to feel grateful. But I didn't.

My mind flickered to the film I had watched on Netflix when I couldn't sleep the night before. It was a Glenda Jackson classic, Stevie, about the English poet and novelist Stevie Smith. "Life is like a railway station," Smith wrote. "The train of birth brings us in; the train of death will carry us away."

Since my diagnosis, I had been thinking a lot about death, wondering if I would have to face it. Wondering if I could face it. I realized Stevie's poems were obsessed with death. I used to teach one of her poems, and it popped into my head now. "Not Waving but Drowning" captured the shocking misfortune of a man who is swimming and starts to drown. He signals to those onshore that he is going under, but they think he is waving and ignore him. Tragically, he dies.

Nobody heard him, the dead man.
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

"Am I drowning?" I wondered. Then I twisted around in an attempt to free myself from the strap on the gurney. I glanced up at the clock. The doctor was twenty minutes late. I eyed an intimidating tray of meticulously aligned needles. "Am I drowning?" I said it out loud this time, before remembering I had a behindthe-mirror audience.

The image of drowning flooded my mind, and God knows I didn't want that picture stuck there like a catchy song I couldn't forget. Could I edit this image? I had been helping students edit their stories in my high school and college English classes for years. Maybe it was time to edit my own story. As I lay shivering on that gurney, I began to explore that possibility.

In recent weeks my bright-red journal and I had become inseparable. I had begun frantically listing my questions about cancer. And I read and researched voraciously, looking for strategies for handling this disease. I twisted around, looking for my journal. I had it with me in my book bag, but then I realized it was locked in the closet where I had stripped and donned this flimsy blue hospital gown. No wonder I was shivering.

Mentally I searched for a term I had scribbled somewhere in that red journal. I felt as if cancer were trying to suck me under. I didn't want it at all, but since I had it, I had to make room for it in my life. But at that moment I made a promise to myself. Cancer would not own me. It would not. And then I remembered the term — the tragic gap.

Facing Our Tragic Gap

Educator Parker Palmer named the strange space that lies between our hopes and our reality the "tragic gap." It is a tough place to stand because we have to balance two opposites: what we have and what we dream. I was dreaming of building an incredible creative writing program at my college and finishing a novel I had begun. My dream. But I had cancer, and I had to figure out how to survive it. My painful reality.

My journal was helping me reflect on my story. I was toying with ways to rewrite it. I could leave the college. I could embrace my writing full-time. And in that moment I had an insight: My journal writing mattered. It was my lifeline, the way I would maneuver my tragic gap. By writing I could reflect on and experiment with the changes I might make. Then I could make a plan and move forward.

I spun the word reflection around like a Rubik's Cube in my head. We need reflection in order to learn from, rebound from, and redefine our experiences. Reflection can calm our feelings of panic when we are caught up in a crisis. It allows the body and mind to float until we can catch the next wave or gather the strength to swim forward. Reflection helps us to manage our tragic gap by inviting us to rewrite our story, and by doing so, to remake ourselves, to incorporate even unwanted life events into the narrative that makes up "who I think I am: the story of myself."

If we do not reflect on our experiences, we stand in danger of losing ourselves. Our pain can claim our narratives and lead us into rocky terrain. Perhaps our suffering can even erupt in creative works — a Van Gogh painting of sunflowers or a manically funny riff by Robin Williams — but if we cannot edit our painful life stories and move forward, we will face an ongoing war with our ruminations and our demons, and we may fall prey to depression or other illnesses. Caught in this seemingly endless struggle, we are torn between choosing to fight on or to surrender, to live or to die. This is one reason a number of writers and creative artists' lives are associated with tragedy: Michael Jackson, River Phoenix, Heath Ledger, Janis Joplin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Vincent van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Ann Sexton, David Foster Wallace, Marilyn Monroe, and Robin Williams — and the list goes on. In the words of Stevie Smith, these artists were "much further out" than the people around them knew. While we admired their genius, they were drowning, not waving. I did not want this to be the end to my story — and I do not want it to be the end of yours.

Waving: Not Drowning

Our lives can read like soap operas. I started writing this book when I found out I had breast cancer. As I neared the end of the first draft, I learned my son had cancer. As I inched toward the end, my father fell ill, and after a hospital stay I brought him home to die. There are thorny, unfinished chapters being written in our lives all the time.

Many years ago Paul McCartney must have had this in mind when he wrote "Hey Jude." Divorce proceedings had started for John and Cynthia Lennon. Worried about how this split would affect their five-year-old son, Paul drove out to visit the boy. On the way Paul wrote a song to comfort the young Julian. The words still remind us how to handle a difficult experience: we have to take a sad song and make it better.

McCartney was wise to advise Julian to take his sad story and rework it. Make it better. We must face the hard realities of our lives, but we can choose how we face them. What if we took Stevie's poem and changed the title? If we reframed this metaphorical look at our souls, the story could be "Waving Not Drowning." We can choose to wave instead of drown. This book is about making that shift: discovering our strength by holding onto and sharing the story we have to tell.

Sitting on this little blue planet in the middle of our universe, we vacillate between fantasies of control over our lives and fears of no control. What we do have is a certain amount of control over our choices. Choices matter. Together we can choose to make our stories better. Perhaps I am crazy — both my sons tease me that I am — but I think we have that kind of power over our stories. We may exist within the tragic gap of life, but we can also "mind the gap." We can drown in our difficulties, we can struggle to tread water, and we can learn to swim, perhaps even splash in the waves, possibly surf the rollers to shore. Why not wave back at the unknown craziness of this universe? At the possibilities that are out there? Or at the possibilities that we can create?

Back at the breast clinic, the door creaked open, and the punk-haired technician quietly slipped into the room. "The doctor had an emergency at the hospital, but she is on her way," she said softly. Then she wrapped a nice warm blanket around me. I twisted my neck around just enough so I could smile up at her in appreciation. As I settled in, warm and cozy on my gurney, another memory popped into my head.

In the metro area where I live, fourteen or more children drown in family swimming pools every year. Like many parents who live in the Phoenix area, I have spent countless hours hauling my kids to and from swim lessons. The image etched in my mind came from a hot July day, a you-could-fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk day. The sun was jacking up the temperature to three digits as my son Zach and I arrived at the pool for his swimming lessons. Six four-year-olds began each day donning their inflatable armband floaties, sucking in the smell of chlorine, and jumping into the water for a ten-minute free swim. Zach loved his swim lessons. He also loved Heather, his beautifully sculpted and bronzed Red Cross–certified swim instructor. He waved at her gleefully as we entered the iron gates. We might have been the last to arrive, but Zach was always the first to don his floaties and line up for the jump into the pool.

On this particular day, Ally, a small redhead and a play buddy of Zach's, started to whimper. She wrapped her thin arms around Heather's long legs. "Not today," sulked Ally fearfully. "No swimming today."

Before Heather could respond to the little redhead's pleas, Zach had spun around, and even before Heather blew the whistle, he jumped into the water, surfaced, and threw his arms upward. "Ally!" Zach called out with his sock-it-to-the-world joy. "It's free swim. Get your butt in here!" For Zach there was no time for tears or whimpering. No wasting the time they had to play. Heather nodded down at Ally. Then she blew her whistle, and five kids jumped into the water like little sea urchins, laughing and squealing as they leaped. A transformed Ally joined in, squealing with delight. I was a bit anxious that Zach had overstepped his bounds by jumping in ahead of the whistle. But before Heather dove into the pool to play with the children, she turned back to me and mouthed, "I simply love your kid." In that moment I realized yet again how amazing he is. There he was in the water — laughing, wiggling around like a dolphin, popping up — and waving wildly to me.

If my son at age four could embrace the water and come up waving, I could do it. I could find a way to get out of this sinkhole called cancer. I was going to tread water, swim, or do whatever I had to do to find my way out.

Choosing Waving, Not Drowning

Waving, not drowning seems an apt metaphor for reaching past a bad story. For Zach there was no time to sulk or "drown" in the hard part of lessons. We have to swim in the other direction, as he did. By waving we are reaching out emotionally to others. We are reaching past the tragic gap and accepting hope and the possibility of finding joy. By writing to make better sense of our story, we can avoid drowning in our ruminations and painful emotions. We can take a shattered story and remake ourselves. We cannot change the facts, but we can change how we interpret those facts, how they affect us, and eventually how they teach us about our vulnerabilities and strengths.

In this book we are going to examine how the act of writing helps people deal with difficult setbacks and trauma. We are going to meet individuals who floated, swam, or grabbed a raft to get through them. We are going to learn how to take our sad song and make it better by using our words, our stories, our writing.

Back on the Gurney

The blanket that had warmed me had gone cold. I checked the clock. Nearly forty minutes late. But it no longer mattered. I didn't care. I knew something had changed inside me.

"I am going to make it," I announced to the sterile room and the world's most wicked-looking needles. "I am going to be waving when this is over ... not drowning ... did you hear me, universe?" I practically shouted now. "Waving — not drowning!" And I set out on the story of my own survival.

Dr. Venn, her thick, dark hair pulled back in a bouncy ponytail, entered the room. Immediately she picked up a needle. "Are you ready?" she asked, all businesslike. I nodded. "Now I am going to insert something. It might pinch for a moment, but the procedure won't hurt."

It did hurt. It hurt like hell — but it no longer mattered. A new voice had erupted from deep inside me. I had tapped into a new understanding of who I was — and who I could become. I could rewrite my story. I could survive this.

In facing our shattered life stories, we must reach deep inside our pain — for it is here that we can break our silence and find our new voice.

Personal Writing Guidelines

At the end of each chapter, you will find writing prompts. These are suggestions or ideas that can guide your writing. Choose the ones that sound like a good fit for you. If you are new to personal writing, begin by committing to five minutes of writing at a time. Additional ideas will be shared in coming chapters, but if you are ready to write, here are some guidelines to help you get started:

• Begin by finding a comfortable spot to write. If you want, bring your water bottle, coffee, or tea. Choose a journal, notebook, or computer.

• Forget about rules — grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Just plan to write.

• Choose a prompt, put your pen to paper (or your fingers on your keyboard), and write for at least five minutes. If you write more, congratulate yourself! If a prompt fails to connect with you, try the next one.

• Write as often and as much as you dare. Give it your best.

• Then reread and reflect on what you have written. You may be surprised at the stories or thoughts you hold within.

• Work to develop a personal writing practice that works for you. Every writer is unique, and by finding how you write best, you will grow your words and your voice.

All the best as you begin this amazing life journey!

Writing Prompts and Suggestions

Using these prompts, we will start to learn how to unleash our inner stories.

Writing Prompt: A Recent Surprise

For a minute or two make a list of some surprises, good and bad, that you have had. Then put a star by a recent and difficult surprise. Explore this event. What happened? How did you face it, or how will you face it? If it is too painful to explore at this point, let it go for now.

Writing Prompt: Waving, Not Drowning

Have you ever chosen to make the best of a bad situation? Describe this experience. What happened? Did you turn to others for help? Were you able to find a positive way of looking at it all? How did it work out?

Writing Prompt: The Tragic Gap

Start by creating "tragic gap statements." Do this by writing one or more statements that follow this form: "I want to ... but I can't because ..."

Here are some examples:

I want to move, but I can't because I don't make enough money.

I want to be an actor, but I can't because I suffer from anxiety when I try to perform.

I want to undertake a new challenge, but I can't because I believe I am too old.

Now either choose a statement you have written or create a new one. This tragic gap statement needs to connect to a dilemma you are facing. After you write this statement, answer these questions as best you can: What is your dream? What obstacles are making it hard to accomplish your dream? How can you face this challenge? If you are not ready to explore this dilemma, come back to it later.


Facing Trauma

When There Are No Words

I've begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own.

Chaim Potok

The sun and the fragrance of orange blossoms belied the day. On this morning I hit the traffic lights — all eleven — with perfect timing. I arrived early at my high school and dashed up the front steps, past the imposing metal gates, and headed toward the teachers' mailboxes. When I heard the clinking bangles of Faye, a school counselor, I turned to greet her smile. Instead, her face was etched with tears. "Did you hear about the kid who was shot and killed by the Walmart thief yesterday?" she asked. I nodded. "It was Lucas," she blurted, and instinctively reached out to steady me.

But it was no use. My legs buckled beneath me. I dropped my stack of books, my essays scattered across the linoleum, and I landed, legs splayed, like a crumpled piece of paper.


Excerpted from The Story You Need To Tell by Sandra Marinella. Copyright © 2017 Sandra Marinella. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Christina Baldwin xiii

Author's Note xvii

Introduction 1

Part 1 Writing: Not Drowning

Chapter 1 Waving: Not Drowning 11

Chapter 2 Facing Trauma: When There Are No Words 21

Chapter 3 Writing: Finding Our Words 29

Part 2 Writing Down the Self

Chapter 4 A Room of Your Own: A Journal 39

Chapter 5 Writing Down the Self 53

Chapter 6 Stages of Writing and Healing 67

Part 3 Finding Meaning through Story

Chapter 7 The Magical Mystery Tour: How Our Brains Create Story 85

Chapter 8 Stories: Our Lives Hang on Narrative Threads 97

Chapter 9 Finding Our Life-Defining Stories 113

Chapter 10 Making Sense of Self with Stories 125

Part 4 Rewriting Our Shattered Stories

Chapter 11 Writing to Heal 143

Chapter 12 Breaking the Silence 153

Chapter 13 Getting Unstuck 163

Chapter 14 Embracing Other Perspectives 169

Chapter 15 Story Editing 173

Chapter 16 Rewriting and Transforming 181

Part 5 Writing to Heal

Chapter 17 Writing to Heal from Hardships and Trauma 191

Chapter 18 Writing to Heal from Illness and Injury 209

Chapter 19 Writing to Heal from Loss 225

Part 6 Writing to Transform

Chapter 20 Resilience 251

Chapter 21 The Burst of Creativity 261

Epilogue 271

Acknowledgments 275

Notes 279

References and Suggested Reading 285

Permission Acknowledgments 291

Index 293

About the Author 309

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