To be a person is to have a story to tell. — Isak Dinesen
It’s been nearly a week since our first six-week “Writing the Heart” group met. The session was –dare I say it? —heartwarming, filled with candor, poignancy and shared laughter. Twelve people living with a variety of cardiac conditions met on Zoom for the first time, as far away from Toronto as Prince Edward Island to the east and British Columbia to the west. Candor, poignancy, even humor punctuated the sharing of what different group members had written. Again, I witnessed not only the healing power of expressive writing, but how coupled with reading aloud and sharing with one another, the therapeutic value of expressive writing is multiplied. Storytelling is synonymous with being human. Our ancestors told stories as a way to make sense of their worlds. Stories were the mechanism by which traditions and wisdom were passed from one generation to another. “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel,” author Ursula LeGuin once said, “but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”
There is something in us that yearns to tell the stories of our lives and have them listened to in return. Not only do our stories give us way to engage with one another, but in doing so, we discover common themes and experiences. —Mimi Guarneri, MD, The Heart Speaks, 2006 (p. 76).
What is it about sharing our stories that makes them so important? Storytelling, as several researchers suggest, is a powerful tool for both patients and healthcare providers. The significant body of research by James Pennebaker, PhD and his colleagues has demonstrated that forming a story from one’s life experiences is associated with improved physical and mental health, whether written or verbal. It offers individuals a way to give voice to the experience of illness and, in turn, to begin to confront it and their questions of care and mortality.
Stories offer insight, understanding, and new perspectives. They educate us and they feed our imaginations. They help us see other ways of doing things that might free us from self-reproach or shame. Hearing and telling stories is comforting and bonds people together….Being able to narrate a coherent story is a healing experience.2,3… stories keep us connected to each other; they reassure us that we are not alone.—Miriam Divinsky, MD, Can Fam Physician. 2007 Feb; 53(2): 203–205.
Increasingly, the skills of storytelling have begun to be recognized as invaluable to improved health communication, thanks to the groundbreaking work of Dr. Rita Charon, the creator of “narrative medicine,” a medical practice that uses patient stories in clinical practice, research, and education as a way to promote healing. “Telling and listening to stories is the way we make sense of our lives,” according to Dr. Thomas Houston. “That natural tendency may have the potential to alter behavior and improve health.” Interviewed in a 2011 New York Times article, he said, ” We learn through stories… It’s a natural extension to think that we could use stories to improve our health.” https://nytimes.com/2011/02/10/heath/views/10chen.html
Their stories, yours, mine—it’s what we carry with us on this trip we take…we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them. —Advice to a medical student by William Carlos Williams, physician and poet
I am continually humbled and inspired by the stories written and shared in my writing groups, whether for heart or cancer patients. Their stories live in my mind long after the writing groups have ended. “Death,” poet Jim Harrison wrote, “steals everything but our stories.” (From: “Larson’s Holstein Bull,” In Search of Small Gods, 2009″.) Stories are our legacies, what we leave behind, the way we are remembered
It’s why our stories matter. We are our stories. They shape us and act as the lens through which we see the world. Through story, we make sense of our lives, reclaim our voices, and learn our stories have the power to touch others’ hearts. We create community out of shared story. Whether written or told, our stories are the glue that bind us together, offer hope and healing, and instruct us on what it is to be human. Is it any wonder why I so love facilitating these expressive writing groups?
Stories—the small personal ones that bring us close as well as those of the larger world—foster compassion. In the telling of our personal lives, we’re reminded of our basic, human qualities—our vulnerabilities and strengths, foolishness and wisdom, who we are…, through the exchange of stories, [you] help heal each other’s spirits.
–Patrice Vecchione, Writing and the Spiritual Life
What is the story you want to tell? You can try beginning in the middle, at the end, or simply with that line from our children’s fairy tales, “Once upon a time…” What’s stopping you?