Making Sense of Our Stories | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Making Sense of Our Stories

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Have you ever been in love? You know, "love" like in the storybooks, like the gods and goddesses, like a Shakespeare sonnet? Have you ever been so confused, so sick, so lost that you questioned your fundamental belief system like Job or Dante did? If you said yes to any of these questions, writing about those feelings will help you work through them.

Putting them down on paper captures memories, stringing a full picture together so that the world doesn't seem so overwhelming. Constructing a narrative—your story—provides a structure where we can input and organize the unexplainable things about being alive, like putting data in a spreadsheet. When it is on the page, whether or not our "formula" yields a direct summation, it is there to analyze.

Writing is memory on paper, and it is through memory that we create our own myths. We remember the way our parents moved; we remember smells; we remember pain. We remember getting stuck on the monkey bars, getting our shoelaces tangled in the bicycle chain until we fell over and embarrassingly mispronouncing "colonel" in front of the class.

Have you ever asked family members about an event and gotten a dozen different versions? Who knows what actually happened and what didn't? Memory is just myth, and a myth is just a story.

Myths provide narrative patterns that give meaning to our existence. They are the stories that provide guides for us to identify how we are feeling. We gain comfort from the fact that there is structure in place through which we can deal with the loneliness and anxiety that pervades modern life.

A long line of research starting with Joshua M. Smyth's chronic-illness research, first published in 1999, shows that writing improves memory and sleep, boosts immune-cell activity, speeds healing after surgery, helps Alzheimer's patients sort through their memories and facilitates mental-health work, especially with those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Writing can help healthy people find jobs more quickly, remain healthier longer and achieve long-term goals.

Even cancer patients who participated in expressive writing sessions just before treatment said they felt better, mentally and physically, as compared with patients who did not write, according to a study in the February 2008 issue of The Oncologist.

Without being told to do so, patients use archetypal myths of battle, journey, death and rebirth to describe the course of their illnesses. In their narratives, patients seek to answer the questions of why they became ill, what their illnesses mean in the context of their lives, and how they can reshape their lives to manage the changes illness imposes, writes Anne Hunsaker Hawkins in "Reconstructing Illness: Studies in Pathography" (Purdue University Press, 1999).

In all these diverse areas of health care, patients use writing to work through this question: What is the point to all of this?

"Myths are like the beams in a house: not exposed to outside view, they are the structure which holds the house together so people can live in it," psychologist Rollo May wrote in "The Cry for Myth" (W. W. Norton & Company, 1991).

May said that modern humans need stories to help them deal with "aching hearts" and "repining," just like the Greeks did when they looked to their myths for meaning.

"(Greek) myths no longer serve their function of making sense of existence," he wrote. "The citizens of our day are left without direction or purpose in life, and people are at a loss to control their anxiety and excessive guilt feeling."

Scientists are trying to determine why writing seems to help us as much as it does. We know our stories are part myth and part memory, but what else?

Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller's teacher, wrote this in the epigraph to the play "The Miracle Worker": "She asked, ‘What is a soul?' ‘No one knows,' I replied; ‘but we know it is not the body, and it is that part of us which thinks and loves and hopes. ... [It] is invisible. ...' ‘But if I write what my soul thinks,' she said, ‘then it will be visible, and the words will be its body.'"

Writing gives arms and legs to our feelings. It makes them concrete and more manageable, sitting across from us like a body on the page.

If you've ever been in love—you know: "love," like in the storybooks, like the gods and goddesses, like a Shakespeare sonnet; if you've ever been confused, sick or lost that you have questioned your fundamental belief system like Job or Dante did, then pick up a pen and paper and start writing your own myth to make sense of it all.

Easy Ways to Write Every Day
• E-mail
• Letters
• Blogging
• Journaling
• Lists

Writing as a Repository
Writing your story is:
• A celebration of individual voice, character and identity;
• A record of memory and experience;
• An opportunity to communicate or witness;
• A chance to develop skills, thoughts and feelings (writing as a form of thinking).
From: "Creative Writing in Health and Social Care," (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2004) edited by Fiona Sampson.

Good Listening
"Alzheimer's, Memory and Being" on Being (formerly Speaking of Faith)
http://being.publicradio.org

Good Reading
Joan Didion, "The Year of Magical Thinking" (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, $23.95)
Kay Redfield Jamison, "An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness" (Vintage, 1997, $15)
Rollo May, "The Cry for Myth" (Delta, 1991, $25)
Louise DeSalvo, "Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives" (Beacon Press, 2000, $16)
Barry Lane, "Writing as a Road to Self-Discovery" (Discover Writing Press, Second Edition, 1998, $17)
Jean-Dominique Bauby, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1998, $13)

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