I was going through an old drawer the other day when I stumbled upon a pink-and-white striped notebook, with touches of glitter and a small drawing of the Eiffel Tower on the cover. It basically epitomized all my hopes and dreams and self: pink, Paris, stripes. The elastic closure was straining to contain a collection of pages densely written upon and swollen with ink and emotions in the way that the best-used notebooks are. It was only about three-quarters of the way full, and I took a moment to consider why I–the queen of using things up–would have stopped before getting to the last page. It’s not like I’m ever at a loss for words, and journaling in this ideally-clad book must have been nothing short of magnifique.
When I opened to the first page, though, reality came back to me in a torrent of emotion. It was the journal I had started and intermittently kept throughout college and during my first months in New York, where I’d transplanted myself from one high-stress environment to another. The entries each started out well enough: curious and reflective and clearly written by someone with literary aspirations (i.e., “I better write good. Someone may read this one day”…sigh, juvenilia!). But ultimately they returned to the same frustrations and self-doubts that I suppose, looking back, any young person would have, but to me at the time felt uniquely searing and insurmountable.
I think it was kismet for me to find this journal just days before embarking upon a week-long immersion at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health on Narrative Medicine. As the name implies, Narrative Medicine is a holistic practice that integrates storytelling into health care, and it’s become something of a buzz word these days: Columbia University has an entire degree program on it, and entrepreneurs like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg have touted the benefits of writing as a form of medicine, a way to heal after grief or trauma, physical and emotional/psychological alike. My found journal, along with what must be countless others’ journals and letters and other papers, is proof of what writing can do to help you move through a difficult time no matter what the circumstances. Facing surprising health concerns on top of social anxieties and The Big Question–What am I going to do with my life?!–I turned mainly to the blank pages of my Parisian-dream notebook for help. While they did not necessarily provide me with answers, they provided me with something better: the space to unload those burning preoccupations from my brain and heart and make space for the answers to manifest themselves in my life.
Publishing expert Lisa Weinert was no stranger to the power of storytelling when she launched the debut program at Kripalu last year. A long-time professional book publicist, she was facing her own confrontations with the medical system when a frightening diagnosis led her to writing, meditation, and yoga to help her heal in ways doctors’ advice couldn’t. In bringing together a panel of experts ranging from restorative yoga master Jillian Pransky to literary guru Paul Morris, she hopes to spread the word about how reclaiming one’s voice can make all the difference when difficult decisions and unforeseen turns in the road of life present themselves; she writes, “I learned that if I moved away from mind chatter and sank into my body and breath, I would begin to hear a whisper, a voice that would honestly tell me what was going on inside.”
While I’ll be assisting at this year’s retreat, I’m also incredibly excited for all that I know I’ll learn from the presenters as well as the other attendees: after all, part of why narrative medicine works is because of the element of community and human interaction it fosters–even requires. Once you start telling your story, it becomes bigger than yourself, not only less of a burden on you personally but also a drop in the vast sea of human history.
If you’re ready to start channeling your own inner storyteller and find space to heal whatever wounds you have (and we all have them!), try integrating these simple practices into your daily schedule. Write, and let the magic unfold.
Start a gratitude journal: The simple act of taking a few moments at the end of the day to recall the best thing that happened to you is incredibly empowering and challenging. If you had a bad day, it can feel impossible to name something you’re grateful for that happened; if, on the other hand, you had the #bestdayever, picking just one thing could be equally hard. Either way, you’re acknowledging that there is good in your life every single day, and when you’re feeling down, you can flip through and remember all that you have to be grateful for.
Write like no one’s reading: Does the idea of writing make you cringe at memories of school assignments and term papers? Free yourself from the idea that anyone will read what you put to paper and you may break open the dam of verbiage in your heart. Without the pressure of grades or thesis statements and the like, your writing can simply be. No fancy vocab or even proper grammar required. End your sentences with all the prepositions you want to. And you can start with “and.” Let loose and own your words, not your teacher’s.
Pick fun tools: Maybe you’re not a journal person, or maybe you hate typing after a day sitting in front of a computer. There’s no “right” way to write, so if you choose a method that feels organic and happy to you you’re more likely to turn to that notebook/Google Drive file than not.
Make it a practice: Like yoga, an integral part of the Narrative Medicine immersion, writing is something you practice, not perfect. You make a routine of it such that your muscles build resilience and definition even without you being cognizant of it all the time. As the American short story master (and journal-keeper) Flannery O’Connor wrote, “If you do the same thing every day at the same time for the same length of time, you’ll save yourself from many a sink. Routine is a condition of survival.”
Let fiction become nonfiction: Ever heard of fake it till you make it? Writing is one foolproof way to enter a fictional you-nverse, one where you aren’t plagued by what’s bothering you, and live in it for a while. That kind of visualizing has proven efficacy, too: according to a 2013 Columbia University study, people who wrote about times they felt powerful, as opposed to powerless, did better on a subsequent job interview because they were put in a better state of mind to succeed.
I’m eager to see what emerges from my pen during this retreat, even now that I’m in a completely different mindset from those Paris-journal days. I wouldn’t say I’m “healed” by any means from what I wrote then, but I know that certain wounds from my past have been transformed into meaningful scars that tell stories all their own: and together make up the story of me.
Want to see narrative medicine in action? All of these books offer compelling examples of people (real and imaginary) working through their deepest troubles in words–funny, heartwarming, and completely relatable all at the same time.
Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary
Lordo Rinzler, Love Hurts
Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, Option B
Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary
Have you tried narrative medicine? How has writing healed you?
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