Many of us have been pouring our hearts into journals all our lives, hoping to drop some of our burdens or at least vent enough to get on with things. Writing in a journal is a way to write whatever we want without worrying about making sense. Most of us don’t look at it again, shy to reread the scribblings of our former selves. Journal writing is helpful, but research has found that story writing helps to heal physically as well as emotionally, changing the immune system and altering neural pathways.

Writing a story has a different kind of power. A story has structure—a beginning, middle, and an end, and in a story, we use scenes and other writing techniques to bring the past to life: characters, dialogue, and action.

A scene takes place at a particular moment in time, and draws upon the use of sensual details—smell, sound, texture, description, color, taste. In a story, we are both the narrator and the “I” of the story—the main character. This dual point of view helps to create a witnessing experience of ourselves as we write from our current point of view about who we once were, an artful weaving of then and now, past and present. Alice Miller, a Swiss psychiatrist, says that being witnessed is a significant part of the healing process.

To start creating stories from your memories, list the ten most important events or turning points, moments that changed your life. Write each vignette one by one, focusing on your emotions and the meaning the story has for you. This will give you a good start to a memoir or life story. After you have several stories, you can quilt them together in whatever order you desire.

Dr. James Pennebaker, one of the premier researchers in the field of writing and healing, says, “Story is a way of knowledge.” This is a very exciting idea—to think of a story as having a life of its own, to imagine that a story can teach us something as we write it. I have discovered this to be true in my memoir writing and coaching. When memories are kindly invited to join us at the table, when we put fingers to keyboard or pen to paper, something interesting starts to happen: as we write, fresh and strange ideas meander onto the page, unexpected sentences arise out of us, thoughts and feelings that we hadn’t thought of in a long time. We wonder if we should delete these unexpected sentences, we may feel alarmed, ashamed, excited, even giddy. This is great! It means that you have allowed your true expression to come through. It means you burst out of your usual control, and allowed an inner wisdom to speak through you.

In my book I talk about the ways that memory is stored in the brain and explain how traumatic memories are stored differently. We might stay stuck in the trauma, even having flashbacks and feeling traumatized all over again as memories replay in our minds. Putting our experiences into a story—even a fictionalized story—helps us to reprocess our memories and frees us to move forward. Researchers found that the immune system is improved by writing for only 15 minutes four times a week.

As you write, it’s important to make sure you also capture the positive stories of your life, keeping a balance between dark stories and the lighter ones of happiness and joy. If you write only ten minutes a day, you can begin one of your vignettes, finding new meaning and appreciation for who you are and create new opportunities for a better future. It takes courage to write our truths, but the rewards are great. Begin today!

Tips for Writing to Heal
1. List 10-20 important turning points in your life. Create a timeline and plot these events on your timeline so you can see how the events cluster.
2. Choose one or two new turning point stories a week to write. Be sure to use sensual details and write scenes.
3. If you write a darker story, follow it up with a lighter one for balance.
4. Genealogical and historical research can help to create understanding and compassion for your ancestors. You can write from the point of view of your father, mother, or grandparents after you discover some of the details of their lives.
5. Write from old photos—describe the photo in detail, and then imagine what happened before and after the photo captured that moment in time.
6. Write freely—don’t listen to your inner critic.
7. Notice how you feel empowered as you claim your voice, your memories, and your past.