Writing the Narrative of Illness

The practice of writing can be a valuable therapeutic tool in the face of illness and trauma.

By Judith Hannan

We are made up of stories. The stories we tell ourselves be­come who we are. We are certain they are true and permanent. Then we are hit with moments that force us to change our narrative.

My story was disrupted in 2000 when my then eight-year-old daughter was diagnosed with can­cer. In the time between seconds, I was no longer the mother I used to be, traveling in a world with which I wasn’t familiar. I would need to edit old chapters and find new words if the arc of my life was going to continue moving forward. I had to write.

Unlike speaking, writing allows you to stand next to yourself as you rummage through your mind. This small distance makes it easi­er to move through the pain, order your thoughts, and achieve trans­formation. When I gathered my paper and pencil to begin, though, a piece of me remained paralyzed. I could write about IVs, scans, chemo drugs, and scars, but I wasn’t focus­ing on people and context. When I realized how I had been avoiding de­veloping my own character, I swore I would meet myself on the page without flinching. But my brutal honesty just became brutal, to my­self and others. I was writing with­out compassion and so without any hope of discovering just how I had grown and changed.

Any good narrative must have an aha moment—that pivot point when you are able to connect the before story to the after. My moments came when I stopped making myself the center of all my thoughts, when I found empathy for the people I had been blaming or being angry with. The final product, Motherhood Exaggerated, went far beyond the story of a young girl’s cancer treatment. It became a chronicle of how I had become transformed as a mother, and it could only have been written if I had examined all the old stories I had told myself over the years—about how I had been mothered, the patterns in my marriage, my personal history with depression, and my attitude toward faith, among others.

Writing about a moment in life filled with trauma and uncertain­ty can be daunting. What has hap­pened is so big and life altering that we become defeated before we start. Before writing Motherhood Exaggerated, my longest piece of writing was a 3,000-word essay. I wrote my second book, The Write Prescription: Telling Your Story to Live with and beyond Illness, be­cause I wanted to help guide others using lessons learned from my own experiences.

Here are some pointers that might be helpful to you as you begin to write.

  • Have modest expectations. Building a writing practice takes time. Ten or 20 minutes a few days a week is an easier first step than 30 minutes every day.
  • Write freely without censorship or self-criticism. Your first draft should be just that—drafty. It will be full of holes, non sequiturs, ugly sentences, and missed connections. But it will be rich in truth and emotion.
  • You don’t have to create the perfect writing space. I have written sitting on the floor with babies crawling over me, under a tree at horse shows, waiting in the car for a child to finish a gymnastics lesson, in waiting rooms, and on trains. Always carry a small notebook or have an app on your phone so that you can write your observations and thought fragments when they are fresh.
  • Take small bites. By that I mean begin with small moments and single events. Don’t map out where the story will go. Let each bite take you to the next. Write about a time of waiting or the day you received a piece of difficult news or a moment of respite. Create one scene before you move on to another.
  • It’s okay to rant. I call it “writing it raw.” Throw your words on the page. Splat! “I…I…I…I…” “No…No… No…No…” “You…You… You…You.…” No holding back, filter, or reflection. Not all of this will go into your story. Recognize what is meant to share and what is for your eyes only. Find the scenes that would benefit from further reflection. Figure out how they can be imbued with compassion and how they can move your story forward.
  • Having trouble finding compassion? Write from another person’s perspective. Write about yourself in the third person. Be a neutral observer and see how these strategies change your point of view.
  • Don’t get hung up on grammar and spelling. But better writing can help you go more deeply into your story. Tools like metaphor, perspective, the use of the third person, personification, and the like—all can help you, particularly when you are trying to convey sensations and feelings that aren’t concrete. Think about how metaphor can help you write about pain or how personification can be used to describe the fear that shadows you.
  • Show, don’t tell. This is an old saw but it is as relevant as ever. Don’t say you went to bed angry. Show yourself stomping up the stairs, flinging the bedclothes back, banishing the dog to its pillow on the floor, and turning your back on your partner. Don’t say you had an argument. Write the fight.
  • Find a reader you trust and, when you are ready, share it with him or her. You must choose your reader carefully. You are not looking for criticism. You want a loving listener who will say what he or she loves and then will say, “I was a little confused here” or “I want to know more there.” It took an outside reader for me to recognize that I had become an unlikeable character in early drafts of Motherhood Exaggerated, and that pushed me to question the accuracy of the stories in which I had become rooted.
  • Use writing prompts. The Write Prescription provides gateways. Once you have entered, the direction you choose to go in is up to you.

Prescribed Reading

If you have faced a significant health challenge—your own or that of a loved one—you know that the experience includes a lot of time waiting. Whether you’re in the waiting room, the hospital cafeteria, or your own bed at night waiting for sleep to come, you’ve felt the unproductive spinning of your brain as it cycles through worry and sadness and hope and random gro­cery lists you don’t have time to shop for. What if, instead of repeatedly run­ning on the hamster wheel of anxiety, you got out a notebook (or a laptop or a scrap of paper) and wrote—the feelings, the images, the wishes, and even the grocery lists? Think of the space you might free up in your mind, the peace that might emerge from the clutter.

Whether you are someone who writes regularly or are completely new to the craft, Judith Hannan’s The Write Prescription: Telling Your Story to Live with and beyond Illness (Archer, 2015; $17.95) can help you understand the therapeutic role that writing about your experiences can play on a journey with illness and serve as a practical guide.

The book offers glimpses into Han­nan’s own experience as the mother of a young daughter diagnosed with can­cer, insight into the craft of writing, and writing prompts designed to inspire expression and reflection. The book reflects the author’s intimate knowl­edge of the many layers of experience involved in a medical journey—from coping with the physical environ­ment and the language of medicine to processing the varied emotional responses to different stages of treat­ment. The result is a resource that offers anyone fac­ing a health chal­lenge a valuable therapeutic tool, through writing, to channel feel­ings and process their thoughts, propelled by a personal story that inspires hope.