In my work with cancer and hospital patients, I found that certain qualities surface in successful writing about an illness or injury. This kind of writing does the following four things:
It accepts our story and makes sense of it
Kenzaburo Oe wrote to unravel his confusion and despair after the birth of his disabled son. He wrote and rewrote about his life with Hikari. In his memoir, Oe explained: “In the act of fictionalizing those events in the form of a novel, I was finally able to synthesize them, to make some kind of sense out of a senseless situation.” And in making sense of his shattered story, in coming to peace with it, Oe had made his story manageable.
A story is, after all, a mirror of our psychological growth. We’re peering into who we are and grounding ourselves as our story evolves. This is why Abigail Thomas wrote about her husband being hit by a car and ending up with a brain that no longer worked. It’s why I wrote out my cancer journey. To understand it. To make sense of it. And when I opened up, I found others felt compelled to share their stories with me—and it helped.
It explores honest feelings
Many well-known writers explore their honest feelings and painful experiences as they search to find themselves. Author Elizabeth Gilbert seemed to have all the hallmarks of success, with a husband, a country home and a successful writing career—but she was miserable. After her divorce, she faced a crushing depression, and it was then she began her search for herself by writing Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia.
While most of us will never have a publisher like Elizabeth Gilbert’s, who will give us an advance to undertake a journey across the world and write a book, many readers were mesmerized by this honest search for self. In Rome, Gilbert delights in culinary experiences; on her visit to an ashram outside Mumbai, she emulates the yogis and struggles to quiet her mind; and in Bali, she seeks balance but finds love. While her search seems far from over, her words resonate because they seem to be drilling down in an honest quest to find the truth. Her truth. And that’s what we hope our words will give to us.
Kenzaburo Oe was on the same search. He was only 10 when the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki [Japan]. Ironically, it was the birth of his son that compelled him to research and study this tragedy. In 1963, he attended a conference in Hiroshima centred on the opposition to hydrogen bombs. “I recall … the intense feeling that the problem of my child could end up suffocating me if I couldn’t get out into a larger arena, see things from a broader perspective,” he explained.
While in Hiroshima, Oe visited the Atomic Bomb Hospital. There he listened to the director, Dr. Shigeto, who explained that he’d just taken up a post as assistant director and was on his way to the hospital when the bomb exploded, killing 80,000 people and instantly wiping out 90 percent of the city. He described facing the countless dead, the disfigured and burned bodies in this hospital. In his gentle manner, Shigeto explained that all he could do was move forward, trying his best to treat each victim. One at a time.
While listening to how the doctor handled the unbearable incident, Oe felt “profoundly consoled and encouraged.” The author realized that with this piece of truth he, too, could survive his son’s disabilities—one day at a time.
It uses words to heal
While it’s important to share our stories, the way we write and talk about our illness matters, too. Remember, we control how we understand our illnesses. And the words we use to interpret an illness impact how we face it. Jen viewed her stage four breast cancer as a challenge to be met—not as a death sentence. “In a support group I met a woman who repeatedly said, ‘When I die’ as if the moment were imminent,” said Jen. “She also talked about ‘my terminal disease.’ This bothered me.”
Often people take their illnesses—mental and physical—and elevate them to unnecessary heights. A problem evolves when the drama is dressed up, perhaps as a trauma, and the stories get stuck on replay. Most of us hate to hear stories that end up as a rerun without an end.
Andrew is a friend I know from teaching. A few months ago his daughter, Mia, suddenly lost her sight in one eye. Whenever we met friends for social gatherings, Andrew shared poor Mia’s saga. First, he carefully detailed how Mia had a genetic disorder, which he described in WebMD detail. The eye muscle had suddenly slipped, which is what had left her blind in that one eye. In coming weeks, the story escalated, and Andrew feared Mia would lose her job as a nurse at the hospital. He shared stories of Mia losing her balance, falling down, and causing a car wreck because she couldn’t see well.
A visit to the doctor confirmed that Mia might be blind in that eye forever. The family consulted a specialist, who predicted that as a genetic condition, this disease was destined to strike the other eye, eventually leaving Mia completely blind. Andrew was terrified. Then, a brief respite—a miracle surgeon had been found. Surgery could be done. In the coming weeks, Andrew was diagnosed with hearing problems, and a new set of illness stories surfaced. One day I turned to him and asked, “But how is Mia? You haven’t mentioned her lately.”
Andrew shrugged. “She’s fine. The surgery worked.” She regained her sight, which was something to celebrate—something Andrew had overlooked because he was trapped in his latest illness story.
We can’t deny an illness. We have to address and work to solve the problems it presents us. But the more we talk about and dramatize it, the more we impress a mindset of illness on our brain. We can become too obsessed and create unhealthy thought patterns. Sadly, Andrew lives with them.
Jen, however, doesn’t. “Unless a doctor tells me this darn disease is everywhere, then I’m not going to view my illness as the end. I’m going to keep living—to the fullest,” said Jen. When she learned of her cancer recurrence, I was worried about her and texted to see how she was. “Oh, I went to New York City to see friends.” Her Facebook page showed her in Central Park, where she was rolling in the grass, laughing with her pals.
It embraces the positive
Healing, of course, isn’t the same as being physically cured from a disease. Nonetheless, we can choose to heal our emotional, mental and spiritual selves when faced with a terminal illness. A positive attitude shows up as an important key here.
Although Jen has returned to chemo, neither of us knows what this means. We can’t be sure if she’ll survive her cancer. But she’s well-versed in her odds, and she understands that life is a precious, tentative gift for all of us. She has scaled back on work, spends more time with her son, Quinn, and insists that her husband keep on schedule with his archaeological research in Kenya.
Jen marches forward bravely, keeping her illness at bay as she reintroduces chemo into her routine. She doesn’t deny her illness. She talks about it, and she writes about it, but she makes every effort to find the upward path on the slippery slope she faces. But why not listen to Jen’s own words for a minute? Here’s one of her blog posts:
Writing that heals:
- accepts our story and makes sense of it
- explores honest feelings
- uses words to heal
- embraces a positive outlook
These prompts focus on how writing can support us during an illness or while we’re recovering from an injury.
Writing prompt: dialogues
When you’re faced with an illness, disease or injury, you need to reach an understanding of what has happened.
You can begin by having a conversation with your body. A dialogue is a script that bounces back and forth between you and another person, pet or thing—or, in this case, your body. By talking, you allow your inner voice or wisdom to help you understand your illness, disease or injury.
Don’t judge or criticize what you write. View this as a search that might reveal some important insights.
It might start like this:
Self: Body, why are you so exhausted?
Body: You saw the test results.
Self: I did, and I didn’t like them. I’m afraid of my disease.
Body: I think we need to make some changes.
Self: What are you thinking? Maybe diet?
Play out your conversation with yourself to find answers that’ll help you get a handle on your situation.
Writing prompt: exploring your truths
Choose one of these prompts, and freewrite for five minutes. If the topic takes off, stay with it until you reach a point of completion. If the writing seems stuck, choose another prompt. Revise it if needed.
- I’ve never talked about this…
- The hardest lie I ever told was…
- The way it really was…
- It’s dangerous to…
- This story is hidden in a box in the back of my mind. It begins…
Writing prompt: words that heal
Choose a word associated with healing: hope, resilience, courage, endurance, patience, fortitude, tenacity, heroism, optimism, confidence or strength. (Choose a word not on the list if you think if fits.)
Write a brief character description of one person you know who mirrors this word in the way he or she lives. Now choose a word that you want to embrace more fully in your life. Start with a statement like this:
- I want to be more hopeful…
- I want to be more patient…
- I want to be more…
Then write a brief character sketch looking into your future. Create a portrait of you as someone who’s hopeful or patient or ______.
Writing prompt: downside-upside
Make a list of all the difficult aspects of facing an illness, injury or any difficult situation. Write first about what brings you down, what you hate, what isn’t fair—the downside. Then scribble it out, draw xs through it or rip it up.
Now write about what you’ve learned, what you value, what you can build on from this experience. Draw a frame or stars around your upside. Write how you can live your upside more fully. Then go out and live it.