Book Review: The Story You Need to Tell

“After unearthing twenty-seven journals from dusty shelves and long-forgotten hiding places, I began reading them. I thought I would skim through them, a glass of red wine in hand, in two to three hours. Wrong. A week later I was still caught up in the thick of them. I learned how I opened up as a thinker. How I loved to read and explore books. I learned how some authors captivated me, while others tied me in knots. How writer Christine Baldwin taught me the value of keeping a journal for life. How I became a writer. How ideas intrigued me. How becoming a mother changed and fascinated me.”

I was hooked as soon as I read those words. As we’ve shared on this blog, Mary and I recently delved into our own journals and daybooks. Mary is still working her way through hers.

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I picked up Sandra Marinella’s The Story You Need to Tell: Writing to Heal From Trauma, Illness, or Loss as research for my upcoming workshop, “Expressive Writing for Healing” offered in August at Hawkeye  community college in Cedar Falls, and in September at NICC in Dubuque.  As I’ve noted before, unlike my Mary & Me co-author, I really didn’t journal much until after my husband died, when I instinctively turned to writing to work my way through grief.

journalsIn fact, I couldn’t stop writing. I blogged, filled pages of my journal, wrote essays, letters to my friend Mary, and worked on several books, including what would become Refined By Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace

Knowing how much expressive writing had helped me, I began delving into the science behind it, reading books and articles by James W. Pennebaker, the man who was at the forefront of research on the connection between expressive writing and healing. I’ve written about Pennebaker many times, mentioning him in both my upcoming grief journal and my workshops, as well as previous blog postings.  While Marinella discusses his research in her book, she also frequently refers to her mentor, Christina Baldwin, author of Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives Through the Power and Practice of Storya book I immediately added to my Amazon cart. That’s what happens when I fall in the rabbit-hole of research; I invariably add to my to-read list. The topic of journaling doesn’t just apply to my workshops; I have a grief journal coming out in May, am including a chapter on expressive writing in my book on creativity, and will be utilizing journals for the GriefShare grief support group I facilitate at a local church and the Lifelong Learning creativity group I’m forming this fall at the library where I’m employed.

The writing prompts at the end of each chapter in The Story You Need to Tell are some of the best I’ve ever seen. I’ll be utilizing some of them in my monthly memoir group, where members often request a writing prompt assignment.

Sandra Marinella is an award-winning teacher and writer. After facing breast cancer in 2012, she turned her focus from teaching to writing as a way of healing, and began volunteering with veterans and cancer patients. Some patient’s stories, and their life transformations, are featured as examples in her book. Sandra founded the Story You Need to Tell Project at www.storyyoutell.com.

The author doesn’t shy away from telling her own stories, which makes this book all the more powerful. Can we really talk about expressive writing without sharing some of our own? One of the most touching chapters for me was the one on healing from loss. Marinella had some pretty intense conversations with her father while he was dying; discussing death, prayer, and faith. Since they shared a love of music, the author asked him to try and communicate with her through music after he died. He loved the idea.

“One day after we arrived home, my dad mouthed his last word to me, Mom. I promised to care for her. And she hobbled over to hold his hand. Two days after he made it home, my dad took his last breaths with his love, my mom, and his family gathered around him. In those moments he radiated serenity, a transcendent beauty. For long moments we stood in hushed awe around him. 

After he passed, we sang and prayed. My brother recited Psalm 23, and then we stood reverently by his side. And in that holy moment- Standing by my father and his soul- my head was filled with the joyful clanging of church bells.’Do you hear them?’ I asked my family.”

A Different Journaling Journey

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My foray into past journals is not nearly as pleasant as that of my friend and co-author of Mary & Me. Unlike the other Mary, I did not keep a journal through college, and the “daybooks” that span 20 years of my life could hardly be called journals, with little space for contemplation, rumination, or poetry, if I’d been so inclined to write any.

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The first daybook is dated 1992. I was a 32-year-old mother of four when I began filling daybooks with notes about the weather, my children, my super coupon shopping sprees and mailbox full of refunds and trades, a distinct lack of money and time, and notes on whatever I was working on in regards to the freelance writing I’d been doing since 1987. By March of that year, I’d picked up work as a correspondent for the Bulletin-Journal newspaper in Independence.

I was also ill, as is evidenced by repeated references to upset stomachs, headaches, joint pain, brain fog, and an extreme fatigue. By early 1992, I’d been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and prescribed a medication to treat one of the worst symptoms, the one that had relegated me to the bathroom for much of each day during 1990 and 1991.

I don’t have daybooks from the previous two years, but I do have doctor’s reports, hospital admissions papers, and a chronological list of symptoms I took with me to the doctor who I believed saved me. He was the first one (of many doctors) to listen to my litany of symptoms and not dismiss me as a hypochondriac. This doctor, who I am still loyal to some 25 years later, was willing to consider that I was suffering with an immune system disorder that there was no definitive medical test for, and suggested we begin treatment by targeting the worst symptom of an illness that ruled my days.  Up until that point, I had seen a number of specialists who’d zeroed in on only one of the many symptoms, ran tests, and then declared me perfectly healthy, their eyes narrowing at my continued distress. One ER doctor pulled my husband aside and told him to quit coddling me because there was nothing wrong with me. Another insinuated I was a bored housewife with nothing to do but complain. A doctor I had trusted up until that point had the audacity to look me in the eyes and ask, with some irritation, why I had to find out what was wrong with me, telling me I should just learn to live with it, whatever it was. He then prescribed tranquilizers and an anti-depressant. The next morning, I took one of the pills, set my children in front of the television with bowls of cereal, collapsed on the couch and apparently slept through a tornado siren, because I woke up to two children screaming, a darkened sky, and the front porch screen door slamming against the side of the house. I hustled my children to the basement, and never touched those bottles again.

That’s the thing about delving into old journals, or in my case, daybooks~ we resurrect less than pleasant memories. Both Mary and I unearthed our respective “journals” when we wrote our chapters on navigating young motherhood. At the time, I’d quickly returned the daybooks to the cupboard where I store them; it was too painful to look back on those years of zero time for myself, the constant struggle to make ends meet, and of course, the reminder that, despite his failings during many of those years, I’d had a partner to share in all of it, a partner that was no longer there.

I had to do the same thing last night. I nearly threw the daybook I was reading into the trash. I was actually surprised that my January 1992 goals had not only included “getting my health back, though I’m not sure I have any control over that,” but also “formulating a refund workshop for community colleges,” and “getting work with the local newspaper.” What possessed me to think it would be a good idea to find work when I was dealing with a chronic illness? And yet, later entries demonstrated how much that little extra income helped our family, and the fact that I could work my hours around both my illness and my husband’s hours, made it the perfect job at the time. If I guarded my daily activities and took an afternoon nap, evenings were my best time of day, at least early evening. As is evidenced by the previously referenced November 10, 1992 notes, a midnight meeting, and subsequent lack of sleep triggered a resurgence of symptoms the next day. And yet, I somehow met that newspaper deadline. While I wouldn’t meet either of my other two goals for 1992, a pregnancy in 1993 brought remission of my illness and reclaimed my health, and four children and nearly 20 years later, I’d reach the goal of teaching an extreme couponing workshop at a community college. Proving that sometimes, our dreams become our reality, though not always in the time frame we’d desire.

From my research into the health benefits of expressive writing and journaling, I can’t help but think that a real journal, one in which I could have filled several pages with rumination and contemplative thoughts, would have been beneficial to me during those next twenty years when I utilized a daybook. I didn’t begin actual journaling until the morning after my husband’s death, and since 2012, I’ve filled three journals, and am close to filling the fourth.

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Ironically, those journals, filled with anguish and the laments of a woman with a broken heart, are not at all difficult for me to look though. The difference is simple, and what I recommend in my classes on expressive writing.

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Without instruction, I instinctively did what was most healing; reflecting, and looking for meaning in my experience.

And I found it.

I often flip through the pages of those journals. Despite the messy, scrawled handwriting of a woman in deep emotional distress, I can easily see spiritual and emotional healing taking place. Because I was also jotting down Bible verses, and quotes and passages from authors who’d been down the same path of grief, I can read those verses and quotes today, experiencing the same feeling I did when I copied them; a lifting of the spirit, and a sense of being a part of something so much bigger than my own pain.

I filled several pages of the first journal with an itemized list of the unusual experiences that preceded David’s death; my teen daughter, Emily, joining a youth group, her incessant need to hug her Dad, the many workshops and a newspaper column I’d recently undertaken, the newfound friends I’d made at a Christian Writer’s conference, our newly acquired taste for the Christian radio station, the many conversations I’d shared with David in the previous three months about love, faith, and even remarriage, and how often I’d caught him gazing at me in apparent adoration. Then there was his life insurance policy being reinstated just 27 days before his death, and the last book he’d touched having been a Cecil Murphey book on getting to heaven. It became obvious to me that God had gone before us, preparing us for loss of husband and father.

Those journals tell a story as I wrote my way through grieving David, and then a few months later, facing the loss of a grandson. And while it is a heart-rending one, the story contains a clear message of hope. I wouldn’t mind future generations reading these journals after my death.

The daybooks? They tell a different story; a dismal rendering of the chronology of my day-to-day life without the benefit of any reflective or contemplative time spent in which to look for meaning in those days. While they remain stored in a cupboard for now, someday I’ll have to decide if there is any benefit to keeping them at all.