“Half of what I say is meaningless but I say it as a way to reach you” (A Beatles Song)
How often have you read a story that touched you in such a way that you found your whole outlook on life changed? Or even a tiny aspect of that outlook? Most of us grew up with stories – fairy tales, folklore, family stories, literature in school – stories surrounded us. The ceremonies and rituals of our daily lives all center around the magic of these words that we hear, that we read, that we speak. Whether we are reading, hearing, or writing the story, words have the power to transform our lives. What is it that these words do that can make a healing experience in our lives?
The Native American poet, Joy Harjo says, “Stories create us. We create ourselves with stories”.(1) Stories - the healing power of stories, the mutable nature of stories – “a world made of stories, the long ago, time immemorial stories” (2). We seek to create ourselves anew, to solidify the identity we daydream about and we do this by telling stories. Can we create and recreate ourselves with stories? Can mere words promote healing for a confused people? Is it possible for us to find inner peace by simply re-writing our story?
This concept is not new. Stories have been used throughout history to promote healing on a psychotherapeutic level as well as on a socio-political level. The Native Americans believe that the healing power of stories comes from believing that there is something else out there that can help us to heal. Reaching far back into the past, we find the stories written that today we call myths. The originators of these myths used words to describe their world, to make a meaning out the chaos around them. They made up gods and wild creatures, they made up words – whole stories - that offered them peace in a seemingly out of control world. Today, many psychotherapists believe that through metaphorical thinking we bring ourselves to a place where we can better understand our circumstances, ourselves, and the world around us.
For some time now there has been great research done on the healing and transformative power of words. Goddard University offers a Master’s degree in Transformative Art, which includes visual as well as written art. The guiding principal behind Goddard’s program is the tradition of Tikkum Olam – hebrew for “putting back together the broken world”.
In addition, The National Association of Poetry Therapy offers certification in becoming a Certified Poetry Therapist, while major universities such as Florida State offer classes in Poetry Therapy under the tutelage of Dr. John Fox. Fox has written many books on the healing power of words. So, what is it about the written word that can actually heal someone’s pain? Is this form of therapy a form of communication? With whom? Are we able to find the meaning we seek in the words we set to paper?
There is Narrative Therapy, Drama Therapy, Word Therapy, Poetry Therapy, Journaling Therapy, Memoir Therapy, and many more versions of therapy that center around the healing power of words. Even fiction is used as healing therapy – one need only look at such novels as Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony or Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Silko’s novel becomes a healing process not just for the author but for the Native American people in general. By emphasizing the importance of stories, Silko pushes toward a healing of the alienation that her people have encountered in a white world. The stories of the Native American people become an integration transformation for them – one that gives them back, in a sense, their birthright. The writing – and the reading – of such novels provides a catalyst for change – psychological, societal, and political transformation. As such, the act of reading and/or writing produces a change – not the words themselves.
Many narrative therapies utilize writing for healing. When using therapeutic writing we must reach for a much needed communication, a relay of words that perform a healing for ourselves and possibly for those around us. Alphonso Lingis writes, “You have to say something – something that language cannot say, something that is not in the resources of common discourse to be able to say…” (3) You have to say the unsaid. The said is language that has already been spoken, written, set down for use in the common discourse. When healing is needed, this common language reaches its limit; there is no language in the common discourse that can express an individual’s pain.
Each individual must come to a place where they leave behind the said, the already spoken, and enter into their own realm of language, their own unique discourse, their own form of communication with their pain. They have to make the unsaid said by saying. The person seeking healing puts away the common discourse – the language – and enters a realm of communication with his self, a departure from the said into the saying. The sheer act of communication is a release in itself.
We can accomplish this by giving names to our pain and to our confusion, just as the ancient storytellers of mythology did when they began telling stories to explain their world. Being able to name something makes it feel real to us, appears to give that something meaning. Writing words of pain and turmoil on paper is a process of naming the pain, making us feel we are finally able to communicate the pain, releasing it.
In Poetry Therapy, many people say they don’t like poetry because they don’t get it. “What is he talking about?” they whine. I tell people that poetry is a form of expressing the inexpressible, of an attempt to give voice to the unspeakable, to give meaning to the unthinkable. Most times, they still don’t get it. People want words to mean something; they need to have words they are hearing or reading understandable to them in the common language that we call rational discourse. They bristle when they encounter words that have never been said before.
We read self-help books and see our therapists in an attempt to get to the meaning of our pain. We are forever searching for the meaning outside of ourselves. What would happen if we turned to our inner selves for meaning? This is a scary concept because when we search for meaning on the outside we have available to us outside resources for validation – “Yes, you are getting to it now”, “Good, good, you are on the right track”, or even non-validation – “You are headed in the wrong direction”, “You are reaching for the wrong meaning”. There is something in us that needs the validation of the outside commonality to verify our search for meaning. Why is it that we do not trust in the validation of our own selves?
There exists in man in innate urge to proscribe a reason for everything. This or that must have meaning, musn’t it? When no meaning can be found, we flounder around in an abyss of doubt and chaos, forever trying to find meaning for our pain. How easy it is to misconstrue the meaning of a word! And if the meaning of a word changes, then the entire story changes! You have to wonder about the “immemorial stories” that our culture is surrounded with – how many of the words have had their meaning changed, and thus the entire story changed? I emphasize here that words are not used for their meaning, but for how they perform. Every reader is going to bring a different meaning to what he reads – the words that we read or that we write are only the vehicle for the healing, their meaning is inconsequential – it is their performative function that we seek in the healing arts.
Word therapists believe that it is essential for us to find the words, any words, to validate our pain. The goal is not so much to describe the pain but to provide us with a recognizable vehicle in which to find healing for our pain. There needs to be some sort of inner validation that what we feel is not chaos, not a railing darkness of doubt, but a solid, tangible form in which to find healing. Again, this is done through the telling of stories already circulating or in the making up of our own stories. There are several forms of word therapy that seek to accomplish this goal.
In Journal Therapy we teach that healing comes from the release of the subconscious dialogue we are constantly having with ourselves. We use our journals as a dumping ground for all the inane chatter that keeps us from realizing our inner selves. This is easy for some people and quite difficult for others. Most of us have been trained to not whine, to not waste precious time complaining about our problems. But the goal of Journal therapy is to release those very words of complaint, those whining, poor me words. We release them to the white of the page and thus free our selves to move past the chitter-chatter of daily existence. We validate our own thoughts, which removes the nagging feeling that we are somehow bad.
Memoir Therapy is a form of autobiographical writing. It asks several questions - Where is our true story? Where is our true myth? Is there truth in our story at all? There are many versions of a life – all are true, all are fiction – it depends on the time in which the life is being told. As Robert Elbaz states, "Autobiography is fiction, and fiction is autobiography. Factual truth is irrelevant to autobiography." We change our story in order to create ourselves – but is it our self we are creating or the self as a cog in the wheel of society? The memoir writer has the opportunity to re-create themselves.
In Memoir Therapy, the goal is to uncover the many selves that we have lived. By so doing, we are able to ferret out those selves that we allowed societal influences to create for us and move into a more authentic self. The words we bring to the page create a myth of our personal self. By definition a myth is something that was true but now is probably not. By recording our memoirs, our myths, we provide ourselves the healing power of words to transform our story. And the more we write the more healing we bring to ourselves. It is through the serial memoir that memoir approaches its true and ultimate form – an account through time of a person’s life, a story with many beginnings that does not end until the author himself reaches the end. And even then, the story continues, doesn’t it?
We gather strength from our words, from our stories. We set into motion a flood of communication that brings us healing. We listen to, we read, we write words, words, words - the meaning of the word is superfluous, it changes every time we reach for a new creation of our self. And is that all that matters in that end? That the stories themselves, not their meaning, give us the power to create ourselves?
1. Harjo, Joy. The Spiral of Memory. Ed. Laura Coltelli. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1996.
2. Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. NY: Penguin Books, 1977. p. 95.
3. Lingis, Alphonso. “The Murmur of the World.” The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1994. 69-105.
K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2004, 2006