Sandra Marinella has taught thousands of students and fellow educators, presented dozens of workshops at the Veterans Hospital, Phoenix, and the Virginia Piper Cancer Center, Scottsdale, and is expanding into a variety of health and wellness settings. She lives in Phoenix, AZ. Her website is www.storyyoutell.com.
What is The Story You Need to Tell about?
Most of us have a story — and sometimes we don’t even know that our story is waiting to be told. The Story You Need to Tell is about digging deep and finding the stories in you that need to be explored. It is a guide to transforming your life story. While I share my personal struggles with postpartum depression and cancer, over one hundred veterans, cancer patients, and writers stepped forward to entrust me with their inspiring, true experiences.
These storytellers shed light on how our stories and our personal writing can help us overcome emotional and physical hardships to heal and grow. They show us how to safely tell, write, and rewrite our lives in ways that foster resilience and renewal – and help us rediscover our personal creativity. Moved by these inspiring stories, I became passionate about sharing them.
While we cannot change what happened to us, we can change how we view it, write or rewrite it, and live it. The book includes tips and activities that will help readers to use their words to heal and live more fully.
What inspired you to write this book?
I wrote this book because I have a passion for words. I think they can heal us, grow us, and transform us.
In 2012, I learned I had breast cancer and discovering you have cancer is traumatic. You have to navigate a new world and find new ways of coping. Since I had been a teacher and writer my entire life, I naturally turned to my writing and discovered it helped me find my way through the maze of this disease.
As I went through biopsies and treatment and surgery, I had what author Pam Houston calls “a glimmer.” I realized my personal writing was helping to keep me afloat. I wanted to explore why and how personal writing held such power for me. I immersed myself in the research on writing and began working with cancer patients and veterans who were struggling with their own stories. Thunderstruck by what I learned, I wanted to share this knowledge with others: writing can be a powerful therapeutic and transformational tool.
Can you give us an example of “a story you need to tell?” Do we all have one?
I think we all have stories we need to tell. Often life seems to be shooting by at the speed of a comet. Heart-ripping events happen to all of us and sometimes we are so rushed in our daily lives, we choose to ignore them or pretend they are not happening. These experiences can become buried in our inner psyche, and they can leave us troubled psychologically and physically.
For example, I interviewed several veterans who had fought in the war in Afghanistan in 2009. One young veteran, Matthew Goldston, experienced the death of one of his best friends while in a fire fight. Of course, it was shocking. Soon afterwards he experienced a close friend being blown up by an IED or improvised explosive device. This friend lost all four limbs. And while Matthew – or Goldie — wrote in a journal, he didn’t write about these terrifying experiences. He did not have his voice for these stories yet. He was traumatized. And it is no surprise that when he returned home, Goldie began to suffer from PTSD. A few years later when I met him, he was beginning to talk about these experiences and get them out of the recesses of his mind. These difficult experiences needed to be carefully integrated into who Goldie is. They are stories that needed to be told even though they remain difficult for him.
Is there one story in your book that gripped you as you wrote?
There are many stories that gripped me as I wrote, but I have especially grown to love the story of Barbara Lee. I met her at a veterans’ writing group where I volunteered. Together we worked on her writing for about two years. Initially I believe she had been invited into the group because she seemed to be struggling with PTSD and anger issues. In the early months of our work together, she began writing poetry that showed us she was troubled. Her poems often revealed horrible imagery of dead bodies or rotten fruit. Eventually it became clear that in her poems she was beginning to tell her own painful story – the tale of her own rape. It had happened when she was stationed overseas more than two decades ago, and she had not told anyone. As we worked together, I watched Barbara slowly release this unspeakable story in bits and pieces – and then I watched her find her new story. The experience was transformative for both of us. As Barbara began to write about new ways of interpreting her world, she changed. She began to take her writing seriously. Today Barbara views herself as a poet and sees herself as gentler, kinder person. She is.
What are the benefits of telling your story?
Telling our story –especially giving voice to a difficult or broken story – allows us to heal from it. Every difficult event that happens to us has to be integrated into our lives. If your parents divorce, you have to rework your understanding of your relationship with them. If you are diagnosed with a terrible disease, you have to realign your life to work with this new reality. And writing or sharing your story can help. Once you sift through the emotional turmoil, you can make sense of your new reality and then you can work to make the new story you want.
Cancer was not a story I wanted, but through my writing I was able to create a new story. I allowed myself to become not simply a writer but an author of a book. It was a wonderful outcome for me.
There are well over 200 studies that demonstrate how writing our personal stories can help to heal us physically, psychologically, and even socially. Some studies indicate that writing can lower our stress, improve our moods, reduce symptoms of depression, and give us a feeling of greater psychological well-being. These are all wonderful benefits that can enhance our lives.
You interviewed more than 100 writers for this book. Who were these individuals? How did you choose them?
I am a writer so I began by working with my writing students, especially students who had stories that I knew they were struggling to share. At writing conferences, such as Esalen and Omega Institutes, it was easy to meet writers who were unraveling stories they needed to tell. And as I started writing my book, I was fighting my own battle with breast cancer so I volunteered to teach writing workshops to cancer patients and later to veterans suffering from PTSD.
Working with these writers was completely inspirational. While I served as their teacher, I often felt I was a student learning from them.
You did extensive work with veterans and cancer patients. What did you learn from them?
My biggest take-away from the veterans I interviewed was that when we are at war or surviving under stressful circumstances, it is common to deny or hold in the painful experiences you are having. Amid war you want to appear strong. But in the end these difficult events often become buried inside and eventually erupt in PTSD or an illness. I saw this time and time again in the work I did with vets.
I think the most important thing I learned from cancer patients is that you can be dying and be healed. I attended chemo for four years with a young mother who was living with stage four breast cancer. And she helped me understand that your body might be in a serious decline and you may even be facing death, but you can choose to live fully. In the eye of this personal storm, you still control your story. You can find the quiet in the storm’s center, you can come to accept what you face, work to be in the moment, and enjoy your family or your passions — walking, music, writing, gardening, reading, talking to friends, or cooking.
Your book is often touted as a “happiness project for those facing difficulties.” Why is that?
I think when we can let our emotions out on paper and then press the reset button or find a way to make sense of what has happened to us, profound change can happen. We can not only find our story – we can recreate our story. We can choose to move forward with our creativity and make needed changes. And these changes that transform us also can make us feel fulfilled – or even happy. Perhaps fulfilled is a good synonym for happy. We struggled with an event but now we can use that event to help us move ahead with our life in positive ways.
Are there times when you should not write to heal?
Yes. I believe there are stages to writing and healing. In the initial stages of trauma or grief it appears best not to write. You need time to absorb the shock and pain, and you need time to absorb what has happened. That can be a short time or it can take a while. It took author Elie Wiesel ten years before he was able to begin writing about his holocaust experiences.
Writing can also become problematic when you become stuck in a bad story. Dr. James Pennebaker, a leader in the field of writing and healing, points out that too much writing is not healthy. You want to avoid becoming a “a navel gazer” or someone who just keeps telling the story of a traumatic experience over and over. To heal you need to break your silence, accept what has happened, reflect, and then rewrite your story. Then you can release the bad story and move forward with a new outlook.
What do you say to someone who doesn’t like to write but needs to tell their story?
If you won’t write, I encourage you to tell your stories to others or even have someone write them for you. Owning your stories helps you to know who you are. It sets you free. This is one reason we enjoy being with our good friends. We can share our experiences and learn from them.
Storytelling is similar to writing your story. While Matthew Goldston kept a diary in Afghanistan, he no longer writes, but he does share his stories. He has learned to talk about his experiences with his buddies from his squad. From time to time they call each other and every fall they try to gather in the home of their friend, Nick, who was killed during the war. With Nick’s parents they celebrate Nick’s short life, take a group photo by his gravesite, and share their stories.
What is the biggest take-away you would like readers to discover in reading The Story You Need to Tell?
I hope readers of The Story You Need to Tell will take-away an understanding of how powerful story transformation can be in their personal lives. There are logical steps to making personal change. If something terrible happens to you, there may be a time of shock and quiet, but eventually you will need to break your silence and find your voice.
As you find your voice, your personal writing can help. It allows you to process emotions, and to start to make sense of what has happened and what you need to do about it. Once you understand a difficult story and find an end to it, you can let go of it and move forward – engaging in finding new meaning, new passions, and living more fully.
Story transformation can happen when we learn to make these positive changes in our lives, and this is definitely an important take-away from this book.
Want to read more by Sandra? You can read an article on writing your life-changing story by her here and click to read a review of her book The Story You Need to Tell