Narrative Writing is a powerful tool that can be used to heal from the traumas and hardships of our lives.  This project explores how a 30 day practice of narrative writing about a traumatic birth experience revealed powerful imagery.   The imagery informed connections to positive psychology concepts such as post traumatic growth, resilience, hope and personal agency.  The result is a roadmap that can be used to transform traumatic experiences into stories of inner work and healing; with making meaning as the key ingredient.

Highlights from the Conversation
Anne Gustin: Today we will be talking about narrative writing, for which I will use the term expressive writing interchangeably. I have no experience of or training in any formal writing, but I do believe that is the beauty of this particular project [done for CiWPP] is to illustrate that writing is available and open to all of us, no experience necessary.

Today, I’d like to take all of you on a journey through the realms of narrative writing, imagery, and positive psychology. On this journey, I would ask that you be open and receptive to the possibilities that healing and growth have to offer, and to the many tools available to us all in order to navigate our own individual healing and growth. Today, our journey will follow a very purposeful path, one that will start with my 30-day writing project, and with an invitation to begin a relationship with narrating your own life stories. Along the way, we will examine and savor beautiful imagery, learn about the benefits of writing narrative, and make meaningful connections to positive psychology concepts that I am sure a lot of you are quite familiar with at this point.

Before we begin, I would like to lead you through a brief centering, relaxation, and also just getting us more in touch with some of our ability to be receptive to how imagery affects us. I want you to close your eyes and take three to four deep cleansing and connected breaths in and out through your nostrils. Just pay attention. Feel free to lengthen out your exhalation if you feel especially scattered or frazzled today. If you already feel balanced and content, feel free to take very even breaths. And finally, if neither of these fit for you, you might instead feel tired, lethargic, or worn out, feel free to lengthen your inhalation. And stay here for a few more moments with your eyes closed.

We’re going to begin our journey with a quote from a writer, author, and mystic named Caroline Adams: “Your life is a sacred journey. It is about change, growth, discovery, movement, transformation, continuously expanding your vision of what is possible. Stretching your soul. Learning to see clearly and deeply listening to your intuition. Taking courageous challenges at every step along the way. You are on the path exactly where you are meant to be right now. And from here, you can only go forward shaping your life story into a magnificent tale of triumph, of healing, of courage, of beauty, of wisdom, of power, of dignity, and of love.”

I’m going to pause here for a moment and just let you absorb these words so beautifully and eloquently written. And you can feel free to open your eyes and look at the words written on screen. Pay special attention to the underlined phrases: “a sacred journey continuously expanding, stretching your soul listening. You are on the path shaping your life story.” These words and phrases will become very relevant to our journey today.

Our journey will begin with a description of my 30-day challenge that I did for CiWPP. My final project requirement to graduate from CiWPP was a 30-day journaling project. And I turned it into my final project. So each day I wrote about my oldest daughter’s birth. Just to give you some personal context, my daughter Livia was born 15 years ago this November. Today, she is a spunky and lively—which happens to be the meaning of her name—teenage girl. Most days she brings me to my knees, certainly stretches my soul, and forces me to expand my thinking. I suppose you could say that Livia has been influencing me to do these things even as early as being in the womb.

But back to my journaling. I wrote for 30 days straight. Some days, the words flowed freely and easily, and others felt more like I was going through the motions. I chose to write about my pregnancy with Livia and the birth experience. Some days I wrote early in the morning after meditation. Other days, I wrote right before bed because I didn’t get it in during the day. Some days only a paragraph and other days, several pages flowed. As I wrote, some days brought tears and I felt I might be consumed by a puddle of deep sadness. Other days brought anger. Still, other days drew me into reflection, as I deeply connected to my experience, and allowed myself to see the many different angles of my circumstances. You see, Livia’s birth was a traumatic experience for me, one that I still carry to this day, one that certainly shaped many other decisions and experiences in my life. You could say it was a life event that broke me open and forced me to rebuild myself into a new version of Anne. More to come on that later.

When the 30-day writing practice ended, I went back and read my writing, which I don’t always do when I journal, I don’t always go back later and look at it and review it. I noticed something very, very interesting. So my writing was very nonlinear. It didn’t follow a certain path. It was free flowing. It was deeply connected to my experience. And it was about a trauma or disappointment in my life. Allow me to read to you the very first journal entry I made on that first day of the 30-Day Challenge. Do you know the one when you’re sitting there going, Oh, can I really do this for 30 days? Am I really going to make it? And can I be that disciplined? This will give you some insight into the remarkable way that my project and writing unfolded. So it begins day one or chapter one: You could say birth [is] a journey to the core and back out again. A self-discovery like no other. Day one is hard to find the words. It is so hard to start at the beginning. Much easier to start at the middle or even the end.

So this was what was so interesting to me, is I felt compelled to start at the very end to begin at the end. The end then informed me how I would write the beginning of the story. The next day, I circled back to the beginning of the pregnancy and even wove in pieces of my upbringing. After that, day three, I returned to writing about the end, the birth event itself, and so on and so forth. It occurred to me that I was weaving a tapestry of events whose outcomes were shaped by many elements in my life. My own deceptive brain messages or negative thought patterns, my family of origin, relationships, past and present, and my relationship to myself, and my view of what I was capable of—all these things contributing to how I was now reflecting on the why of the trauma I endured, the moments where I froze, couldn’t speak up or feel empowered to choose the decisions I made all along the way, how I even selected my care provider for the birth, and what I really longed for in the birth experience, and how I wasn’t able to have the experience I longed for, and then also who I sought out for support. I was beginning to see how my feelings and emotions surrounded all those events and connections. Thus, my story’s unique tapestry.

One day, as my writing process continued to stick with me long after the 30 days were up, it just hit me—an image emerged, one that I was somewhat familiar with, but not entirely. The way my writing unfolded reminded me of a labyrinth.  And this labyrinth image or the labyrinth in general wasn’t completely foreign to me. I once received a handheld labyrinth with a little metal tool that you use to trace the path. It can be used as kind of a stress-relieving tool. So I had that and I’ve had a little card that described a little bit about what labyrinths are. And then when Livia, my oldest daughter, entered preschool at a church near my neighborhood, I learned there was a labyrinth on their property. So this was several years after Livia’s birth. And after two excruciating pregnancy losses I endured, I was now carrying my second daughter, Gianna is her name. And I began to walk this labyrinth at the church every day that I dropped my daughter Livia at daycare. I used it to pray and meditate for Gianna’s upcoming birth. Hopefully, I wished for that birth experience. I was really longing and dreaming up what curiosity I had for how this image re entered my life following this 30-day writing practice. I asked myself why the labyrinth, so I really followed my curiosity toward understanding the meaning of this ancient shape.

Labyrinths are ancient patterns, found all over the world in countless different cultures and traditions. The labyrinth is a complex pattern, which often resembles a maze with many twists and turns. The path is meandering. And yet it’s purposeful. Some of these words you might recognize from Caroline Adams’ quote that I read. You can see the image looks like a circle with an inner spiral leading to the center and this is just one pattern. Labyrinths are very sacred. It is often thought that the path leads to wholeness or center. There is only one way to the center and the same way back out of the labyrinth, and labyrinths have been used for many things such as entertainment like a maze, meditation, and to aid in devotional practices of various spiritual disciplines. They are even thought to have a centering effect on the brain itself. 

It’s really unknown where the labyrinth comes from, which I find so remarkable, but it is thought that it is an archetype of the human mind itself. So labyrinths somewhat resemble the human brain. People who have walked labyrinths describe it as having that centering feeling for them. They note both a conscious draw and an unconscious connection to the shape that seems to be somewhat more subtle. In fact, walking the labyrinth, researchers believe may in fact balance the right and left hemispheres of our brain. So we really don’t know why they draw us in, but it’s thought that it was born out of how the human mind actually works and functions. We just have this innate curiosity and connection to labyrinths. We also have found that labyrinths are, in essence, similar to our own life’s journey, in that our lives are often meandering, but purposeful.

This image is an art installation, and the title is Beckett’s maze. It’s from the Jamestown Art Center, and it was created by the artist Robin Crocker. It’s painted on the parking lot. It is intended for people to walk. Participants follow the convoluted pathway as it winds to the center. And it is an invitation to enjoy a walking meditation or prayer. It’s an existential journey, a real-life journey as you walk it, to one’s core, to one’s center. The color choices—purple, black, and gold—express the sacred nature of it. And the artist incorporates closing text from Samuel Beckett’s novel The Unnamable. And the subtitle of that is, You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. Doesn’t that remind you of what I talked about with my writing journey? Some days it felt easy, I could do it. It flowed. Other days I resisted. I didn’t want to do it. But I persisted. 30 days. That “you must go on” marks the entrance to the maze. And then gold medallions are stamped along the path six feet apart, a nod to what we’re doing now, this social distancing. And they’re stenciled alternately with “I can’t go on I’ll go on.” So it’s that tug and pull of how we go through this challenging time. And the sorrow and uncertainty of life. I can’t make it today. I just can’t do it. Together with the joy, acceptance and inevitability of life. I must go on I’ll go on. So we know that this has a lot of relevance to what we are dealing with, with COVID and all the other things in our world—social injustice, political divide. It’s a way for us to move through this and contemplate what is our role, our impact, in this part of a whole.

The archetype of a particular labyrinth pattern has been used as a supportive image for the process of pregnancy and childbirth. Like the journey to becoming a mother, the labyrinth path is sometimes confusing and with twists and turns along the way. And it can feel long and arduous as you navigate an unknown experience. So for birthing woman, the labyrinth can serve as a meditative walk. A woman enters the labyrinth upon conception and follows the path for 10 months leading to the birth. The way out of the labyrinth is symbolic to the postpartum period, and also the broader parenting journey overall.

I had the privilege of encountering a labyrinth just recently in mid-October in St. George, Utah. And it’s just at the edge of Snow Canyon State Park, this beautiful spiral labyrinth. And I thought what might be fun is for us to take a walk together through this labyrinth, as I described more fully how the labyrinth fits with my narrative writing project. So you can see the footsteps … we enter the very outer edge of the labyrinth, the most wide part of the spiral pattern. For me, what this entrance to the labyrinth and the journey inward looked like was my pregnancy, the uncertainty of becoming a new parent, the labor itself, the trauma I experienced during the labor, this sense of feeling like a victim, I didn’t have any control or power over my circumstances, many twists and turns. It also reflects the daily journaling process, the narrative writing the I felt it flowed but it didn’t the next day and how the journaling came out. And both these were very purposeful journeys, they were leading to something more meaningful. So we reach the centers, you walk, we’re now in that center circle together. The birth event was the meaning of what I went through. And then for me with the journaling and the narrative project, it was finding meaning in the story. We’ll talk a little more about that later. Then the journey back out, the postpartum healing, the postpartum depression I experienced, the transformation. And also the growth that I found through the experience. There’s this sense of survivorship and personal agency. And again, all these terms that we may have heard before in positive psychology, but we’ll discuss more fully.

So here you can see, this is how my narrative writing fits so beautifully with the labyrinth imagery. But I wanted to clarify something that is so mystical to me. It was like the labyrinth was with me the whole 30 days. I didn’t call forth the image until after the project was complete. It is amazing to me that it seemed to guide me the whole time. 
So let us transition now in our journey to a discussion about narrative writing. What are the benefits? And why would this type of writing be so useful to us? Well, psychology has begun to extensively study how narrative writing or expressive writing can be a very useful and valid tool for addressing anxiety, depression, and trauma. In addition, studies have noted the relationship to how people create meaning. Narrative psychology, which is a perspective within cognitive psychology, has proven the importance of stories in our lives, because humans really do organize their life experiences as stories. Within the realm of narrative psychology, our integration of facts and events help develop our stories. As individuals, we then pick them apart, and we weave them back together to make meaning. This entire process reflects who we are now, but it also shapes who we are becoming.
So why use this form of writing to heal? What are some of the benefits? One of the leading researchers on expressive writing, James Pennebaker, did find through his research that it can boost our immune system, so have actual physical effects. People who’ve kept in journals most of their lives find that it supports them. It’s a container for some of their experiences and feelings. And by having that container, that safe and sacred container for those things, it can help their immune system flourish. Maria Sirois, in her webinar series, Writing toward Happiness, discusses that in narrative writing, we can begin to honor and respect both sides of the story. I found this to be so true, I all of a sudden could see so many different angles, and that holding the lens of multiple truths is what sustains our growth and our learning. And that thriving in the midst of difficult experiences lives in the integration of our experiences. This is what Maria calls the gold in writing. They are the points of meaning. Dan McAdams’ research confirms what Maria says: writing narrative helps individuals make meaning out of their experiences, and develops coherence. These terms we’ll define more clearly as we go forward.

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, the author, Deborah Siegel-Acevedo, notes Pennebaker’s findings that when we experience trauma, it actually damages our brain tissue. But when people translate their emotional experiences into words, they may be changing the way it is organized in the brain. Isn’t that fascinating? How malleable our brain tissue is, how it is changeable. The one criteria for the writing is it has to be a story created by the person experiencing it. In order for it to be beneficial, the writer needs to cognitively process the experience and develop understanding or coherence … making meaning out of it. So [researcher Susan] Lutgendorf notes that an individual needs to find meaning in a traumatic memory, as well as feel the related emotions, in order to reap the benefits of the writing exercise.

So how can we connect this to positive psychology concepts that I know many others have presented on, and you’ve probably become quite familiar with at this point? Well, we can expand upon the important benefit of making and finding meaning in our stories. What does positive psychology tell us about this? What is meaning? Let’s look back at the definition. According to leading researcher Michael Steger, meaning in life is the extent to which people comprehend, make sense of, or see significance in their lives, accompanied by the degree to which they perceive themselves to have a purpose, a mission, an overarching aim in life. And if any of you have read any of the Blue Zones studies or that book, they talk about one of the main reasons people have longevity and vitality in life is that feeling of having a mission or purpose still as they move into the the later years of their life.

We also know through Dan Tomasulo’s work on hope and and learned hopefulness, that meaning is a trigger for hope. Dan says hope is an internal experience, and it can be gifted or even borrowed from another. Narrative writing, oddly enough, is one way that we can borrow hope. We also can borrow hope when someone else is telling us their story. So our stories are what activate hope. We have also seen that appreciation and connection with others are pathways back to finding meaning in life.
We have learned from research done on resilience and grit that meaning is a driver for resilience. And research by David Kessler on the stages of grief posits that meaning helps us to develop coherence. I found this definition of coherence that I believe fits really well within the positive psychology framework. Coherence is when your brain’s thoughts and decisions work hand in hand with your heart, emotions, and your body, the actions that you take. It is a state of unity between mind, body, and spirit. 
David Kessler in his work on the sixth stage of grief, finding meaning, [writes that] the only way to recohere life after loss is through meaning. And life may not ever return to normal. The only way to survive is to make meaning and find meaning. Some of us maybe have read the beloved book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, and he notes that his survival was dependent on the meaning he found in the midst of even the most extreme of life circumstances. And then, finally, Louise De Salvo in Writing as a Way of Healing talks about the difference between a victim and survivor is the meaning made of any particular trauma. Meaning and coherence have the ability to transform a trauma into a potential growth opportunity. And we know this as a term called post-traumatic growth, defined as any positive change experienced as a result of a struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event. So really taking the idea of post-traumatic stress, using some of our character strengths to transform the way we perceive that event in our lives and and the way we allow that event or trauma to affect us on a daily basis on a cellular level, and even how we allow the trauma to potentially impact our spirits, and turning it into a growth opportunity.

So how do we write narrative? I would like at this point to read to you one of the last journal entries that I did. And I think you will see, again, so many of the parallels to the labyrinth itself, to these positive psychology concepts. My birth trauma was mostly emotional. My trauma included negative, harmful treatment by a respected authority figure, emotional abandonment by my family, and being physically and verbally silenced. It also included an emergency procedure to get my baby from my body. And part of my trauma included all the ways I personally failed myself, ignored my intuition, and didn’t seek out more support along the way. Trauma can be caused by many different experiences. Physical, emotional, spiritual. Trauma is our psyche’s experience of an event in life and the felt sense that we are severely threatened. It is felt deep within the body, and its footings are rooted in ourselves. It can take a lot to unearth our traumas and to release the grip they hold on us. My trauma held on to me for many years, it still surfaces when I least expect it. As my healing process unfolded, it requires the assistance of many different methods, therapy, yoga, more therapy, more yoga, reflection, meditation, crying, extreme exercise at times, talking, processing, lots of talking, writing, yoga, therapy again, intensive therapy, writing, writing, and writing. All these helped me make meaning of my trauma. It helped me tell the narrative of my story. And the narrative was linking the experience and the emotion. It allowed me to feel a sense of control or personal agency over my experience … victim to heroine.

How do we write narrative? There are some guidelines that researchers have come to know. To really get your story out on the page, the writer must have freedom first and foremost. The guidelines can be fairly fluid, however, research shows that the writing must be concrete, authentic, and explicit. The writer must be able to link feelings to events on the paper, and the story must be allowed to be complete, complex, and coherent, with the beginning, a middle, and an end. But the writer can start at any point in the story, i.e., my writing started at the end.

What happens? This was one of the most powerful statements I found in the research about writing our traumas. Writing transforms us from a victim into something more powerful: a narrator with the power to observe, see. It reminds me of two important concepts, one from the yoga tradition, a concept called witness consciousness or developing the witness. This idea is one is that one has the ability to observe themselves as if they were watching a movie, almost sitting back and watching themselves onscreen. You almost step outside yourself and watch, all the while working on non-judgment and non-attachment to your thoughts, to your words, and to your actions. Writing narrative helps us to reclaim some measure of personal agency; agency defined as the felt sense that we have control over our life or our experiences. Another definition, from Zimmerman and Cleary: Personal agency is the ability to initiate and direct actions toward the achievement of a defined goal.

We are now coming to the end of our journey together, and I would love for you to try this out. So come along with me and let’s do a writing exercise together. I’m going to invite you into maybe enriching your writing through imagery. Let’s close our eyes for just a moment. Again, take a few deep breaths and really feel into your sitting bones. Notice the surface below you.
Bring into your mind something from the pandemic timeframe, the last 18 months or so, that felt challenging for you. And take a few more breaths and try to remember what made it challenging. When you feel complete in identifying what it was that was challenging for you, you can open your eyes. Write for two to three minutes about recent feelings and events related to the pandemic, something that was challenging. Don’t worry about if it is coming out just right. I will set a timer for us so that we can stay within that three minutes. You can feel free to begin your writing whenever you are ready.

Now let’s take a minute or so just to review and read your writing. Review the paragraph on the page, reflect on what you read, and then I’ll ask you, can you connect your writing to any particular image? If imagery is hard for you, which for some people it really is, maybe look or underline some points in your writing that seem meaningful. And also reflect on what character strengths you used to move you through the challenge, note those down. If you were able to find an image, or come up with an image, draw a rough sketch of it. It’s not an art competition, it’s just a way for you to deepen the experience of the writing.

Hopefully you enjoyed this process. I want to again remind you that my writing happened before I even started my final project. It was something that really just organically unfolded. When I read now what I wrote, I understand that this was always the project that I was meant to do. The labyrinth was present in my consciousness and my unconsciousness the whole time, my mind was simply waiting for me to link together the connections between my writing and what I was learning about positive psychology. So connecting it all together. The narrative writing allows for connecting events and emotions, ultimately making meaning out of our experiences. Allowing the mind to form an image such as the labyrinth illustrates the circuitous journey of writing the narrative of a particular event, experience, or trauma even. And then the growth happens because the storytelling gives the writer personal agency over their trauma, and it helps integrate the experience, often leading to growth and a changed perspective.

Anne Gustin

Anne Gustin is a 500hr Certified Yoga Teacher and Ayurveda Yoga Specialist based in Minneapolis, MN.  She holds an M.B.A. with a concentration in Business Strategy from the University of Minnesota and an undergraduate degree in Psychology and Management from Hamline University in St. Paul, MN.  Anne worked for Anderson Consulting and Target Corporation early in her career before leaving business to pursue her family and yoga certification.  Anne is a recent graduate of the Whole Being Institute’s Certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology (CIWPP) and is currently enrolled in the Positive Psychology Coaching program.  She serves on two non-profit boards in her local community, is a mom to two teenage daughters and two canine friends and loves to discuss/study matters of the spirit.   She has a website titled form& devoted to Yoga, Ayurveda and personal growth.