The power of hard stories

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
June 13th, 2018

Psychologists are all about the storyAs I sat listening to a discussion on the topic of writing hard stories at the recent Newburyport literary festival, I thought of my colleagues in psychology and wished you could hear the message the panel came to deliver. Perhaps some of you were in the audience and heard what the presenters had to say, but for those of you who had better things to do on a springtime Saturday, this one is for you.

Psychologists, like writers, are all about the story. When we listen to our patients telling us about the challenges in their lives, we are listening to their stories and trying to understand how they make sense of their particular situations.

We hear about parents, siblings, children, significant others, friends and enemies, co-workers, and acquaintances and listen to tales of how these players affect the lives of the narrator.

We are there to listen and understand the story from the teller’s point of view. This practice is the foundation of empathy, the indispensable first step on a shared journey where therapist and client collaborate to write a more satisfying narrative.

We can’t change the hard realities of our clients’ lives any more than we can erase the heartaches of our own. What we can do is to enlarge the narrator’s point of view to include his own hidden thoughts, feelings, and patterns of behavior as well as the perspectives of the other characters in his life’s drama. We might also be able to identify and help people change common styles of thinking that can lead to a distorted view of their circumstances that keeps them stuck in unhelpful cycles of thought and behavior.

When we hear a story about trauma of any kind, we know we are in for a soul-wrenching ride that will call upon all of our therapeutic arts. The therapist uses her art to heal trauma; the writer uses her trauma to make art.

And so, on a spring morning, four writers came together in the nave of a pretty New England church to share with the audience their experience of writing hard stories and shaping art from trauma. The panel, moderated by Melanie Brooks, included Alysia Abbott, Mark Doty, and Andre Dubus III.

Melanie Brooks teaches writing at Northeastern University, Merrimack College, and Nashua Community College. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post and other newspapers and literary magazines.

After introducing her colleagues, she began the panel by sharing her own hard story about the death of her father, a prominent physician, from AIDS contracted in a blood transfusion, and the impact of keeping the secret of his illness during her adolescent years.

The challenges she faced when she decided to write about her experiences made her wonder how other writers had responded to their own call to write the hard stories of their lives. That question led her to interview 18 people who had written about their personal experiences of trauma. Three of them joined her for the panel discussion.

Mark Doty, the winner of the 2008 National Book Award for Poetry, shared the story of caring for his partner through his illness and death.

Alysia Abbott, the author of “Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father,” described what it was like to write her story of growing up in San Francisco with her gay father after her mother died in car accident.

Abbott was called home from college to care for her dying father and it was not until many years later that she realized the impact of the life they shared and the loss she experienced at his passing.

Andre Dubus III, an award-winning novelist and author of the memoir, “Townie,” described his complicated relationship with his father and the impact of realizing that, although he visited regularly after he and Dubus’ mother divorced, he was largely absent from the writer’s life.

Listening as a psychologist, I heard many familiar themes and had a few unexpected insights. Melanie Brooks spoke of the generosity of the 18 writers she interviewed and their willingness to share their experience of writing the hard stories of their lives. There is nothing like realizing that our suffering is shared, that we are not in this alone, to make life’s trials and challenges more bearable.

Mark Doty told how hard it was to write, not from a reflective distance, but in the present moments of his grief and anguish. You write a sentence one word at a time and, if it rings true, you keep it. It becomes one strand among many that you will weave into a basket to contain your sorrow.

Alysia Abbott did write from a reflective distance after she was well launched into her own life many years after her father’s death. It was only when she got away from her daily routine to spend time at a writer’s retreat that the full impact of her life with her father washed over her in an outpouring of solitary tears.

Andre Dubus III reminded us of the important difference between the facts and the truth. The facts of a situation are immutable. A parent spends long hours away from home working to provide his family with the good things in life. Those are the facts. The children feel neglected and unloved. That is their truth. The writer and the psychologist both know that we must start by acknowledging our truth and that when we learn the facts, something might change to make the hard stories just a little easier.

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