April 30th, 2020

Journaling and Storytelling as Tools for Resilience

Eva Tenuto

The very definition of the word pandemic tells us the whole world is going through something right now, but make no mistake, it does not mean we’re all in the same boat. For those of us living alone, even with the luxury of good physical health and the privilege of social distancing from the comfort of our own homes, we may be struggling mentally from isolation. Parents, on the other hand, might be missing downtime, privacy, and autonomy or struggling to work while homeschooling. Those newly unemployed may not know what to do with their new downtime or know how they are going to feed themselves and their family. Then there are the frontline workers who don’t have the luxury of social distancing and face their fears every day to keep us safe and fed. Some are sick, some grieving the loss of loved ones without being able to receive the comfort of our community. Many have lost their lives.

Regardless of our situation, we all have lost something. Many of us have hit a wall. The realization is sinking in—this is going to be a marathon, not a sprint—and we need to train for the long road ahead.

There are many tools out there to support our mental health during particularly trying times, and more options seem to be popping up every day. But there are a couple of old standbys I’m intimately familiar with: journaling and storytelling. They withstand the test of time. Though the two are quite different, both can be used as tools for healing or as coping strategies. When used together, the results are powerful.

Journaling got me through the trauma of middle school. I had no friends, was mercilessly ridiculed and publicly humiliated. I stopped talking and suffered my first bout of clinical depression. I had a 7th grade English teacher, Ms. Battaglia, who required us to keep journals. We were allowed to write whatever we wanted but had to write every day of the week. I told her everything.

My best friend won’t talk to me at school anymore, but when we step off the bus, and no one is around to see us, she acts like we’re friends again. I don’t know what to do.

I just found out my mom had a baby when she was sixteen and gave him up for adoption. Guess I know what I’m doing this summer - helping my mom look for her son.

I can’t stop thinking about him. I wonder who he is and what it will be like to have an older brother. I’ve always been the oldest, and we’re all girls.

Did you ever think about killing yourself? I’m not going to do it, but I can’t stop thinking about it.

Ms. Battaglia and those black and white speckled composition notebooks saved my life.

As an adult, I stopped journaling. I was too busy. I was writing about other things. I didn’t have time to commit to a “pointless” practice. I’ve recently gone through a significant and challenging life-change. In December, a friend suggested Julia Cameron’s classic, The Artist’s Way. I needed all the help I could get and accepted the suggestion. I have been writing morning pages—three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing first thing upon waking—every day since. I’ve been reminded journaling is not a pointless task, it’s a lifesaver, especially for troubling times.

Journaling as Self-Care

Journaling is a place for free-writing. At TMI Project, we call it, “a brain-dump.” We suggest you set a timer for 20 minutes. Don’t let your pen stop moving. Write whatever comes up, no censoring. If the pen stops moving, the editor tries to enter the room, and there’s no room at the journaling table for an editor. This is the writer’s time. By dumping all of your dirty, angry, shameful feelings, you can clear space for other thoughts and ideas to arise throughout the day. These pages are not meant to be read or filled with witty prose. These pages are where you vent. I can’t believe so-and-so did such-and-such! Again. How dare they. It’s where you drop off the minutiae of life, so it doesn’t weigh you down. I didn’t sleep well last night. I kept tossing and turning.

After you get into the habit of writing your thoughts, day-in, and day-out, you start to feel lighter. You begin understanding things about yourself you couldn’t put into words, to know your dreams more intimately, and to love yourself more. Journaling is self-care, and when you care for yourself, you feel better.

Do Not Get on Stage and Read Your Journal

One of the first things we tell people at a TMI Project True Storytelling Workshop is, “We will not allow you to get on stage and read your journal. It won’t go well. No one wants to listen to that, and we want you to experience being heard powerfully.” Stories developed for the stage should be well-crafted, intentional, and equal parts entertaining and enlightening. And yet, like journaling, crafting and sharing stories is also a powerful tool for building resilience and healing old wounds.

A TMI Project story has specific required elements. We help people craft true stories in which they are the main character. All storytellers have to be willing to include the “TMI” parts we usually leave out because of shame or embarrassment. You have to be ready to be vulnerable and expose your humanity. When you, the storyteller, are a stories’ main character, you have to go through some transformation from beginning to end with tension in the middle that makes the audience want to keep listening. When you share something you’ve learned about yourself, as we listen, we learn about ourselves too. If you’ve experienced being wronged by someone but didn’t learn something about yourself in the process, vent about it in your journal. If you’ve survived a hardship that revealed something about yourself or changed you in some way, invite the editor into the room and start crafting. Well-crafted stories meant for the stage require the gift of time because we need to be able to go through the experience, process it, investigate how it changed us, and be self-reflective. We can’t do all that when we are in the eye of the storm. We need the gift of perspective. This is why we suggest that when choosing a story for public consumption, you steer clear of writing about what you’re currently steeped in. That’s what your journal is for. Your journal will come in handy to you as you craft your stories. It’s now a resource, your personal history book. It will be filled with details and dates your memory would not have been able to retain on its own. Reference it often and mine it for the gems buried in the recorded monotony of daily life.

We can’t tell our own stories without mentioning other people. Stories are created out of relationships and connections. How we approach the sharing of other people’s stories is a delicate task, and every writer handles it differently. Be as compassionate and critical of others in the story as you are of yourself. If you’re not able to let the person read it before it goes public, can you change some identifying characteristics without compromising the integrity of your story? You may choose to keep them as they are and perhaps even call them by name. There is no right or wrong answer but think through the consequences.

I once told my mom I would be publishing a story in which she appeared with or without her blessing. It made her uncomfortable but she wished me well. She didn’t ask to read it, and I didn’t offer it. It was published. She read the piece and was pissed.

“That’s not how it happened,” she said, enraged that the world now had incorrect information about her past.

“But, it’s how it happened for me,” I told her.

We ended up in therapy. In the end, it was a blessing. It allowed us to talk about things we should’ve addressed decades earlier. But, it was messy and painful for both of us.

Shame wants you silent. By being brave enough to step on stage and share a story, you were once too afraid to share with one person, shame can no longer exist. It melts away. Sharing clears a path for a new future without heavy baggage weighing you down. You can see yourself through the compassionate eyes of the audience rather than through your solitary critical point of view.

One of our storytellers, Verna Gillis, featured in the first episode of The TMI Project Podcast, said, “We live our life forward, and we understand it backward. Writing and storytelling help me understand my life.” I couldn’t agree more. We’re living in times that are impossible to understand. We know we have a long row to hoe, and while journaling

and sharing stories won’t make the problems of the world or the pain go away, it will give us a place to put things. It will provide relief by helping us make meaning out of our painful experiences.

It’s been true since the beginning of time: nothing sparks human connection quite like sharing stories. And, if there’s one thing we can’t lose right now, amid so much loss, it’s our connection to one another.

Eva Tenuto is the co-founder and executive director of TMI Project, a non-profit organization offering transformative storytelling workshops and performances in which storytellers divulge the parts of their stories that they usually leave out.