StoryFlow: Judith Hannan on Becoming a Writer and Her Writing Toolkit

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StoryFlow is a series featuring original conversations with Kripalu presenter Lisa Weinert and visionary doctors, writers, yogis, and spiritual leaders about the role of storytelling in their healing and caregiving processes.

Words are powerful medicine. Stories can lift us up and connect us; they can also divide and terrify us. At times, painful, frightening narratives threaten to divide us; yet there are always inspiring stories of heroism and activism to give us hope. As writers and healers, it’s our job to listen and to find ways to use our own voices to help everyone be heard.

The first installment of the series features a Q&A with Judith Hannan, who is beloved in the field of narrative medicine because she consistently creates safe spaces where everyone can feel empowered to share their stories and work on craft. She is the author of Motherhood Exaggerated, a memoir of discovery and transformation during her daughter’s cancer treatment and transition into survival and The Write Prescription, a hands-on, hearts-on guide to writing about illness.

How did you come across narrative medicine?

My inauguration into telling stories about the medical experience actually came when my daughter Nadia (who is now 24) was 8 years old and was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma. At that time, I was relatively new as a writer. I actually kept a daily journal. When her treatment was over and there was the good prospect of her survival, I took a look at what I had written and started to write the story of our experience.

But, the story was a very small-minded story about medical procedures—about scars, not people. What I realized as I was writing was that, with every iteration, I had to bring in more things. If I was going to write a story about being a mother when a child was severely ill, I had to look at well, what kind of mother was I? This led me to the question, what kind of mother had I had? So I had to tell my mother’s story. So, I had to talk about my other children, because they’re all really different. And I had to talk about faith and nature and other things I found healing. And the end result was a much bigger story, and I was able to see how I had transformed as a writer. So, that’s my goal, my goal is to help people tell these larger stories.

What are patient stories and how does telling stories help patients?

A patient story can be anything from a journal entry, to a letter to someone, to an essay, to a book. It can be written only for yourself, or for a larger audience. What’s important to me when people sit down to write is that they’re not just venting. I try to help people become better writers with more tools at their disposal. The reason to write better is to go more deeply.

Do you have a writing toolkit? If yes, what does it look like?

I write all my first drafts by hand on paper, with a mechanical pencil. I do my first round of rewriting when I enter what I’ve written into the computer. I’ll then print out what I have written and do my edits by hand. This continues for however many times I think necessary until I consider a piece done. While I have favorite places to write, I can write anywhere. I generally can’t work on something for much longer than two or three hours and, even then, I make sure I get up and move around every 30 minutes. This allows me to stretch my muscles, but it’s also a time when, by disengaging my mind, the flashes of insight get through.

What writing prompts do you recommend as we head into fall?

At this time of year, I am acutely aware of the presence of time. The light changes; the arc of the moon and sun is altered; even before the leaves turn, they look tired. A prompt that I have been giving recently is to write a letter to Time. Another is to complete the phrase, “In the Beginning ...” and see where it takes you.

Fall can be a great time to write with our senses; it’s not just the foliage that can move us. When I first moved to New York and felt an ache for nature, I made the weather my substitute obsession. Since then, I have used a prompt in which you write about yourself as if you were a weather system. This becomes an extended metaphor for how you are feeling at that particular point in time and how your system impacts others, as well.