Healing Through Story – For Characters, For Ourselves

The Love CowardThis is a guest post by Naomi Musch, author of “The Love Coward“.

Naomi is an award-winning, multi-published author who writes from the pristine north woods of Wisconsin, where she lives with her husband and family as epically as God allows.

Besides writing historical fiction, romance, and adventuresome women’s fiction, she has worked as a book editor, a staff writer for an EPA award-winning Christian newspaper, a ghost writer, and has published dozens of magazine and internet articles for the encouragement of homeschooling families and young writers.

Naomi loves engaging with others and always discovering kernels of a new story. The Love Coward is her eighth novel.

Visit her website http://www.naomimusch.com or connect with her on Facebook@ NaomiMuschAuthor  or Twitter @NMusch

Naomi Musch


Story has the power to heal. We probably all know this in some way. Hearing the stories of others sheds light on our own journeys, and this is even true of fiction. Sometimes, while drawn into the lives and characters of a novel, we pause and ask, why do I so resonate with this individual? Why do I care that she has been so deeply wounded? Why does it matter to me that he is reunited with his daughter? Why care if she conquers her fear of (loneliness, water, heights, men, death — you name it)? Why does her enlightenment enlighten me? The answer is probably because we have struggled with the same question a character is struggling with.

One of the most delightful remarks ever made to me by a reader was this one: “I loved this story. It made me think.” I often wondered what the reader meant by that comment. Which part of the story made her think? What insight, act, or decision made by my characters stirred that reader’s own thoughts more deeply than before? It really doesn’t matter. Whatever attribute of the story caused her to meditate, her comment made my heart soar with accomplishment. Fiction is written to give readers like you and me just such an emotional experience, and if that emotional experience can lead from reflection to healing as we work through our own wounds of the past, so much more the better.

Psychologists, pastors, and counselors say we need to process our hurts in order to find freedom from them. They point out phases an individual experiences when damaged by hidden emotional or mental trauma, and ways to process it. Writers often use these tools in the lives of their characters to help them find healing. You can too.

Here are a couple of the phases we pass through when we haven’t yet dealt with a painful experience, but which help us to recognize that there is a problem:

First there is the outward expression of our emotional or psychological wound. In a novel, we see these attributes easily. There could be denial, anger, guilt, hopelessness, withdrawal, or numbness. The individual might suffer sleeplessness, nausea, agitation, tension, and so on. Often there is outright grief.

Then there is the acting out of that expression which can lead to anything from forced isolation and depression to outbursts or even violence (to self or others). This is when the character begins to take action, though usually negatively.

Then there are the tools we use to process our pain:

First, there is recognition. Now a character makes a decision. He either decides to block out the pain and continue in his struggle, or he will make a decision to move forward and work through the problem. He might take on physical exercise to release anxiety while he mentally examines what has caused his current difficulty. He may seek medical help. He might even go on a journey. A healthy start would be to find a mentor, someone to guide and give ear and advice to his feelings. This person often appears in a novel as a supportive secondary character.

He then begins to take forward action to let go of the pain by putting effort into positive change. This might involve making a difference to other characters he encounters, putting past failure into something useful. Think of people who become nurses after experiencing medical illness, counselors after suffering abuse, or individuals who take government action after having fallen through the cracks on a social issue. It frequently occurs in a story that a character who has lost someone to a war or natural disaster goes out and faces that very kind of battle or disaster again, turning all the fear they’ve been harboring into greater courage.

In my novel The Love Coward, my protagonist Tulla Johanson has had her hopes dashed repeatedly. First there were promises broken. She waited through the duration of WWII for love only to be left at the altar when she thought it had finally arrived. On top of heartache, she’s been under other heavy loads of work, farm, and family illness on the home front, and both the emotional and physical burdens have taken their toll. She is at the breaking point of what she can bear. Like Tulla, who hasn’t experienced something similar to repeatedly having the rug pulled out from under them? Who hasn’t suffered severe disappointment, heartache, or a trial that felt insurmountable? After repeated woundings, Tulla is afraid of moving forward, certain such rejection will only happen again. She doubts the intentions of other romantic interests, fears she’ll fail at love. She fully expects abandonment, yet she clings to old memories. She stumbles at her own ability to make a change. That’s the problem with trauma and emotional pain. It scars. Hopefully, as Tulla begins the process of dealing with her heartaches and takes brave steps forward, readers will walk with her from dashed hopes to future promise. Perhaps, through the process, someone will find that they too are able to deal with their own past hurts. That’s what story often succeeds in accomplishing.

Here’s a secret. Oftentimes the themes that emerge as a story unfolds are the very themes that have lain hidden in the heart of the writer himself. It could be they are writing out of personal experience or the experience of someone close. Some have merely done thorough research, but many novelists are working through a discovery process for themselves. In that process they enlighten us to the means of working through the loss of a loved one, a hurt from childhood, the wound given by a friend, or the demons of self with whom we fight. We travel with a beloved character and find healing just as the character does. Like them, we learn the process of acknowledging our pain, discovering a changed way of thinking, and by taking courses of action. Writing is a terrific catharsis for anyone!

What hurts have you snuffed out or stuffed down inside? Have you tried journaling about them and processing anguish (with help if necessary) instead of burying it? Have you found a way to move forward and turn a past pain into a future hope? If you have, I’d like to hear about it.

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