Maria Hummel & Narrative Healing
by Katie Wu
The concept of narrative medicine is, as of yet, still unfamiliar to most. Distilled down to its most basic elements, it’s talk therapy. The theory is, every pain and every problem has a story behind it; accessing it practically is essential to both psychological and physical healing.
If looked at the wrong way, the approach may seem suspiciously Freudian – but the great thing about any artistic approach to tackling the human condition is that there are a million ways to look at it. And Maria Hummel, now in her sixth year of teaching, has a new one for the undergraduates at Stanford.
Her Creative Nonfiction course, Narrative Healing, explores a new perspective on the personal narrative – namely, that there are two points of view that define memoirs: the witness and the survivor. Rather than relying on conversation to explore the difficulties of healing, Maria shifts narrative medicine into the genre of prose, playing on the paradigms of illness and healing as they interact in every day life and on the page. The course explores the works of writers such as Alice Walker, Abraham Verghese, and Chris Adrian, culminating in student-run interviews with a group of men and women who, with one foot in both the worlds of medicine and literature, embody the spirit of narrative healing.
What inspired the concept of narrative healing, and what made you want to teach a class about it?
I’ve spent over three years in and out of hospital with my son, who has an acute auto-immune disease that causes thousands of ulcers in his digestive tract. Over countless experiences of relating his condition to doctors and nurses, I became aware of how important storytelling is in the medical culture. Patients tell stories of their illnesses and cures; doctors tell stories to other doctors and patients. A lot of knowledge is passed along this way.
In addition, I noticed that there seemed to be a current trend away from reliance on labs and hard medical data and towards understanding how best to listen to patients, even how to think of their illnesses as not merely an individual’s burden, but a burden of the individual’s culture, i.e. their family, their community. The radical concept that illness is relational (i.e. a product of shared relationships with others) vs. monadic (i.e. rooted only in an individual’s body) was especially interesting to me as a writer.
I began to ask: what are paradigms of illness and healing and how do they play out not only in people’s lives, but on the page? Is it possible for writers to learn something from the way doctors and therapists deal with narrative in their own work? What is narrative medicine, this new buzz word in medical circles? What is narrative therapy? How can I bring strategies from those practices into a writing class and how will it change how we think about our own constructed stories?
What made you select your list of potential interviewees for the class? What is the common thread that ties them together?
All the interviewees bridge the worlds of medicine and literature. Three are doctors who write poetry or fiction, one is a narrative therapist, and one is a doctor who teaches writing classes to people with chronic illness. I invited them because I’m dazzled by their work and I think they are seekers like the rest of us in the class. They cross boundaries all the time. Take Chris Adrian, a Hem/Onc Fellow at UCSF who took a year off to go to Harvard Divinity School, and has written insanely an imaginative novel where the world floods and the only survivors are the staff and patients of a floating children’s hospital. I’m not just interested in how Adrian handles narrative as a doctor. I want to know how what he thinks of imagination’s role in coping with the deepest questions of human suffering.
Do you think narrative healing is a concept that is more geared towards the healing process for the writer, or a learning experience for the reader? Who should be enlightened here – or is it both?
Both. I think any writer who confronts difficult memories begins a healing process by ordering those memories and giving them shape. Similarly, readers who have suffered similar experiences can experience some healing (or at least comfort) from actually having someone put their feelings into coherent form.
What are your thoughts on writing about experiences/trauma immediately after they have happened? Do you think this compromises our ability to control psychic distance? A lot of writers warn against writing about things that are too fresh because you haven’t yet had time to develop “perspective” or “distance” from the emotional upheaval… do you think this is correct?
Yes and no. The Wordsworthian paradox is that poetry (and I think this applies to all writing) is both the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and “emotion recollected in tranquility.” From my own experience, I can say that sometimes it was essential that I wrote about bad experiences right away, and sometimes I simply wasn’t able to. Maybe it has to do with scale and how incomprehensible the trauma is. For example, I wrote an essay about my son’s first hospitalization soon after it happened, but when a dozen of my students were killed on a field trip in Thailand, I couldn’t write about it for an entire year.
You’re also smart to ask about psychic distance. Sometimes a writer’s struggle has to do with how removed you need to be in order to truly relate what happened. I once heard Alice Sebold talking about The Lovely Bones. She said she wrote some of the first chapter, but when she got to the part about Susie Salmon being raped, she had to stop. Sebold herself had been raped, and she didn’t want to confuse her own experience with Susie’s, because Susie’s life had to be her own. So Sebold set aside the novel, wrote the story of her own rape (published as the memoir Lucky) and then went back later and finished The Lovely Bones. She also said she remembered the details of her own rape much more clearly after seven years had passed.
You talk about witnessing and surviving; what are your thoughts behind this? Is there a distinct difference? Can someone be doing both?
Most nonfiction writing begins from either the point of view of survivor or of witness. So either you’re grappling with some change or trauma you’ve endured, or you’re grappling with some change or trauma that you see in someone else. On a very basic level, you can see the survival POV often in memoir, and the witness POV often in reporting.
Nevertheless, the writer may not stay fixed in that point of view for the entire work, and when she crosses the boundary, a certain magic happens. Take Autobiography of a Face, a survival memoir if there ever was one. When Lucy Grealy actually starts crossing the boundary from survivor to witness, from describing the horrors of her own surgery and chemo to describing her secret visit to the horrible research lab in the hospital where dogs and cats are kept, she begins to unravel her own devastating self-consciousness at being an experiment for others.
What’s one core concept you’d like your students to take away from this class?
A core concept: We are meaning making creatures. All writing is a journey toward meaning, and whether you write as witness or survivor, about major trauma or subtle life changes, I hope the class will get you there.Tags: Katie Wu, Maria Hummel, Volume 5 Issue 3