Uplift Blog

Stories of Illness and the Capacity to Empower, Inspire and Heal

Stories that heal come in many forms, from many sources.

I am a fiction writer and educator living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I teach at the Loft Literary Center, a nonprofit organization offering writing classes. I first became interested in the topic of healing when I heard an interview with Siddhartha Mukherjee.

He commented on the relationship between narrative and illness. In his book The Emperor of All Maladies, he writes, “A patient, long before he becomes the subject of medical scrutiny, is, at first, simply a storyteller, a narrator of suffering—a traveler who has visited the kingdom of the ill.”

Dealing with health conditions is often compared to a journey, and all travelers return with stories. But these stories become more than tales told to amuse listeners: stories of illness have the capacity to empower and inspire. They can even become stories that heal.

As Audre Lorde wrote in The Cancer Journals, they can transform “silence into language and action.”

3 Types of Stories

According to sociologist Arthur Frank in his book The Wounded Storyteller, there are three main types of stories—the restitution narrative, the chaos narrative and the quest narrative, and some may include qualities of these three narrative types.

1. A restitution narrative is the story of a person who becomes ill and then becomes well—a story about “health.”

2. The chaos narrative, says Frank, is “the opposite of restitution: its plot never imagines life getting better.” Chaos stories are anxiety-riddled tales without resolution.

3.  Quest narratives, says Lorde in The Cancer Journals, “meet suffering head on; they accept illness and seek to use it.” The protagonists of these stories are messengers who, through their own experiences with illness or other health conditions, seek to help others.

Restitution. Chaos. Quest.

What types of health-related stories have you encountered? What stories have been especially helpful in dealing with your own health conditions or those of a loved one? Would you like to start a CaringBridge website?

About the Author:

Darci Schummer, a Wisconsin girl, now lives, writes, and teaches in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Loft Literary Center offers writing classes to the public in Minneapolis.


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6 Replies

  • By Nell Kauls

    This post is so interesting. I never thought about health and illness in this way. I have some new ideas for my blog. Thanks Darci!

  • By magbear

    For me, what resonates in stories of illness is when a human truth is uncovered and a story is told, this art can take many forms. Some of my favorites fall more in the chaotic realm–The Yellow Wallpaper, Crime and Punishment, Frankenstein. But here is where I would put my spin on the definition of chaos. I don’t think it is so much about looking at life as not getting better, but acknowledging life as it really exists. Illness can create an almost permanent sense of chaos on the psyche in some cases, meaning the shortest distance between 2 points is not always a straight line when living with an illness. The unexpected becomes the norm. For me, the most helpful stories in this state are those that recognize and confirm its existence. Not feeling alone on that path gives me strength and allows me to lean on that someone knows, or gets it.

    The medical community looks to stories of illness to help educate their residents on empathy, which I think is wonderful. Getting out of the academic textbooks, and into the shoes of the people dealing with this is critical. An interesting resource on this topic: NYU’s Literature, Art, and Medicine database: http://litmed.med.nyu.edu/Main?action=new

    Thanks for the thought provoking post! I could talk about this for hours, seriously.

  • By John Capecci

    This is lovely and important post, thank you. I am very interested in how our stories “transform silence into language and action,” especially the power they can have to influence others and act as agents of change. That duel power — self-healing and empowering others — is awesome.

  • By osteofoborp

    Very interesting points you have observed , appreciate it for putting up. “Above all be true to yourself, and if you can not put your heart in it, take yourself out of it.” by Hardy D. Jackson.


  • By sarah

    i belive you could be any wrighter you want to be if you just elive even if you are a cancer patient (i dont really know just saying) i belivew you are a really good writer too you could possibly bre the best ive seen yet…