calm wild lavender


the magic of creating


When we create, it’s the best kind of magic.

One sliver of the magical world of creativity is personal self-expression. Think of this creating as

  • limitless
  • private
  • ephemeral
  • priceless


Personal self-expression is powerful. Creating with words or pictures what’s going on—in our minds, our bodies, our lives—lets us reveal to ourselves the buried or overlooked truth. Two effective forms of personal self-expression are expressive writing and graphic narratives.

expressive writing

So often our minds buzz about future what-ifs and the woulda’-shoulda’ of the past. These buzzing gnats distract us from our hearts. One way to focus in is to write how we feel about something that happened or is happening.

If we conjure the emotions of a traumatic event, such as cancer, it’s called expressive writing. With expressive writing, we needn’t worry about typos or grammar or punctuation. No one else will ever see this writing. We can be open and honest.

Professors James W. Pennebaker and Sandra Klihr Beall first published research results about the long-term positive effects of expressive writing in 1986. Since then, other researchers have duplicated their success in hundreds of studies. In 2014, Pennebaker (with a different coauthor) published Expressive Writing: Words that Heal, which shares a variety of writing therapies, including expressive writing in chapter 11.

When we write our feelings on paper or screen (or dictate them), we are free to explore deep down. Heartfelt writing keeps it real. But expressive writing can also be really hard. Pennebaker and Beall noted that the subjects in their study felt sadder in the days after their expressive writing sessions but in the long term benefitted.

graphic narratives

We sometimes communicate feelings best to ourselves not with words but with a stick figure or something else that represents us—animal, vegetable, mineral? Whatever.

During the late twentieth century, a confluence of storytelling and illness led to an emerging field called narrative medicine. Dr. Rita Charon founded and is executive director of the first and only master’s program in narrative medicine. She published a key text, Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness. In the 2006 volume, Charon included narratives from patients, clinicians, medical students, and families as well as narratives from fiction.

Telling our truths is not exclusive to words, written or verbal; our stories can, of course, come out of us visually. Paintings, doodles, smudges, smears, collages. The patients or caregivers who uncover their truths via the illustrative comics form of graphic novels or ‘zines create what’s called graphic narratives.

One category of graphic narratives focuses on cancer. These cancer graphic narratives first got attention in 1994 when comic book writer Harvey Pekar collaborated with Joyce Brabner, a writer of political comics and his wife, on Our Cancer Year. In 2006, major publishing houses released Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person: A Memoir in Comics, by self-taught artist and actress Miriam Engelberg; Mom’s Cancer, by comics artist Brian Fies; and Cancer Vixen: A True Story, by cartoonist Marisa Acocella. These examples and others can encourage us to release our personal self-reflections through graphic narratives.

a warning

We must remember to be kind to ourselves when exploring the magic of personal self-expression. Before we plunge into expressive writing or graphic narratives, let’s know how to rescue ourselves from the potentially cold depths with mindfulness.