By Shannon Quist
I’m a writer. I write. It’s what I do. I won my first writing award in fifth grade for a piece that was like my family: happy, static, the model of middle America. But that’s not really where my writing career began.
In sixth grade, my teacher instructed us to write short stories to grade our grammar, but when I turned mine in, she didn’t mark up my commas. Instead, she pulled me aside and said, “Where’s the conflict? Every story needs some compelling conflict.” The significance of this advice was lost on me then, but I would understand it the following year.
Seventh grade was when I stumbled upon some of the more grisly details of my adoption my parents had previously kept from me. Do you want to hear the story? I’m sure you do.
Scholars in cognitive narrative theory (folks who study stories and brains which is as cool as it sounds) agree that our brains comprehend and empathize best when we’re given information through stories. Our brain scans will even light up as if we are experiencing something just by reading about it in a story. That said, imagine what your brain will do when you read mine:
I was a sheltered child who grew up knowing I was adopted, but my comprehension of it was best summarized through a fairytale meta-narrative: the life I’d landed was my happily ever after. That’s how my parents told it, anyway. When I was twelve, I found a folder with my name on it with all my adoption paperwork. My mom came home just in time to see me run to my room to look through the contents and screamed until I gave it back.
Luckily, I stole most of the juicy stuff which was, for a very long time, all I had of my biological history. It was what I read about in those documents that threw me into a deep depression. What was PCP? What was schizophrenia? Why was there no information on my birthfather? Why was there so much shame in my parents’ faces when I discovered these secrets? What did all these things mean, and more importantly, what did they mean for who I was?
That’s when I turned to writing, and this time, I included the conflict. I wasn’t part of a static happy family anymore, but I had conflict, and that’s how I became a writer. That’s the short story, anyway.
And I am a fan of the short story. It gets to the point. The ending is clearly in sight. Makes sense why I’d prefer writing about my trauma in this form, right? Well, that’s what happened. Suddenly, I was writing poems and stories, even little non-fiction pieces that were copy and paste from my life.
But it was in my freshman year of high school that I finally grew into the spot I needed to be. That’s when I was dealing with my very first heartbreak, and it’s when I first came to the metaphor.
According to psychologist Andrew Ortony in his article, “Why Metaphors are Necessary and Not Just Nice,” metaphors help us extend our knowledge when we make connections between things known and things new. Mine came in the form of my broken heart being portrayed as the castle where I lived being destroyed. Give me a break, I was fourteen.
But that was the height of my skill in my self-narrated therapy for a long time, almost fifteen years. I knew that I was capable of better writing, especially the stories and poetry, when I was upset, but instead of seeking help with this, I just rode the waves of trauma on the back of artistic skill. It was an even trade, I thought, heartbreak for art, and I paid it. This was my truth for a long time: I’d write out my poetry, my stories, and then I’d lock up the writing in a diary somewhere.
Nothing significant happened until I was twenty-one years old and headed to rehab. As you can probably guess, I didn’t correctly learn how to deal with my trauma and neither did any of the adults around me so, even with all the writing I did, I found more escape methods from said trauma.
But in rehab, something wonderful happened. I compiled my first Big Book. No, not the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, though that is what the title was inspired from.
I revisited and compiled all the best pieces from all the diaries I’d written, all the essays my teachers had handed back with A’s, and all the poetry and short stories I held in high esteem.
Trashing the things I didn’t want to keep and compiling the things I did was thoroughly healing for me. I addressed the issues more than I initially had when I wrote them, but it was the ordering that helped me the most because after I was done organizing, a plotline and purpose emerged, themes became more clear to me.
According to Dan McAdams, I was rewriting my narrative identity which he defines as: “the internalized, evolving story of the self that each person crafts to provide his or her life with a sense of purpose and unity.” Rewriting my life story gave me a better sense of direction.
By the end of rehab, I had a 400+ page book that signified the end of an era. I was free to put the book on the highest shelf and begin composing the next chapter, literally and metaphorically.
It wasn’t until four years later after I’d been married, given birth to a baby girl, and sat on the cusp of my divorce that I returned to the practice of writing the stories of my life and compiling them. The divorce came as a complete surprise to me, which follows a pattern. Both of the biggest traumas in my life have completely caught me off-guard.
I immediately went to a therapist for support to get me through the divorce with my sanity intact (I couldn’t justify riding out the depression on my art when a child depended on me), but as the divorce came and went, I began to realize that there was more than a mere divorce that I needed to talk about.
I brought my therapist my Big Book and we looked through it together, talked about some of the issues I’d shoved deep down. The most important of them, my adoption and the myriad of ways I’d tried to run from that pain. I returned to writing like never before, this time with purpose and fervor. Soon after we’d worked through some of the issues that showed up regularly in my Big Book, I was asked to work on a project in my graduate program that would study the legal history of Texas adoptions. As I began to finally allow myself to study the legal practice that defined my life, I enrolled in a critical theory class that focused on narrative theory.
As I studied, I realized that narrative and therapeutic practice are two disciplinary subjects that are definitely worth putting together. As I jumped into research, I found that many psychologists and narratologists agree.
I’ll catch you up on the basics. Narrative therapy is a field that encourages people to take control of their stories, often by studying in depth how narrative itself works. Each person’s experience is going to be different because everybody writes differently, of course, but the general idea is to put an order to the story of your life by writing it out.
Some people start at the very beginning and write their memoir chronologically. Some people, like me, jump between the stories and write them out as they’re ready to deal with them in therapy. It’s still difficult for me to put it all in order because of the sheer volume.
Agency was one of the most important reasons narrative therapy was the best path for me. I didn’t have a choice when I found out the scary details about my adoption, and I didn’t have a choice listening to my husband confess that he hadn’t loved me for a long time. Writing about those two things and everything else in between, I am the one in charge of how the story ends. I am in charge of how close or how far I am from the pain when I narrate the story.
The emotional distance I sometimes employ through metaphor allows me to step back from my trauma and analyze it from a distance instead of carrying the weight of undefined pain around. I like to call this practice playing with Dumbledore’s pensieve. It’s helped me get through all kinds of things. And when people read these stories, they build empathy towards me and people who have similar stories. It’s win-win on both ends.
The world becomes a much less frightening place when we understand how our brains work and can identify the power that narratives have in our worldviews. We can learn more about others by reading their stories, and in turn, they can learn more about us. We can heal ourselves by writing our life stories, by folding in rich metaphors that speak our singular truths with room for adjustments in the future as we grow. And where the stories lack, we can embellish. At least, that’s how I do it.
Shannon Quist published her debut novel in 2020, Rose’s Locket, which follows the journey of a teen adoptee trying to write her story and find meaning in her life. She graduated with a Bachelor’s in English Literature from Texas Woman’s University in 2018, with a Master’s in English Rhetoric & Writing in May 2022, and she works at Alkami Technology as a technical writer. Shannon also serves on the board of directors of AKA.