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New World Library Unshelved

New World Library Unshelved

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Thursday, May 25, 2017
FINDING OUR WORDS: An excerpt from THE STORY YOU NEED TO TELL by Sandra Marinella
A practical and inspiring guide to transformational personal storytelling, The Story You Need to Tell: Writing to Heal from Trauma, Illness, or Loss, is the product of author Sandra Marinella’s pioneering work with veterans and cancer patients, her years of teaching writing, and her research into its profound healing properties. 

In this excerpt from the book, Marinella shares a story that illustrates her methods for understanding, telling, and editing personal stories in ways that foster resilience and renewal, unraveling “the knot inside” to make sense of loss. We hope reading this excerpt will inspire you to find your own words to tell your unique story. 

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“I have not had an easy life. I started out writing to save my life.” Alice Walker

As the weeks stumbled by after my cancer diagnosis, I plodded to doctors’ offices, where I continued to have my breasts examined, mashed, photographed, scanned, biopsied, and finally debated by a board of six medical professionals. All the while, I carried my bright-red journal in my book bag. And as I waited I scrawled notes and reflected. Sometimes about my cancer. Sometimes about my writing. “Words. What is the magic behind them?” I asked in those pages. I began to hatch a plan to answer that question.

As a result of that plan, I began to work with other cancer patients and veterans — anyone who wanted to write. I met Robert Serocki Jr. when he spoke to the veterans’ writing group downtown, where I had begun volunteering. A week after his talk, we sat on a sun-drenched patio beside a golf course in Ahwatukee, Arizona. The former marine wanted to talk to me about his writing.

On that March day, as the smell of honeysuckle hung in the air and we sipped iced tea, Robert transported me into his past with stories of his stint in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in 1990–1991, during the Gulf War. He described digging the holes in the sand where he would sleep each night. He ate dried-up MREs or “meals ready to eat,” and suffered from ongoing ant bites, scorpion stings, and visits from dung beetles and rats. A bout with dysentery and food poisoning led him to be seriously dehydrated. His fellow marines suffered the same nausea and malnutrition. 

After a long and trying wait in the desert, the fighting erupted. During this intense period, Robert’s squad faced minefields, bombing raids, firefights, and the unbearable — the reality of dead bodies littering their landscape. This trauma often left Robert sick to his stomach. While at war, he was encouraged by his superiors to buck up and hold in all his frustrations. And he did. “I felt I had lost all control of my life. It was like I was at the whim of the universe,” he said. 

After he returned home from Saudi Arabia, the war remained on unending replay in his mind. “I remember being scared of the dark at age twenty-six and not being able to sleep because there was no one on fire watch to guard me at night. I remember lying in bed sweating and trembling. I remember replaying the war in my mind like a tape while I slept. I would wake up in a pool of my own sweat, and I would shake. I would cry. I could not go back to sleep.”

To cope, Robert began to drink. He drank beer. He drank martinis. He drank wine. At the time Robert’s boss suggested he think about writing, a possibility he toyed with. As luck would have it, his folks had saved all the letters he had written home from the war. “I just began to type them all up, and before I knew it I was actually writing a book.” It took Robert six years to complete A Line in the Sand

“But I still had PTSD,” Robert admitted. “And then I lost my job. That was a bad time for me. I wanted to end my life. I was on five medications and so sick I ended up in a wheelchair. I had to file for bankruptcy, and I was on a complete downward spiral. Twice I wanted to end my life — with a gun.”

Many vets who suffer from PTSD have faced this sandstorm of bad memories when they returned home. Many vets, over half the ones I have interviewed, have contemplated suicide. And recently one tried to commit it. While Robert decided to forgo the gun and seek help, initially the counseling backfired. “When my doctor brought up the war, I always became nauseous. All I could do was get sick — or drink. Finally they put me in the hospital for a couple of weeks. There I began to talk to people, and the talking made a difference. I started to feel better.” Robert admitted that it helped to break his silence. To share his story. Counseling, like writing, can help us lay out a broken experience and begin to piece it back together again.

Eventually, after being released from the hospital, Robert returned to his writing. “I realized I didn’t want to live like this anymore, so I took the next step.” He began work on his second book, Chrysalis: A Metamorphosis Has Begun. He admitted that writing about difficult subjects was not easy. “I had to relive it all again. Often that was painful.” But then he sat back and smiled. At that moment, and perhaps it was no more than a slice of the Arizona sun cutting across the patio as we talked, a brilliant light pierced Robert’s dark eyes.

“Writing is a beautiful way to let all your pain out,” he said. “You put your story out there, and when you do, you release it. It is no longer buried and stuck inside. You are free. It is like saying good-bye to a monster that has been living in you.” He paused and sipped his tea before looking at me. “And I am free.” 

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The author of The Story You Need to Tell: Writing to Heal from Trauma, Illness, or Loss, writing teacher Sandra Marinella, MA, MEd, has taught thousands of students and fellow teachers and presented hundreds of workshops to veterans, educators, and cancer patients. She lives near Phoenix, Arizona. Find her online at

Excerpted from the book The Story You Need to Tell. Copyright © 2017 by Sandra Marinella


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