the wild and weedy medicine of storytelling

It was twelve years ago that I first encountered the idea that stories can be medicinal. I'd previously come across something similar - the therapeutic power of stories to help troubled people. But when I became involved with Steiner education, I developed a deeper understanding, one which resonated on feral, sacred levels of bone and sinew, deep grief and profound love.

Stories, they're thread to stitch the wound we all carry, the cut between us and the other. - The Storyteller of Cyriae, Driftways.

Other people and animals.
Other places.
Other perspectives.
Other kinds of lifestyle.
Other aspects of our selfhood.
Other layers of consciousness.
Other ways of touching the world.

I personally believe medicine, done right, is woven through with the spirit of Life, the magic and mystery and the ineffable beauty of Life. That's where it gets its healing power from.

My apprenticeship with medicinal storytelling began, of course, with the old fairy tales. They're old for a reason. People have kept them going because they say important things and minister to our souls. When there is no real medicine in the tale, it withers away, untold, unloved. (And of course invaders have always understood the importance of repressing or reassigning a people's stories, to leave their culture with no soul-remedy for invasion.)

Soon, I was learning to make my own gentle medicine. I especially found it helpful in mothering. For example, being able to see things in the frame of a story, a narration of that moment in time and yet braided to other moments, the progression of life - this has been invaluable in providing me with clear perspective (although not always in the particular moment!)

Ever since, I have been trying to practice a wise and nurturing narration within my heart for my daily life. It isn't always possible. But when I remember, it always helps.

Novel writing is very different from this kind of storytelling. I think perhaps it's too easy for the writer to focus on the plot, the grammar, the precision of editing, rather than to grow the spirit of the tale. I think too novelists worry a lot about structure, pacing, word counts - whereas medicinalists know to value weeds, unexpected growth, symbosis. I know some medicinal novels. But they are less common than I would wish them to be.

I believe that everything is, and should be dealt with as, Story. It makes me sad that our culture has come to believe a story is something you find inside a book, or perhaps on a CD, composed by a person for whom tale-telling is a career. But the truth is, your life is a manifestation of your inner narration. A day is good or bad because you tell the story of it one way or another. And we can all heal ourselves with story. The medicine is weedy, wild, everywhere.


  1. Quietly pondering this. As an adoptee, one of the things that is hardest is that our stories were stolen from us, at least redirected. It's like Robin Hood suddenly finds himself in the too hard bed of the Three Bears. It's "a story" and can continue on from there, but it's awkward. And many of us are searching for the first half of our book to make sense of the current chapter. Are there books on learning to do this, Sarah? This might be something I need to learn to do, in a deep and real way. I could bumble along on my own, but I feel like my story is written in German and I don't know German, LOL.

    1. I have often thought of you and your story, but of course this is not the place for that conversation. I will say that I know several adoptees, and none of them feel the same way as you, so I do believe it is a matter of personal story rather than one about all adoptees. Which is good news, because the teller can change the tale at any point. But yes, at some point I think some people do need help learning to relanguage themselves.

    2. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to turn the combox into "my story" but only put those parts out there as background to ask if there is a way to learn medicinal storytelling. I know each adoptee is different too, many are like me (or get out of the adoptee fog as they age), and many are not. To each his own! :)

    3. Never apologise for speaking your story :-) What I meant (but my comments always come out sounding terrible) is that I didn't want to impinge on your privacy. But I do think of you and feel for you, I really do.

      There are some books which can teach medicinal storytelling as an art form, but I think for me the best way of learning was the slow doing. The taking of a day and retelling it so it becomes mythical, beautiful - even if that means changing myself into a fairytale princess or pig-farmer's daughter, or changing my world into a fairy tale place. Knowing symbols, tropes, archetypes also helps - you can learn these by reading Jung, or the Grimm Brothers, or articles online.

      If I may say so (and if not, tell me, and I'll delete this!) for you I would choose an old classic story like The Ugly Duckling perhaps, which dealt with not belonging ... or The Handless Maiden or Donkeyskin or The Goose Girl which dealt with a primal wounding ... or aspect of Hansel and Gretel as the forsaken children ... and I would retell it for you, weaving in the different and essential elements of your spirit, the "feel" of you, the cadence to which your soul sways. I would start with your loss, your wounding, your being cast out into the forest. That would be the first story. Because your pain matters. And then I would tell other stories to grow from that.

      I wish I could be more eloquent in this small space, more helpful. But anyway, my heart is with you.

    4. Thank you Sarah, I will ponder all this! Very beautiful. (and no need to delete)

  2. Love the idea of medicinal storytelling, words can heal for sure.

  3. These are such beautiful words Sarah. I truly believe that old tales are healing, and try in my own writing to make the short story and the novel in some way medicinal, because that's what the best stories and books have been to me, and often it is a healing process just to write, as I am sure you also feel!! Sometimes I get frustrated by contemporary novels and writing because it seems to me as though Story is not allowed to be healing or transcendent anymore, only a stark mirror held up to a reality I don't necessarily believe is the only way of being & seeing. Thank you for sharing this; I love the quote at the top from The Storyteller of Cyriae; am finding it quite inspiring at the moment! xx Sylvia

    1. I couldn't agree with you more about modern fiction. I am especially saddened by the constant advice to write in a minimalist fashion - "only tell what needs to be said" ... "no adverbs!" ... "cut out all unnecessary words." There is so little radiance and richness to the modern style of writing.

      And yes, writing is healing, as the words go on the page it is like they go on my skin, and my soul-skin, as a balm. The feeling of softness and suppleness which develops within myself during composition is the best editorial tool I have.

  4. this is wonderful:
    Ever since, I have been trying to practice a wise and nurturing narration within my heart for my daily life.

    i do believe everything we do can be medicinal, even the clothing we wear, the words we write or speak, our art and photographs,,,, and so on

    thank you, it is lovely to consider this