How to Journal + Writing Prompts for Healing

pencil on top of open notebook journal

Your personal writing can heal, grow, and transform your life. Give your words permission to change you. – Sandra Marinella

I remember a time (I don’t remember exactly when, honestly), back in the days when I didn’t know any spiritual tool — meditation, affirmation, journaling, or any other healing modality that we talk about; when the only healing technique I’m familiar with was the skill of a hero character in DOTA (a very popular game in the office… shoutout to my playmates!), insights from everyday experiences come flashing in my mind, I needed to put them out of my head or else I’d go crazy!

So one day, it just occurred to me to start a private blog, which served as my online diary for more than 3 years. It’s only now, through Sandra’s insights in this book, that I realized how much it has helped me through the toughest times of my life (dealing with my hyperthyroidism and losing my father to cancer).

Writing was there to listen when no one would seem to understand what you were going through. When the pain was too much to bear and you wished there was someone who could make you feel “it’s going to be okay.” Writing was there for me. And it still is, to this day and perhaps for the rest of my life.

This is the main message of The Story You Need to Tell. After digging out and re-reading her 27 old journals, Sandra came to realize how writing facilitated her healing from the death of her brother, post-partum depression, her son’s mental illness, and her cancer, followed by her son’s cancer.

That, plus her research and interview with many others, led her to discover the five stages of writing and healing; that anyone has the capacity to rewrite their lives and be the hero in their stories.

Tragic Gap

We need reflection in order to learn from, rebound from, and redefine our experiences. Reflection can calm our feelings of panic when we are caught up in a crisis. It allows the body and mind to float until we can catch the next wave or gather the strength to swim forward. Reflection helps us to manage our tragic gap by inviting us to rewrite our story, and by doing so, to remake ourselves, to incorporate even unwanted life events into the narrative that makes up “who I think I am: the story of myself.”

“Tragic Gap” – Sandra borrows this term from educator Parker Palmer. It’s the gap, the space between what we have and what we dream.

It’s the crisis we don’t want to face, but we have to. For Sandra, she dreamt of becoming a novelist, but she had cancer. For me, I wanted to be a successful engineer, but I had hyperthyroidism.

Sandra advises us to reflect on these “tragic” experiences we’re having. If we don’t, we might lose ourselves to them. We’d be waging wars against ourselves if we keep on ruminating disempowering thoughts about our experience.

Writing provides us the space to step back and reflect. It allows us to edit our story, move forward, and make it better.

Had it not been for her journaling, Sandra won’t be able to share her gifts to the world through her book.

You won’t be reading any of this, had I not reflected on what I went through.

It turns out that the “tragic gap” was a window of opportunity. It was a blessing, not a curse.

What tragic gap are you currently in? Write about it. Reflect. It doesn’t have to make sense right now. Just write. You might be on to your own path to whoooawesomeness!

how to journal


While writers might feel sad immediately after writing, if they had time to reflect, their emotional state would shift. Expressive writing allows us to break our silence and offers us many physical and psychological benefits.

There are more than 200 studies supporting the therapeutic benefits of writing. Among them, Sandra relays the breakthrough work of James Pennebaker where they discovered that writing is as effective as “talk therapy” during counseling.

In one of their studies, a group of students was asked to write for 15 mins for 4 consecutive days. Half of the group wrote about emotional traumatic experiences. The remaining half wrote about superficial and unemotional topics.

Results showed that students who did expressive writing made 43 percent fewer visits to a physician than the students who wrote insignificant topics.

Hmmm… Better put those feelings on paper. It has approved therapeutic claims!

how to journal

Guidelines and Writing Prompts

Now I could clearly see how this journal had helped me chart important changes. Expressive writing allowed me to write and rewrite my understanding of who I was as well as — and this was the best part — who I could be.

By keeping journals through the years, I learned how to explore my life — and this has made all the difference.

Journal writing gives us insights into who we are, who we were, and who we can become.

At the end of every chapter in the book, you’ll find writing prompts to get you started and going.

Here are Sandra’s guidelines:

  • Begin by finding a comfortable spot to write (choose a notebook, a computer, or whatever you like).
  • Forget about rules (grammar, punctuation, and spelling), just write.
  • Use writing prompts. If one doesn’t connect to you, choose another one.
  • Write as often and as much as you can
  • Reread and reflect on what you’ve written
  • Develop a writing practice that works best for you. Find your own style.

…and here are sample writing prompts:

Prompt: The Tragic Gap Statements – use the format “I want to… but I can’t because…”

  • I want to start my own business, but I can’t because I don’t have enough money.
  • I want to do what I love, but I can’t because I think I’m too old for it.

Prompt: Your Past – Who Were You?

  • Go back to your memory (could be five, ten years ago, or longer). Write about who you were at this age. What was important to you? What did you learn?

Prompt: Your Present – Who Are You Now?

  • What’s your story now? What does it say about you? What do you enjoy doing nowadays?

Prompt: Your Future – Who Are You Becoming?

  • Who and what do you aspire to be five years from now? What would you hope to be doing? How do you see yourself in your career and relationships?

Try this one:

The Five Stages

I have uncovered something that matters more for my wellbeing. I have learned the power of my words to pull me out of the troughs in my life. I have learned to distance myself and see myself objectively. Through writing and sharing life stories, I have learned how to reinterpret, rewrite, and re-create myself. My life has become one of story transformation — and this has made all the difference.

According to Sandra, there are five stages of writing and healing. Here they are:

  1. Experiencing pain and grief. Be with the experience of loss and the emotions that arise from it. It is best to embrace silence and put off writing at this initial stage.
  2. Breaking the silence. Here, we are now willing to share our story through writing. Talking to a friend or a counselor may follow. We pour out painful emotions.
  3. Accepting and piecing together a shattered story. We begin the acceptance process. We acknowledge what happened. We try to make sense of it. Here’s where writing can be a great tool to provide us with different perspectives and insights.
  4. Finding meaning or making sense of a story. We can stand outside the experience and see the complete picture. We’re reaching a feeling of closure. The experience becomes integrated as a finished chapter in our life, allowing us to move forward.
  5. Rewriting our story and moving forward. We use the freed up energy to recreate ourselves. It leads to personal transformation. We’re inspired to live a meaningful life by helping others who are facing the same trauma we’ve experienced.

how to journal

Becoming a Storycatcher

We need stories to answer our questions, to show us how to face our difficulties, and to help us find who we are and where we are headed. The stories we hold inside create our being, our self, and by working to become storycatchers, we ground and enrich our lives.

Our stories embody our answers on how to live, how to become the character we want to become, and how to solve the problems we encounter.

Inspired by the work of Christina Baldwin, Sandra encourages us to become storycatcher.

Consider these questions:

Story Search

  • What stories do you remember from your childhood? Is it a movie? A book? A folktale or a fable? Explore them. What did you learn from them?

Hero Search

  • Who’s somebody you consider a hero? This can be someone you know or wish you knew; real or fictional. What qualities make them heroic in your eyes? Do you have something in common with this individual? Describe their story.

For me, it’s always been Jesus and Superman. I get into details with my storycatching on them in the book, The Path to Awesomeness. Hope you dig my story too! 😀


Know Thy Story

By knowing ourselves, we can rewrite and re-create our stories in ways that allow us to lead better lives.

Our world is shaped by the stories we tell ourselves — what we believe about our lives and what we hold to be true about our world.

Our stories can perplex and confuse us, but if we are willing to find them, know them, and work with them, they can lead us to our hopes, our truth, and what holds meaning for us.

First, know thy self. Then, know thy story.

Sandra asserts that our life stories, especially the defining moments, give us important self-knowledge. We choose the stories that define us, she adds. We choose those that matter to us.

In our quest to becoming the best version of ourselves, what stories do we tell ourselves? Are they still aligned with our intentions? Or is it time to rewrite them?

We are not our stories. But they shape the reality we live in.

Is It True?

When our left brain has accurate information, it tells true stories. When it does not know the specifics of a story, it can use the information it has and fabricate an ending — and believe it. In sum, our storytelling brain has to make sense of what is happening. We are wired to make sense of events — to create a story — even when we don’t have all the pieces.

Sandra drew this insight based on a number of studies done by researcher Michael Gazzaniga and his colleagues on how our brains are wired to storytelling — particularly the left hemisphere of the brain, which handles logic and reasoning, and so they call it the “interpreter.”

There’s a saying, “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.”

If it’s true, then only 10% of what’s happening is factual and 90% is the story we fabricate based on the facts.

How we interpret what’s happening matters more, significantly, than what’s really happening.

How about we interpret our stories with positive affirmations:

  • Everything will be alright.
  • Only the good will come out of this situation.
  • I am growing from this experience.
  • I surrender the outcome to God. Thy will be done.
  • May I be happy and at peace.

how to journal

Healing from Trauma

But know that the process of writing to understand ourselves, of writing to heal, or writing to grow and become all we can, is a noble endeavor of its own.

Writing to heal from traumas and setbacks:

  • opens us up
  • goes deep in search of understanding
  • uses words to heal
  • embraces the writing process

Here are some writing scripts found in the book:

Writing Prompt: Structured Writing of the Story You Need to Tell (adapted from Kathleen Adams)

Complete the following sentences.

  • The story I would like to explore is…
  • What comes to mind is…
  • What bothers me about this experience is…
  • What I would like to understand is…
  • I am hopeful that…
  • Perhaps it would help if…
  • What I have learned is…

Writing Prompt: Song Lyrics

Create a playlist of songs you like. When you play it, write down the lines that connect to you. How do you interpret it?

Here’s my all-time favorite:

Writing Prompt: Questions about the Story You Need to Tell

  • What story do you want to tell? Why?
    • What is unique about your story?
    • What is painful about your story?
    • What is joyful about this story?
    • What is universal about your story? (universal, meaning how can others relate to your story)
    • What have you learned from this story?

Use Sandra’s guidelines provided above. Write when you’re ready to dive into your emotions. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Be honest about your feelings. Don’t resist whatever arises. If it’s too painful, do it some other time. If you’re not comfortable with the idea of your story being exposed, you may shred or burn it after.

Healing from Loss

Writing that helps us face our losses:

  • accepts loss
  • embraces community
  • finds gratitude
  • embraces wisdom

Here’s some more writing prompts for dealing with loss (yep, the book has tons more!)… and I thought it would be more useful if we go straight to the practice of telling our story so we could initiate our healing.

Writing Prompt: A Tribute or Eulogy

Write a poem or speech that honors the person you lost.

I wish to share with you the chorus part of the song I wrote for my father when he was dealing with cancer:

“If only you could see what he’s going through,
then maybe you would understand.
If only you could feel what he’s feeling too,
then maybe you would let him cry…”

how to journal

Still brings tears to my eyes… but more of joyful tears now 🙂

Writing Prompt: A Needed Conversation

Write a talk you need to have with someone you’ve lost. This is your chance for those unsaid words. Is there anything you wish you’d hear from this person? Maybe some unresolved issues?

Writing Prompt: Accepting a Loss

Tell the story of a loss you’ve experienced. Then, answer these questions: What happened? What is hard about this loss? What have you learned from the one you’ve lost?

Last February 17, 2017, we lost Duke, our 4-y/o golden retriever and I wrote him a tribute letter which I shared on Facebook. Sharing it here too, hoping it can spark some inspiration.

“I know you’ve already served your purpose. You needed to go so you can come back in another form to serve someone else who’s in need of your pawsomeness. Bring them as much joy you’ve brought us. Give them as much love you’ve given us, unconditionally. Teach them about life as you’ve taught me without using words.

I taught you to “stay.”
You taught me to “let go.”

Good boy, Duke!

Goodbye… and thank you…”

how to journal


A groundbreaking longitudinal study on resilience supported what I had discovered. Participants born into homes with abuse, alcoholism, and poverty who overcame their harsh circumstances demonstrated the same abilities — to transcend their difficulties, to solve their own problems, and to believe in themselves.

Sandra observed from the people she interviewed and worked with how writing helped them go through difficulties, cope with their struggles, and get unstuck from painful experiences.

More than personal gains, writing becomes our channel to share our stories with the world. And these stories are where we find the connection. It makes us realize that we’re not alone.

Wherever you are in your journey, know that you’re not alone. Writing is always a faithful companion you can call on. It’s always willing to listen.

The world is waiting for your story.

Become the hero you were meant to be.

It’s time to write.

journal notebook


The Story You Need to Tell: Writing to Heal from Trauma, Illness, or Loss


SANDRA MARINELLA, MA, MEd, is an award-winning writing teacher and the author of The Story You Need to Tell. She has taught thousands of students and fellow educators and presented hundreds of workshops to veterans, teachers, writers, and cancer patients about the power of our personal stories and writing to heal, grow, and transform our lives. Sandra founded the Story You Need to Tell Project which provides workshops on the power of transformational storytelling and personal writing to increase well-being. Profits from her book support cancer research and provide educational scholarships to veterans and writers. She lives in Chandler, Arizona.

Discover more at

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