7 Thoughts on Processing Life’s Challenges Through Storytelling
Updated: Nov 11
Guest blog post by Natalie Shampanier
As a family therapist turned screenwriter and author, I’ve spent much of the last decade turning personal struggles and professional experiences into stories. I wanted to share a few of the things I learned along the way, with the hope that they can inspire not only authors, but anyone who ever thought about processing their own experiences into any form of storytelling.
1. Storytelling is Cathartic.
Storytelling is cathartic for the reader as well as the writer. Processing tragedies and traumas through narratives may provide a deeper investigation of events through a different point of view. The power of authoring our own story can help apply the tools of narrative therapy to our life stories. When I grappled with my mother’s mental illness and delusional disorder, I felt helpless and heartbroken. When I processed it into the screenplay of my film “Paper Spiders”, I was better able to empathize with her pain and come to terms with an illness that was beyond my control. I was very secretive about my mother’s problem until I shared it on film. Hearing from many viewers who struggle with the mental illness of loved ones or their own, and how the film made them feel less alone in their journeys, made me realize the cathartic power of sharing your story with others.
2. The Value of Fictionalizing.
In the words of Emerson, “Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.” By stepping away from the factual truth and honing in on the emotional truth of events, we are often able to view personal stories with a sharper lens. By making our protagonists different from ourselves - if only by name - we are able to remove the veils of identity and self-defense through which we view events, and gain a more objective perspective. Fictionalization can provide clarity by distancing ourselves from the personal pain that obscures our view of events, just as externalizing in narrative therapy creates a healthy separation between the client and their problem.
3. The Role of Stories in Dispelling Shame.
We often feel ashamed of our problems and circumstances. Fear of judgment can prevent us from opening up to others, which leads to isolation and can prevent us from seeking help. Stories about problems can help normalize the issues they depict and fight stigmas. I learned that when sharing my story in "Paper Spiders.”
A similar experience occurred when I wrote a screenplay inspired by my 10 year old son, who has a rare genetic disorder called MED13L-syndrome, and is nonverbal with intellectual disability. It took me years to come to terms with this and be able to open up to others. I am thankful that I did because in doing so I have come to learn how many other parents are going through similar experiences. Sharing a personal experience in story form is a uniquely powerful way of generating understanding and empathy, and fighting stigmas and shame.
4. The Personal is Universal.
As authors wishing to make our stories accessible to the widest audience, we often tend to make our protagonists and their environments as "mainstream" as possible, removing cultural and ethnic detail that may feel too "niche". But the authenticity of culturally-specific traits and personal idiosyncrasies often makes stories more relatable and universal. They give them a more truthful and colorful point of view.
5. Offering Hope.
As a therapist, I spent several years working with foster and adopted children. I worked in a group home with at-risk youth who survived heartbreaking traumas. My experience taught me that a therapist can not promise a happy ending to patients - but an author can certainly craft a story that instills hope in readers - especially young readers.
My new children's book "Lost and Found" was inspired by my experience counseling adopted and foster children who were hoping to find a forever home. The book tells the story of forgotten toys at a closed summer camp's Lost and Found cabin who set out on a journey to find a loving home.
It was important for me to end the story with the promise of hope, inspiring children to believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel. The hope for a better future gives people the power to cope with a difficult present and overcome a traumatic past. A therapist may feel that it is irresponsible to promise hope for a future that may not come. A children's book author may feel responsible to do the opposite, and give young readers a message of optimism and hope.
6. A Dash of Humor.
When dealing with sad, sensitive, or difficult topics, don’t underestimate the value of adding humor or levity. This does not mean sugarcoating or making light of painful matters, but remembering that a little humor can help challenging subjects become more palatable to an audience. Humor can also contribute to a healthier perspective in storytelling, just as it contributes to the process of healing in life.
7. Suspend the Critic.
That nagging little voice inside of us that repeats versions of “you can’t do it” or “you’re not good enough” can be debilitating for writing - as it is for accomplishing other life goals. Remember that the first draft is not supposed to be good, it’s just supposed to be finished.
Negative self-talk may prevent an author from starting and completing their story. Especially when writing a first draft, it is important to silence the self-critic that can lead to self-sabotage.
Suspending judgment - at least until a draft is complete - is a liberating notion that helps combat authors’ analysis paralysis. Very often the internal forces that contributed to certain life challenges are the same forces that prevent authors from putting pen to paper and sharing their stories. These may be rooted in the fear of judgment, the fear that others won’t relate, or perhaps the fear that one's work won’t be good enough. Never let fear prevent you from writing or trying to accomplish the goals you set for yourself.
Lost and Found
Lost and Found by Natalie Shampanier tells the story of forgotten toys at a closed summer camp's Lost and Found, who embark on exciting adventures on their journey to find a loving home. Dino-boy, Tina the ballerina, Hamburger Hippo and a Unicorn Mood Ring help each other overcome obstacles at they make their way to the summer camp's exit gates. They cross the seemingly ocean-sized pool, climb a towering ropes course and outrun the horses they accidentally release from the camp's stable, but ultimately fail and return to the camp's Lost and Found cabin. All hope it lost, until the next morning a new group of campers arrives, and each child chooses their own special toy, like an adopting parent. At last our four toys find loving homes.
This poignant rhyming tale is beautifully illustrated by Spanish artist David Pavón. It is available on Kindle, as well as on paperback and hard cover through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
About the Author
Natalie Shampanier is a screenwriter based on Los Angeles. Her films include The Millionaire Tour, Beautiful & Twisted, and most recently Paper Spiders, which is 100% Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and listed among RT's 10 top films of 2021. Before launching her screenwriting career, Natalie was licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist, and worked with foster and adopted children. Her new children's book is inspired by her experience, and the desire to instill hope in children on foster and adoption journeys.