Writing self

Among the students I have tutored over the years was a young woman recovering from a traumatic brain injury. Writing was difficult for her on several levels. Reading on the screen or page tired her eyes and made it hard to focus; while using voice-activated software helped for that part of the writing issue, it did not resolve her larger cognitive loss: she found she could no longer tell a story. The ability to tie together research, concepts, and chronological moments to compose a logical narrative evaded her.

As we worked together, I learned how writing can restore the self. She began to reflect, through writing, on her process and her memories and to tether things together on the page so that they “made sense” to me–her sounding board. When something made sense to me, she would re-read it and decide if it reflected what it was she had been trying to say. Gradually, she felt more restored to herself, a slightly altered-by-trauma self, but a cohesive self who could tell a story again.


When I tutor students who are multilingual, particularly if they are fairly new immigrants here, I find that writing plays a similar role in reflecting or re-creating a self. These students learn to work and write using American English as their mode of persuasive communication, and in the process they develop as people who live in the United States and who consciously employ those terms, phrases, writing techniques, and concepts. They are much more conscious than “native” speakers about the fact that they are using Americanisms and writing in an American style; what they end up with is a self that they can deploy when necessary in American society.


Brain diseases, strokes, and dementia dismantle the story-telling ability. Whether we use the metaphor of braiding, warp & weft, or nuts & bolts, we mean that story has structure–and in dementia, structure comes undone. With that structural demise all too often comes the unraveling of the self. Each gap weakens the links that give us our own story-made self and leaves the human bereft of that consciousness we rely upon for being. The person whose brain has stopped constructing self stories is no less human, physically; but the self–that sentient, much-valued ego–disappears.

When I am with a hospice patient whose mind has stopped composing narratives, I see that the narrative of pain and envy and sorrow seems to depart. Is there a story that contains only peace? Could that even be a human story?

I don’t know what to make of all of this.


Sometimes, I wish I had the peace and confidence of a house cat.

2 comments on “Writing self

  1. Lou Faber says:

    I share your experience, particularly with students writing from another language. And in some ways writing about the self must be reflective, My image (physical) of myself is necessarily reflective, whether on a mirrored surface or captured in ink on a substrate of some sort. I assume that is me, although I know it is nothing more than an image of what I take to be me. When I say “I look” this way or that, I am actually saying the reflections appears to be to look this way or that. We comprehend ourselves (again in the physical sense) through reflection. Words are simply another medium, and my story is there because they reflect my story (they are not the story itself, but a workable image of it). I always pause when contemplating this topic, to reflect on how wise Shakespeare was when, responding to Polonius’ question “What is it you read my lord?” Hamlet responded, “Words, words, words.” That is what I offer, what the student offers. It is the reader who writes the story, and when I am that reader, my words become my story, reflected back from the page.

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