Book Review: Stories Are What Save Us

Living Proof Advocacy
By David Chrisinger
11 Aug 21

As soon as I finished David Chrisinger’s Stories Are What Save Us: A Survivor’s Guide to Writing about Trauma, I wanted to start writing. I didn’t know what I wanted to write about, just that I was excited to craft a sentence or describe a moment.

Chrisinger—a writer and writing instructor who teaches workshops and seminars for military veterans, their families and other trauma survivors—simultaneously offers both engrossing personal narratives and useful reflections on the writing process, deftly moving in and out of his stories to show us why and how he’s telling them a particular way.

Throughout the book, he teaches by demonstration, whether narrating his process of working through—and writing about—the trauma of losing his son or showing how to navigate the spaces between truth and fiction, memory and embellishment as he attempts to piece together a complete portrait of his war-scarred, abusive grandfather.

As a lifelong fan of metanarrative, I was thoroughly engaged both by Chrisinger’s stories of his family and friends, as well as his journey to craft his experiences into stories.

But there is another level of narrative that runs through this book and that I found particularly interesting, especially given the work Tim and I do at Living Proof Advocacy: Chrisinger’s ongoing quest to find the best way to help his students “make sense of and recount their stories of loss and transformation … in a way that leads to connection and understanding.”

As any teacher, instructor, coach or mentor knows, the path to effective instruction is uneven, and Chrisinger candidly narrates his missteps as well as his successes and breakthroughs. From an early error he makes in publishing a student’s personal essay too soon, to a mid-lecture comment from a student survivor of abuse who felt retraumatized by a piece of Chrisinger’s writing advice, he documents the challenges of learning to work sensitively, compassionately and effectively with individuals who have experienced trauma.

As coaches who help people share lived experiences in order to create positive change and drive action, Tim and I also often work with advocates whose stories arise from trauma: tragic loss, critical injury or illness, violence, abuse or events resulting from cruel injustices or dreadful mistakes.

We take extra care in these instances to make sure advocates come to our workshops having reached a place in which they feel they 1) can safely revisit their experiences and share them with others and 2) are clear that the reason they’re telling their stories in this context is to create change, to move others from empathy to action. Why?

Because we are communication trainers, not therapists. While we rely on the writing and research of experts in trauma therapy to inform our work, we would never assume to step into that role. That’s not our area of expertise; the management of trauma is too delicate and therapy is not the intent of this instance of personal storytelling. The intent of this personal storytelling is advocacy.

Similarly, Chrisinger, though certified in suicide prevention and providing a useful guide to trauma resources in the book, is a writer, not a therapist. There is a tension that runs through Stories Are What Save Us—a tension experienced by his students and one Chrisinger himself seems to express—between writing-as-therapy and writing-as-profession, between the end-product being “processed conflict” vs. “beautiful stories.”

This is not to say it cannot be both. With such a thoughtful and reflective approach to his teaching, I imagine Chrisinger’s students do experience both. I also imagine that his workshops, seminars and classes begin with some assurance that students are indeed ready to safely work through their trauma in an effort to achieve their ultimate goal: good writing.

Chrisinger states in his introduction:

“I cannot and will not pretend this book offers a cure for anyone who has suffered after surviving a traumatic event. It doesn’t. … What this book can offer is guidance, support, assistance, and care. It can help you tell your story—if that’s what you want to do. I feel I must warn you, though: what we are about to begin together is not easy; it is not for everyone.”

He then cautions that if, while working through the book, readers feel as though they are “in particularly bad shape,” that they should seek help from a professional.

I’ll underline that caution a bit more strongly when I recommend this book to others. I cannot know where someone may be in their own process of working through trauma when they open the book. I’ll also provide trigger warnings for those who’ve experienced combat, pregnancy loss or domestic violence. I realized this about 30 pages in as I thought about who I’d pass the book to next.

But I will most definitely pass it on. As I’ve said, Stories Are What Save Us made me immediately want to write. What more could one want from a guide to writing?

***

Written by John Capecci, Ph.D.
Senior Coach & Founder of Living Proof Advocacy™

John is a coach, consultant, and writer who has helped hundreds of nonprofits and corporations do award-winning work that touches hearts and turns heads. 

John excels at helping mission-driven organizations hone their messaging and create powerful advocates to support those messages with their stories.

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