Friday, August 15, 2008

Guest Blogger Kristi Holl: The Healing Power of Fiction

Myra here. I’m so happy to welcome today’s guest blogger, Kristi Holl. I’ve known Kristi since 1983, when she was assigned as my Institute of Children’s Literature instructor. Kristi’s expert teaching, encouragement, and friendship have guided many a wannabe writer—including me!—along the path toward publishing success.


Recently I spent time with some children grappling with a deep loss, and it reminded me of a time of loss in my own life. Years ago, when the crisis was over, I found myself in a writer’s block of monumental proportions. Friends and family had gone back about their business, and I ached at the quietness of the house. I couldn’t focus on a grocery list, much less my novel-in-progress. One day, as I faced another empty evening, I glanced at the overcrowded shelves in the hallway.

My gaze fell on treasured childhood books that dated back forty years: The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, Little Women, Blue Willow, Anne of Green Gables. I held my breath. Something stirred within, some sense of recognition. By doing no more than reading the titles, a sense of peace washed over me. I wasn’t alone. My best friends were right there—waiting patiently between the covers of books—just as they had been all my life.

Take Me Away!
Many of us grew up escaping into fiction because it was a world that was safe. A book wasn’t going to hurt us. In a book, we could find a world better than the one we lived in. As I talk to writers, it continues to astound me the numbers who grew up deprived of love (and often abused). However, others from “normal” homes, who had to deal with tragedy and hardship, also learned to escape into books. Madeleine L’Engle, author of Newbery winner A Wrinkle in Time, said it this way: “I tried to heal my fear with stories, stories which gave me courage, stories which affirmed that ultimately love is stronger than hate… Story was in no way an evasion of life, but a way of living life creatively instead of fearfully.”

If you’re a writer who has experienced a deep loss and you find your emotions frozen and fingers unable to write, I suggest you rediscover the healing power of fiction. It’s free; you find it between the covers of a book instead of in a pill bottle. Think back to the stories that comforted you as a child. Chances are you still have those books in a box somewhere, a box you’ve carted from house to house for a lifetime. Get them out. Dust them off. (Or hunt down specific titles at the library or used book store.)

Healing in the Mind
What kinds of fiction are most healing? Stories of triumph and love, and loss and recovery, and family and belonging—stories with imaginary worlds that are sometimes more real than your own home. These stories give you a place to escape your pain, at least for a brief time. (Note: Not just any book will do. You need more than mere distraction, which can be had by reading a suspense thriller.) You need stories that feed you, restore you, and begin to heal your wounded spirit. Re-entering the world of best-loved childhood fiction pulls you into a setting with people you love and remember, a nurturing place. Choosing to heal begins in our thoughts, and lost in your fictional world you can absorb thoughts that once again bring you moments of joy. How can you not laugh at Jo March cutting off and selling her hair, “her one beauty”? Or Anne (with an “e”) dying her red hair green?

It’s true that when your loss is very fresh it is difficult to focus enough to read. In
that case, work into it slowly. For example, watching six hours of “Anne of Green
Gables,” taped from the public television channel, was enough to propel me into re-reading the whole series. Watching my “Little Women” video had the same affect. It is still revisiting favorite fictional friends. Then, when the grief has settled down (or settled in), try again to focus on the books. There is a richness in the printed words and details that transports you into their world for a time. These details of home and clothing and scenery may be present in the movie too, but images on a screen change quickly, and we catch no more than glimpses and impressions. Reading—and reading slowly—allows you to savor the details. And oddly enough, it’s drinking in the details where healing actually begins.

No matter who in your real life dies or abandons you, the precious friends in childhood books are always there waiting. They’re stable. In a world that never stops changing, your fictional friends remain the same. And at times of grief and loss, we desperately need people we can count on. Until that loss, I had no idea the amount of comfort you could receive from fictional people in books.

Truth? Or Fiction?
How can that be, since fiction (by definition) isn’t real? Or ... is it? I believe that some of the greatest truths I ever read were shown to me (or voiced) by characters in novels. (Do not confuse truth with “facts.”) Katherine Paterson says books “allow us to enter imaginatively into someone else’s life. And when we do that, we learn to sympathize with other people. But the real surprise is that we also learn truths about ourselves, about our own lives, that somehow we hadn’t been able to see before.”

These truths can be one way out of the dark and lonely tunnel of grief. We identify with our fictional friends—and learn from them. How did Anne and Marilla handle Matthew Cuthbert’s death? How did the March girls’ faith get them through the loss of their sister, Beth? These (and a dozen other favorite childhood books of mine) taught me how to love, to survive, to grieve—and then to heal. It was no surprise to me that these books got me through my childhood. It was a great surprise to discover they could help me heal an adult loss.

Whether you write fiction for children or adults, can you think of a greater reward than that? Don’t you want to write stories that someone might pick up someday when they need to visit a dear and treasured friend?

Kristi Holl is the author of 35 books, both fiction and nonfiction, including WRITER'S FIRST AID. Her most recent release is a four-book series published in June by Zonderkidz, the Boarding School Mysteries.


  1. Beautiful post, Kristi.

    My books often portray emotional healing and it is my prayer that everyone who reads them is blessed.

    Thank you for sharing.

  2. Kristi, welcome to Seekerville! And thank you for your lovely, inspiring post!

    I'm awed by the power of the written word and that people on paper can heal the wounded, but that's my prayer for Courting Miss Adelaide. I've received one book club reader letter that expresses her belief that the book will comfort those in need of healing. That meant more to me than a good review.


  3. Thank you, Kristi, for reminding me just how blessed I am to be a reader. For me, books add another dimension to my life, an extra spring in my step. I never go anywhere without a book tucked in my purse. Unfortunately, the bigger the book, the better, so I am forced to buy big purses. I'm sure glad they're in style!

    Thank you for coming to Seekerville -- your post has been a blessing!


  4. Kristi, oh my stars, they've offered you nothing, Sweet cheeks! And after a beautiful post like that, no less.

    Here, dear, try some of this fruit smoothie, perfect for a brilliant morning like this.

    And I've got strawberry-cheese-stuffed croissants, just waiting for a taste.

    Kristi, this was a wonderful, heartfelt post. Great job, and your stellar writing career plants you firmly in the big leagues. Thanks so much for coming to Seekerville. We're a great town to visit and we love folks that linger, adding to the wisdom of combined Seekers. Bless you for visiting.


  5. Welcome again, Kristi! And thanks to my Seekerville sisters for adding their warm greetings this morning. (Along with Ruthy's usual delicious array of cyber-treats.)

    Talk about big books! My review copy of Julie's upcoming release (#2 in the Daughters of Boston series) arrived this week. "Heavy" reading indeed, and I can't wait to dive into it!

  6. Thanks for your warm responses, Seekers!

    Pam, there is such a need for emotional healing (for all ages and genders). If we can help readers find that, it's such a blessing to us as well.

    Janet, that is neat about the letter you received. Yes, they're even better than reviews! I think my favorite letters are the ones from kids who thought they were alone in the world, but find there is someone in a book that feels exactly the same way. They no longer feel weird or alone--and they find hope and help. It's a wonderful feeling as a writer!

    Julie, I had to smile at your post about bigger books, bigger purses. I bet they'll identify all the writers in heaven by the sloped shoulder, the one that carried that big bag of books through life. (Of course, the younger generation has its Kindle instead. Maybe they'll be identified by the reflected glow on their faces!)

    Ruthy, I wasn't even hungry till I read your post! Ohhhh, strawberry-cheese croissants! I may have to head to the bakery later! Cyber treats are certainly better for the waist line though.

    Myra, was it really 1983 when we met? You must have been one of my first students since I started teaching in 1983, when my "baby" was just a year old. (She's a pastor's wife now--where'd the years go???) I'm so glad we re-connected! Back then, I was still using my college typewriter. Blogs are certainly more fun!

  7. Yeah, I know, Myra -- people kept e-mailing me, telling me they received their copies before I received mine!! But, it came yesterday and, uh, yeah, it is pretty thick. Can I help it if I have a lot to say???

    Hope you enjoy it! Let me know if you like it ... but if you don't ... nevermind. :)


  8. Taking the course from Institute for Children's Literature was my re-introduction to writing 5 1/2 years ago, and I loved my instructor, too. She was a fabulous encourager and mentor.

    Kristi, you're a legend at ICL! Thanks for your heart-felt post. You are so right about there being a huge need for emotional healing. Thanks for the reminder.

  9. Oh, yes, Kristi, it was 1983. I think I started the course in late fall or winter. My ICL diploma is dated May 1985. My girls were 10 and 9 when I enrolled, and daughter #1 just turned 35 yesterday!!!

    BTW, I still have all our correspondence in a file drawer somewhere. But don't worry -- no blackmail on my agenda! ;>)

  10. Yea, Melanie, another ICL alum! Yep, Kristi is a legend in her own time. I still see her name in an ICL magazine ad from time to time.

  11. I'm starting to feel like that awful end-of-the-world movie "I am Legend." LOL I think starting the ICL website and the Long Ridge website must have given me more exposure than I realized. Or it was doing the Writer's First Aid book for them. Either way, thanks for the kind words, ICL alums!

  12. Wow, what a fantastic post. I never looked at reading quite like that before.

    Thanks for sharing, Kristi.

  13. I re-read some old favorites with DD, including "Little House on the Prairie" and "Black Beauty."

    They were better the second time through. Saw new things, appreciated how well written they were.

    How about some iced or blended cappuchino's? I hate to make them in real life but they are to-die-for as cyber treats.

  14. Hi Kristi, Thanks for the inspirational post. It really resonates with me as I've been going through this process myself with the loss of my mother this winter past. Amazingly I have been doing just as you recommended--sitting back and healing--reading--praying, etc. It is comforting to know that I'm in a process and not a slug-smile.

    Thanks again and Ruthy, the snacks are wonderful.

  15. Oh yes, the Seekers books have been top on the list for the process. They have been great and inspiring and fun because I know the authors.

  16. Kristi, your blog made me think of Colleen Dewhurst, the actress who played Marilla Cuthbert in the PBS Anne series.

    I loved her. What a great character actress she was and her performance made Marilla come alive for me. That also made me realize that it's tricky to write disagreeable characters because they're not easy to love, and not always easy to relate to, but they're realistic and necessary often as not.

    Hey, Ann! Yes, a frosted cappuccino (or a Starbucks frappuccino) would be wonderful about now. I'm drinking Fresca because I don't want to talk about the calories I've played with this week. I thought people were supposed to stay slimmer in summer???



  17. Yes, I remember Colleen Dewhurst as Marilla--great performance. Watching the series on TV propelled me to finally read the books, which I'd missed out on growing up. It was fun sharing them with my girls, who at that time were at just the right age to really enjoy them.

    Slimmer in summer?? I've been working on it, but not easy when August is a big family birthday month. Had the most delicious brownie & ice cream at Mimi's Restaurant last night for Jack's birthday!

  18. Kristi, what a wonderful post! I hadn't really thought of reading as a way to heal. Although I know I've escaped into a book often enough. Just didn't realize what was going on. :)

    I'm dying to dig out the Anne of Green Gables books now!! And the old video tapes (where I taped it off PBS). :) Thanks for the reminder. My daughter is 11 now and would love them.

    So glad you joined us in Seekerville!

    Missy--who tried one of those frozen Godiva drinks for the first time yesterday. Oh my! How yummy!!

  19. Kristi,

    Your post really blessed me and what true --done that, been there-- advice.

    I did not stop movie marathons for weeks when I lost my husband. That and an intense time of fellowship were really my sanity savers :)

    But now after reading your post I want to go watch Anne and Gilbert again, lol.

    Thanks for being our guest.

  20. Thank you for coming to Seekerville, Kristi. I'm late posting because I had surgery.

    Great post by the way.


    Cheryl Wyatt