Writing has been the main creative outlet throughout my life, yet it wasn’t until I was in the midst of personal crisis that I realized I’d also been using writing as therapy for as long as I could remember, turning to the page in moments where I couldn’t seem to make sense of my life in any other way, or with any other person.
One afternoon after a particular difficult therapeutic writing session, I was meditating and the thought came to me “What if this is a thing? Writing as therapy?” So, I did what anyone does in that situation, and I Googled it.
What I found really was an Oprah aha moment for me.
I was fascinated to read that therapeutic writing is a field in the area of psychology that’s been recognized for over 30 years and has been extensively researched, the foremost leader in the field being Dr. James Pennebaker. Pennebaker’s research (and countless of studies spawned by his research) has proven that writing for just 20 minutes a day on emotional upheaval for 4 consecutive days can produce measurable benefits to your health and emotional wellbeing.
Writing As Therapy
Not to be confused with writing about any old topic in your bedside journal, therapeutic writing requires writing about something personal and emotional, and to get the best benefits, you have to dig deep.
Having very little idea of where I was going with this, but knowing I had to keep pursuing it, I became trained as a writing workshop facilitator. I took the years I’d spent working on myself and combined them with my career as a writer and editor and developed my own workshop series called Healing Through Writing based on the premise that, just as you might develop a meditation practice or yoga practice, a writing practice is an incredibly valuable tool for your wellbeing and personal healing.
Therapeutic writing is an accessible, affordable and (if you wish) private way to access the potential for deep personal healing.
The hurdle that comes with writing, however, unlike with yoga or meditation is getting over the fear that so many of us have associated with writing, thanks to years of being criticized in school. In my workshops we begin with an exercise to get the writing scaries out of us, just writing for ten minutes about any old things that’s on our minds that day.
Once the initial terror of writing subsides, what becomes clear time and again is not only how true it is that each and everyone of us has a beautiful, unique and important story to tell (and that we all have a beautiful way of telling it), but it’s also true how cathartic writing in this way really is.
I’ve had people walk into my workshops thinking that they want to write about a dilemma at work, and what ends up coming up is a story about a traumatic experience from their childhood that they had completely forgotten but that had been weighing on them subconsciously. And what happens by remembering it is that they are able to begin to heal it.
How To Start Your Therapeutic Writing Practice
If you are someone who is drawn to writing, but can tend to feel scared away from the act of it because of too many negative experiences in school or a work environment, here is how you can start to rebuild your relationship with writing and make it into a beautiful, comforting tool for your healing that you can turn to like an old friend any time you wish, without the fear of judgment or scrutiny.
Believe this: A writer is someone who writes. This is one of the tenets on which Pat Schneider, a pioneer in the field of expressive writing workshops, has built her method for the Amherst Writers and Artists Method. It’s simple, but very powerful and true if you can hold onto it each time that little voice in your head asks you who you think you are or what you think you’re trying to do. You don’t need to be Hemingway or anything close to it. A writer is someone who writes.
Get a plain notebook and a simple pen. I was given this advice years ago in a writing class and it has worked wonders for me. When you buy a beautiful, pristine notebook the problem is that then you will feel that only beautiful, pristine words can go in there and you won’t get past the first line. With this kind of writing, we are not looking for perfect. We are looking for truth, depth and raw honesty and, for that, any old notebook will do.
Carve out 20 minutes for yourself. You can write for more, but at the bare minimum write for 20 minutes. Preferably, try to write for 4 days in a row on any particular issue but don’t let this rule prevent you from writing. If you can only do it once a week, or every other day, it doesn’t matter. Just turn to this time for yourself as much as you can when you feel you need it.
If you want to write with a group, here are the ground rules: There is no room for criticism on this kind of writing, negative or otherwise. Only positive, encouraging feedback is allowed.
And also, what happens in writing group stays in writing group. It’s basically Vegas.
Begin with a writing prompt. Then let your writing take you wherever it needs to go without you trying to steer it in a particular direction. An excellent writing prompt I use for my introductory workshops is to write a letter starting with the word “Dear”. This can be a letter to someone past or present or future. It can be to yourself. It can even be to an animal.
Once you’ve chosen your prompt, if at first the only thing that comes to mind is to write “I don’t know what to write”, go with that. Keep writing it until the stopgap is loosened and things can start to flow, because believe me, they will start to flow.
What comes up might surprise you or alarm you, but try to just go with it and dig as deep as you can. That’s where the healing begins.
There are many ways that you can close your writing practice if you feel that you’ve uncovered something particular poignant. You can burn the pages (safely), you can bury them, send them out in a bottle, or tuck them away in a place for safekeeping.
Remember, above all, this kind of writing is for you and you alone. There is no wrong way to do it as long as you are coming to the page with honesty and open to seeing what comes out.