An insight into Therapeutic Writing and its major benefits
Most may believe that writing/ poetry is only for writers, but writing is for all of us. As the well acclaimed Julia Cameron notes in her book The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life, “I believe we all come into life as writers.” Through the act of arranging words on paper, we forge new meaning out of the feelings, images and memories that shape us. The healing power of words is not a new idea. Words were thought to have medicinal and magical healing powers, so much so that inscribed above Egypt’s famed library of Alexandria was the phrase “The Healing Place of the Soul.” Today there is more awareness due to growing evidence that writing provides some unique benefits for mental and physical health. The pioneer in this field is James Pennebaker (1997) whose book ‘Opening Up’ provided some of the first empirical evidence of these benefits. His work helped propel writing therapy into the mainstream of psychotherapeutic practice.
How can this impact you?
Psychotherapy can help a person function better and can increase well-being and healing. Therapeutic Writing is a powerful tool that can be used to empower and transform lives for the better. This article aims to give you a flavour of its magic and complexity.
But what is therapeutic writing really?
This could be a continuum from ‘writing for pleasure or recreation’ (which may be therapeutic) to writing which is explicitly undertaken as ‘therapy’. Therapeutic writing can be used one-to-one in psychotherapy or in group interaction. There are several types of writing therapy, including, but not limited to:
- Interactive journal writing and autobiographical writing
- Letter-writing – such as writing to a deceased person or to a person who has hurt us badly
- Guided story-writing or narrative therapy (reauthoring a traumatic life situation)
- Focused writing in response to thought-out prompts or use of metaphors – projection as creative discovery. (My technique generally uses the insightful, practical, and participatory Gestalt approach to develop creative expression.)
- Songwriting (incorporating music therapy with writing therapy)
- Biblio-poetry therapy
It is very common for participants to express fear or aversion to poetry, mostly because of school experiences. ‘I wasn’t good in Literature’; ‘I don’t like poetry because I had to recite it in front of the class, and I hated it’, are just a few of the sentiments many may have. In therapy, however, the poem is used differently:
- There is no right answer; the therapeutic benefit comes from going deeper into why the poem might make someone feel a certain way. The role of the therapist facilitator is to keep the discussion on the level of this feeling response. Poems are read and discussed usually in groups – and participants are invited to look for and write about resonances with their own lives and experiences. The poems chosen for this work are what we call ‘richly ambiguous’. They are not didactic or obscure but open an imaginative space in which the reader can find him or herself.
- Participants are guided in ‘making’ a poem rather than writing a poem. Priority is given to spontaneity and there is no need to write in any particular form. The time given to make the poem is typically short – generally about ten minutes maximum.
The emphasis in the field of therapeutic writing generally is on process rather than product and a personal feeling response rather than an intellectual one. In this way, no one should feel excluded. Spontaneity is prioritised and the requirement to write on the spot for a constrained period (freefall writing) often leads to pieces that are surprising for the writer both in terms of intensity and content. The idea of writing ‘what we didn’t know we knew’ is one that comes up often. This can be very transformative.
How can therapeutic writing benefit you?
- It promotes self-knowledge.
- Writing with sincerity can help you to cultivate the ability to observe your thoughts.
- It can help you deal with the chatter in your mind by helping you to track your spinning thoughts and feelings, which can lead to key insights.
- Writing creates a mind-body-spirit connection. It involves speaking to another consciousness — ‘the reader’ or another part of your self. Writing can help you to know who you really are in the present moment. Digging, one of Seamus Heaney’s poems uses an apt metaphor of digging to express how we can excavate our inner selves, the one behind our surface skin.
- Emotional health
- Writing down what is in your mind lets go of the worries, fears and memories that are held in the body and it enhances your process of healing and growth. Expressive writing has the power to modify your feelings, attitudes, and actions to attain more healthful functioning. There is some evidence that writing can better immune function; reduce emotional and physical distress; decrease anxiety and depression symptoms; improve grades in school and university and strengthen memory.
- Addresses trauma
- Therapeutic writing helps you deal with thoughts that may scare you. It often makes them shift into something new. It provides links between your past, present and future and between the people in your life. The words and images have the power to etch paths to your self-awareness and help to relieve any deep dark feelings of grief, confusion and so on.
- Encourages interaction with self and others
- Guided therapeutic writing can help you to ‘connect’ to others in therapy writing groups. Words often carry ambiguous, multiple meanings that foster diversity of response. This can broaden your perspective and encourage interaction with others. This usually leads to opportunities to support others or be supported and enhances a feeling of well-being.
- Encourages creativity
- Therapeutic writing can give you the opportunity to be creative. You are, after all, the best storyteller of your own life. Writing claims your world. It makes it directly and specifically your own.
- It calls to action enhancing growth
- Therapeutic writing has the power to bring you out of passivity and attain more healthful functioning in your life.
What would your response be to Mary Oliver’s poem ‘The Summer Day’ (1992) which poses a simple yet provocative question: ‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ The words tend to suggest wonder, possibility, and freedom of choice. This question had the power to pave the way for one client to find the courage to follow her path and make significant life changes in her career. It helped another client tackle unfinished business which had crippled him for so long. How would it impact you?
- Moy, J. D. (2017). Reading and Writing One’s Way to Wellness: The History of Bibliotherapy and Scriptotherapy. In Higler, S. (Ed.), New Directions in Literature and Medicine Studies (pp. 15–30). Palgrave Macmillan.
- Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing About Emotional Experiences as a Therapeutic Process. Psychological Science, 8(3), 162–166.
- Pennebaker, JW, and Smyth, JM (2016) ‘Opening up by writing it down: how expressive writing improves health and eases emotional pain’, Third edition, New York: Guilford Press
- Cameron, J (1999) ‘The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life’, New York: Penguin.