Writing: A Healing Art

by Shonnie Brown, MFT

Introduction

I have chosen to write about a subject valuable in my psychotherapy practice as well as in my own healing work. Numerous writing practices are currently used in both psychological and physical healing. In this article I will discuss a few which particularly resonate with me: One Year of Writing and Healing, Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise DeSalvo, The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron and Journal Therapy by Kathleen Adams with whom I have studied.

Before discussing each individual program, I'd like to briefly mention some benefits of writing as a complement or part of psychotherapy and/or a spiritual practice.

A Few Reasons Why People Write

  1. Writing builds a relationship and understanding of oneself through intimate personal expression and catharsis.
  2. Writing helps people to heal from loss, grief, trauma, illness and personal tragedy.
  3. Writing assists and supports people through life transitions.
  4. Writing has admittedly given purpose and meaning to life for numerous writers and memoirists. Author Alice Walker describes writing as "a very sturdy ladder out of the pit."
  5. Writing reveals our vulnerability and woundedness at a pace acceptable to us. Sharing our writing continues this process through feeling heard.

One Year of Writing and Healing by Diane Morrow

On her website, Diane Morrow discusses a study of college students done in 1983 by psychologist James Pennebaker in which some students were instructed to write continuously for fifteen minutes about the most upsetting or traumatic experience of their lives. They were told to share anonymously their deepest emotions about a very personal, unexpressed tragedy. These ordinary students wrote about their secrets: the divorce of parents, abuse, alcoholism and suicide attempts. And in interviews conducted after finishing four such writing sessions, these students actually reported feeling worse than they had before. But four months later, these students, compared to students who had written about trivial things, reported improvements in mood and outlook and had documented improvements in their physical health.

This particular kind of writing--expressive writing--is the style of writing about which much of the documented testing and research on writing and health has been conducted. It's been shown to improve psychological well-being as well as easing a wide variety of illnesses, suggesting that writing brings about a general reduction in biological stress. For more information, read Morrow's entire article here.

Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo

Louise DeSalvo takes Pennebaker's research a step further by asserting that one must write about his/her life in a way that links traumatic past events with feelings in order for healing to take place. This linking of thinking and feeling through writing may be used for healing in psychotherapy.

DeSalvo lists four essentials in using writing as a way of healing:
  1. Write regularly and in a relaxed way.
  2. Watch with relaxed awareness what occurs as you write.
  3. Accept yourself and your work, rather than judge it.
  4. Be patient; write routinely.
One must have a safe container--an empathic listener--to revisit and confront trauma in writing. Thus, writing and psychotherapy are mutually compatible for managing deeply painful emotions.

The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron

"Morning pages" is a term used by Julia Cameron for a creativity tool which involves writing three private stream-of-consciousness pages in longhand every morning. Cameron considers this process to be so important that it is "non-negotiable." The goal of morning pages is to help recognize and release one's inner critic, the very stuff which blocks our creativity and connection to Self.

Cameron states that, "Morning pages do help us get to the other side of our fear, our negativity, our moods. Above all, they get us beyond our Censor. Beyond the reach of the Censor's babble we find our own quiet center..."

As with psychotherapy, a primary goal of morning pages is to distinguish the critic's voice from our own authentic voice. We become an observer of the critic, detaching ourselves from the paralyzing shame. I have found it also useful to create an image for the critic and develop a creative way to contain or externalize the critic from the Self. In my work I view the critic, despite appearances, as having ultimately positive intentions for us. The critic is fear and shame-based self-protection.

Journal Therapy by Kathleen Adams

Journal Therapy is one of several writing therapies which encourage people to access the power of writing through a journal. I first started journaling in the early 1970s when I studied the Ira Progoff Intensive Journal Program, a self-directed program which encourages one to address virtually every aspect of their lives.

Kathleen Adams' Journal Therapy is especially designed for psychotherapists in their work with clients. It is an intentional use of reflective writing to further mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health. It encourages frequent writing as a means of providing focus and clarity to one's issues. Journal Therapy has transformed the traditional diary into a therapeutic self-management tool.

Conclusion

I highly encourage developing a personal writing practice as part of one's healing work as well as part of psychotherapy. If you are fearful of uncovering trauma on your own or simply wish to establish a writing practice for growth, it may be useful to work with a therapist trained in using writing as a healing art. If you have any questions, please feel to call me at (707) 526-4353.

©2005-2015 Shonnie Brown, Chinn Street Counseling Center; all rights reserved.