For years I have felt passionate about therapeutic writing and its benefits. Where appropriate I encourage my clients to write for themselves and see what emerges. If you are wondering what therapeutic writing is all about and how can writing help read on. Here is my take on it all.
Adapted from ‘The Therapeutic Benefits of Creative Writing’ by Dee Longhurst. Published in The Transactional Analyst, Summer 2018 issue.
An introduction: Since childhood I have loved writing and often sat in my bedroom writing stories and poems. I didn’t know then that my writing had therapeutic benefits, but now believe that everything I wrote contained an important aspect of myself. In my adulthood, the therapeutic benefits have been more obvious and intentional. Over the years I have become increasingly passionate about the therapeutic potential of creative writing.
What is expressive writing? People often wonder if there is a difference between creative writing and expressive writing. The way I see it is that creative writing is about the product: it is often a piece of writing, a story, a poem, a letter. It may be polished and sometimes publishable. Expressive writing can result in all of this, too, but the focus is on the process. The intention is that the writer makes a deeper connection with her thoughts and emotions, and it potential for the writing to be therapeutic lies within this connection. Arguably, there may be a crossover between the two. It is often the emotional charge of a novel that keeps us turning its pages – we laugh, cry and rage as we become absorbed into the story. Every story contains aspects of the self, so could it be that a writer always benefits from sharing their story? Poets often pen their best poems when they pour their heart and soul onto the page. The American poet, and bereaved father, Robert Frost once said, ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.’ His words certainly ring true for many.
The benefits of expressive writing: The benefits of expressive writing were first discovered by James Pennebaker when he researched the benefits in the 1980’s. Pennebaker concluded that there was a huge benefit to the wellbeing of those who wrote for just 20 mins a day, particularly when writing about an emotional upheaval or trauma. Pennebaker concluded that those who wrote down their feelings visited medical centres less frequently than those who didn’t write. Whilst expressive writing can have huge benefits on mental health, it is important to note that writers often feel sadness after doing so. In most cases, this doesn’t last longer than a few hours, but it is important for the writer to apply the brakes if she feels she may overwhelm herself.
Throw away the rule book! From our earliest years at school, we are taught the correct way to write and we are praised when our writing is tidy, concise or grammatically accurate. We are taught form, syntax and rhythm. In expressive writing we can gladly throw the rule book away because whatever we write is right! Gillie Bolton in The Therapeutic Potential of Creative Writing, says, ‘When an explorative, expressive attitude to writing is accepted – when the writer allows their hand to put on the paper whatever arrives at the end of the pencil – they can’t write the wrong thing. It might be distressing or even shocking but it is likely to be the right thing for them at that time.’
Accessing the unconscious In Writing Down the Bones, Goldberg talks about the need to ‘burn through’ the first thoughts to the place where energy is free from our internal censor. The free-writing technique is an important way of accessing our unconscious emotions and it is a technique I often use myself because it enables me to lose my Critical Parent and allows my authentic, repressed feelings to emerge. For this exercise you will need a pen, notebook and timer. Decide a time you are going to set yourself (I recommend 5 minutes) and go for it!
- Keep your hand moving. (Don’t pause to reread the line you have just written. That’s stalling and trying to get control of what you’re saying.)
- Don’t cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.)
- Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don’t even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.)
- Lose control
- Don’t think. Don’t get logical.
- Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)
Where will your writing take you?
Bolton, G. (1999). The Therapeutic Potential of Creative
Writing. London. Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Goldberg, N. (1986). Writing Down the Bones. Boston.
Pennebaker, J. et al. (2014). Expressive Writing: Words
That Heal. London. Idyll Arbor