Therapeutic Writing: Out of the Box

Five years ago I started researching therapeutic writing, a topic I have been interested in for several decades. Now I have completed my PhD in Creative Writing I want to share what I have learned. This blog is about the power of writing to help us feel better about ourselves and our lives. I want to explore what happens when we put down our pens, or lift our fingers from the keyboard, and reflect on what we find on the page. My life, and this blog, is about writing, reflecting, learning, growing and healing.

Six years ago one of my closest friends was diagnosed with breast cancer and within days had a radical mastectomy. Not long after her diagnosis she started a journal and quickly experienced the benefit of recording her fears, treatment and recovery. Several weeks later we were drinking coffee and enjoying the spring  sunshine when she mentioned Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives. She said it added a new dimension to her writing and that DeSalvo described evidence supporting the benefits of therapeutic writing.

I was eighteen years old when I started writing a personal journal. I was studying to be a teacher at the time and recovering from a painful personal crisis. I felt there was no one to talk to about my experience so I wrote my feelings down. Writing helped me let off steam and gain perspective and I continued to write a journal, in between completing my studies, marrying, raising three children and teaching, for the next thirty years.

For a number of reasons, some of which had to do with the crisis I experienced when I was eighteen, I never moved from the private realm of journal writing to the public arena of ‘creative writing’ although I often wished I could. Then, at fifty-two, I decided to enrol in a Bachelor of Creative Arts, mostly to find out if I had any talent as a writer. I stopped writing my personal journal and packed the notebooks I had filled with my fears and triumphs, challenges and achievements, in a box in a dark corner of my garage. While working on my degree, however, I filled several more notebooks with ideas for novels, stories and articles.

I was about to complete my Honours year when my friend mentioned DeSalvo. A week later, while discussing the possibility of doing a PhD with my Honours thesis supervisor, I mentioned my journals and the relief journal writing had imparted to my friend. My supervisor mentioned reading an article about therapeutic writing and its benefits, so my interest was piqued. Maybe, I thought, all those years writing a personal journal, considered to be the lifeblood of therapeutic writing, were not wasted?

I bought a copy of DeSalvo’s book, and while waiting for the results of my Honours thesis I rescued my journals and conducted some personal ‘archaeological’ research into the woman trapped in the pages of those notebooks. Once my PhD application was accepted I decided to write a memoir (I wanted to explore what my eighteen old self thought she was up to) and for my exegesis, the research component of the thesis, investigate therapeutic writing. My thesis ended up with the wordy, somewhat grandiose, title of, Reading Goldilocks: Interrogating The Relationship Between Therapeutic Life Narrative And First And Third Person Narrative Voice. Like most people starting a PhD I had big ideas, not all of them plausible or workable, but that is part of the fun of being a postgraduate.

I was awarded my doctorate in December 2014. I knew I didn’t want an academic career but I feared my research and ideas about reflective and therapeutic writing would end up, like my personal journals, in a box in the garage. That is why, as well as working on a novel and writing short stories, I decided to start this blog.

Writing and reading this post reminded me of the day my friend shared her diagnosis. A normally bubbly, positive person, fear was etched on her face. Her words were brave, but I knew her well enough to understand what she must have been feeling. Months later, when she told me about her journal, the fear was replaced by gratitude. The journal wasn’t the only thing that helped her cope with cancer: her partner, her surgeon, her family and her friends stood with her as she faced her biggest challenge. But it was her intelligence and determination to help herself, in the form of a written record of her recovery, that I admired most. She engineered her healing; she took control of her own wellbeing. When I told her I was starting this blog she pointed out it was nine years to the day since her diagnosis. This first post celebrates her ongoing health and our friendship. It also celebrates my PhD thesis and my Honours supervisor, Robyn Cadwallader (the author of a wonderful new novel, The Anchoress), who suggested I research therapeutic writing.

This blog is not a professional academic paper or a personal journal. It lies somewhere in the margins of both. It is a practical way to share my knowledge of a topic I devoted five years of my life to. It is for readers who already know something about therapeutic writing and those who have only just discovered therapeutic writing. I’m especially interested in my readers’ stories. How did you discover therapeutic writing? Has writing about what life has thrown at you helped you to reflect, learn, grow and heal? Are you interested in sharing something you have written? (If so, please see the Submission Guidelines.)