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.)

10 thoughts on “Therapeutic Writing: Out of the Box

  1. Loved this! I’ve been journaling since I was in junior high school. I can look back at those journals and see where there was resistance in the learning process, where I was hard on myself for not living up to my expectations (as well as those I thought were of God), the difference it made in my life moving from a conservative church to a more liberal one, and finally accepting my humanness. But more importantly I began to find myself while journaling through a Sarah Ban Breathnach book. I’d say I do more than just journal. I have a relationship with those writings and notebooks that has mirrored back to me things no one in my life ever took the time to do. This is a subject that is very dear to my heart.

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    1. Thank you for your comment Cheryl. I love the idea that you have a relationship with your journals. I’ve never thought of my journals in this way but it makes a lot of sense. Your comment has encouraged me to go back to my notebooks, to think of them as a mirror and greet them as an old friend I haven’t seen for a long time.

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  2. Janet, read your blog with great interest, not sure I understood it all having had to leave school at 16 to work and spending my informative years in a ‘book free’ zone, but trying to catch up. However it did inspire me to pick up where I left of with my ‘Memoirs of an Immigrant’ some years ago. Not sure it is therapeutic, but feel I should finish it while I can still remember who I was. Trying to keep it light and focussing on ‘The Bright Side of Life’ as I feel the darker bits are better left behind. Waiting for your first book. Cheers … Rog

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    1. Hi Roger,
      If you’re the Roger I think you are I doubt you need to catch up with anything. I’m so glad my blog has encouraged you to get back into your Memoir. There will be many people who will want to read about your experiences. I’m looking forward to swapping books with you and a big ‘thanks’ for reading and commenting on my blog.
      Best, Janet

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  3. Good call Janet. As it happens I’ve been going through old journals and notebooks from the 80s onwards and putting them into my grey typewriter so I can rework them or sort them into a staccato narrative for my adult offspring to discover the bits of my life they didn’t see. Or something.

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  4. Thanks so much for this Janet. I have just started doing ‘morning pages,’ after reading ‘The Artist’s Way.’ One of the aims of this book is to reignite your creativity. So, each morning I jot down three pages of ‘stream of consciousness’ writing. The results have been fascinating. They range from helping with my depression to me revisiting my shelved book of short stories. I can, once more, underline the importance of such writing.

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    1. Hi Barbara,
      Thank you for your comment. Its good to hear that you’re back into your Morning Pages and they’re helping you. It’s interesting you mention going back to your collection of short stories. Just as I started writing and planning this blog I felt the need to read more short stories. I’m currently trying to read one a day (it’s not always easy to find the time, as you would know) and I’m enjoying those evocative morsels of narrative immensely.
      Cheers
      Janet

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  5. Theresa sent me here, and what a treat to find yet another person reflecting on this pst important aspect of creativity and the degree to which writing can be therapeutic. I look forward to reading more.

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    1. Hi Elisabeth,
      Thank you for your kind comments (my first comment!). It is good to hear from someone so attuned to my topic. I hope we will continue to exchange ideas about this fascinating subject.
      Cheers
      Janet

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