Twenty years ago, just as my children were blossoming into adolescence, we spent Christmas camping at Moana beach about an hour’s drive from where we lived. While the children played board games or French cricket, I slowly wound down from the year, reading novels my friends recommended six months earlier. In the mornings, instead of our usual cereal or toast, we ate bacon and eggs cooked on a small gas stove. We spent our days swimming in surf perfect for children accustomed to gentle swells but not yet ready for bulkier surf or a stronger rip. In the evenings we walked along the shore, talking about the day and watching the sun slide beyond the horizon. One evening I used a piece of driftwood to write my name in the wet sand, as close to the water as possible and within reach of the incoming tide. Each of the children wrote their name near mine and we stood together, holding hands and waiting. Within minutes the tide nibbled at our bare brown toes then swept across our names and carried them off. ‘No matter where you travel,’ I said, ‘when you grow up and leave home, you’ll be recognised. The sea will transport your names to every shore on the planet; you have been introduced to the world.’
I sometimes wonder if therapeutic writing, particularly if it remains private, is as ephemeral as writing our names in wet sand, but what do I mean by the term therapeutic writing?
I define therapeutic writing, (also known as expressive writing, writing to heal and developmental creative writing), as writing that soothes emotional or mental disquiet, boosts self-confidence, fosters a more flexible sense of self,[i] and facilitates personal self- development.[ii] Therapeutic writing has been extensively researched and there are numerous books and websites about the topic. My local writing centre recently ran a workshop about it and Lapidus, in the UK, runs programs and training sessions for therapeutic writing practitioners, as does The National Association for Poetry Therapy in the USA. In Western Australia, Edith Cowan University offers topics on writing therapy and a double major in Psychology and Writing. The medical and nursing profession use reflective and therapeutic writing to help understand the needs of their patients and themselves. Therapeutic writing can be a short story, poem, personal journal entry, unsent letter, list, Facebook post, tweet or blog. Writing that describes one’s fear of flying (something I struggle with), writing that reduces worry, anxiety or depression, writing that inspires hope and resilience, is therapeutic writing.
I am writer, not a psychologist or therapist, but human psychology fascinates me. I understand talking about trauma is better than staying silent. This may be one of the reasons that writing, or ‘talking on paper’, alleviates emotional, mental and even physical health conditions caused by stress and trauma. The benefits of therapeutic writing, particularly in cases of trauma, depend on the individual, their problem, the type of therapeutic writing practised and the facilitator or counsellor who conducts a writing session. It is possible to follow guidelines from books or websites but because writing about trauma can reactivate, albeit for a short period, the initial distress, anyone who has experienced a major trauma needs to consult a trained professional who will provide expert, objective support. Despite decades of research into therapeutic writing, it is a relatively new therapeutic tool and, in certain circumstances, is best used in conjunction with other forms of counselling. Nor will therapeutic writing help everyone; people who experience psychotic episodes should not use it.
A lot of therapeutic writing is what I call ‘raw material’, cathartic, unstructured, often ungrammatical pieces drawn from the depths of the unconscious. There is nothing wrong with this. Naming what ails us in a raw, unedited form is powerful; naming and sharing what ails us in deliberately crafted, publishable work is an act of formidable agency. This is because writing develops the five senses, exercises our imagination, and cultivates symbolism and metaphor. I believe the benefits of therapeutic writing are intensified when we use the elements of narrative: voice, setting, plot, character, dialogue and theme. Thinking about, or reflecting on, the experience of writing, and how we use different narrative elements, has the potential to deepen and expand our understanding of why therapeutic writing works.
In a way, cathartic writing is like etching one’s name in the soft, crumbling sand that lies far from the shoreline where it is unlikely to be swept into the vast ocean of published writing. When we write our name in wet sand we risk the waves; we proclaim, not simply name, our intent to survive what ails us. Yes, keeping what we write to ourselves is healing, but crafting, reflecting on and disseminating a piece of therapeutic writing enhances its therapeutic benefits and has the potential to change how others behave. Maybe it is time researchers looked into crafted, edited writing as a source of healing.
The first step, however, is to understand what therapeutic writing is so we can choose how to apply it to our individual needs. I’m interested in what you choose; are you comfortable with the idea of sharing therapeutic writing or do you want it to remain private? Do you have a piece of raw material in your drawer that you could reshape, edit and polish? If you published your therapeutic writing, if you wrote your name in the sand and offered it to the tide, what might happen?
[i] Fiona Sampson, ‘Writing as Therapy’, in The Handbook of Creative Writing, ed. by Stephen Earnshaw (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), pp. 312-319 (p. 312).[i]
[ii] Sophie Nicholls, ‘Beyond Expressive Writing: Evolving Models of Development in Creative Writing’, Journal of Health Psychology (2009), 14.2, 171-180 (p. 172).