Therapeutic Writing: The Power of Constructing a Story.

As I mentioned in my last post, James Pennebaker was one of the first to research (and confirm) the positive benefits of therapeutic writing. He has written or edited ten books and authored or co-authored over 250 articles on the subject. It is little wonder he is considered to be the founding father of the field, although in recent years his research had shifted to analysing the power words have on people and politics.

Pennebaker’s initial work tested the value of ‘expressive writing’. He started by asking participants to:

  • Write every day for four days about an upsetting experience, major conflict or other stressors. Participants could write about the same issue every day or focus on a different situation
  • Explore, through writing, the feelings and thoughts that emerged about the situation
  • Explore, in the writing, how the experience was connected to their past, present and future identity.

Along with the benefits of therapeutic writing Pennebaker discovered that difficult feelings emerged, either during the writing process or shortly after the writing session. He believes this is similar to the experience of ‘seeing a sad movie’ and should diminish after a few hours. If the distress continues, the writer should stop writing and seek immediate support.

The writing activity Pennebaker set for his participants was ‘free writing’, or what I called in my second post ‘raw material’, unedited emotional writing that has, for the most part, informed decades of research into therapeutic writing. It should be noted, however, that Pennebaker did not discourage working on and editing the written material although he did not promote it.

While there may be several problems associated with Pennebaker’s research methodology, I want to mention just two:

  • A large number of participants in his early research were young, healthy university students who volunteered to take part in the study
  • The written expression expected of the participants may have been too brief to yield conclusive, long term results into the usefulness of expressive writing.

Both concerns have been addressed by numerous studies and, in clinical terms, therapeutic writing is now an accepted, multifaceted treatment where an individual takes part in either an ongoing period of regular writing, and discusses it with a therapist, or a group writing session. Both individual and group writing sessions demand specific skills on the part of the therapist or counsellor. This ‘writer/counsellor’ needs to know how to help the therapeutic writer with the creative process of writing and to work through the initial trauma or reason for therapeutic support.

The Writing Cure is a book of essays acknowledging Pennebaker’s contribution to therapeutic writing and examining more than two decades of research into it. Jeffrey Berman‘s review of The Writing Cure laments the lack of input from the arts and humanities on therapeutic writing. Because I am interested in the therapeutic benefits of creative, sustained and edited writing needed to produce and prepare a short story or poem, I agree with Berman. The psychological underpinnings and positive benefits of therapeutic writing need to be considered but the effect of reading, rewriting, editing, proofreading, and above all, sharing creative work should also be studied. Perhaps the arts and humanities need to join with psychology and science and discover what happens when a writer sits down and writes?

I am among the several million humans who have, over the years, needed to consult a therapist or counsellor. When a member of my family married overseas I had counselling to discuss my fear of flying so I could travel to the wedding. I have never, however, been treated by a counsellor who used therapeutic writing as a healing tool. I used my journal for that. When I returned to university and started writing short stories I started to feel more confident and more capable than I had in years. Yes, I enjoyed being a student again, meeting new people and learning new skills, but submitting assignments on time and juggling study, work and family was stressful, so why was I feeling so good? Was it because I was turning personal material from my journal into third-person-narrated-stories and sharing them with my classmates? This question drove my PhD research, so imagine my excitement when I read this comment from Pennebaker:

Movement toward the development of a narrative is far more predictive of health than having a coherent story per se. The construction of a story, rather than having a constructed story, then, may be the desired endpoint of writing …

What did he mean? Was my experience typical? Why is the process of narration more helpful than a pre-formed and rehearsed story about an incident? Could creating a narrative while writing about disturbing experiences help change behaviour?  Could others benefit from this information?

Collecting statistics so you can understand how an essentially creative pursuit like writing is therapeutic, is like catching rain drops during a storm. I understand the need for objective, primary data but can we assume there is a ‘universal truth’ that fits all cases? How do we deal with bias in designing the research question and interpreting the results? What about differences in the writers’ backgrounds, education and resources? When and where does the writing occur? What about the context of the writing experience? Is cathartic free writing the only way to write our way into well-being?

By 2008 I had my Creative Arts degree and had enrolled in a PhD in Creative Writing. I wanted to research therapeutic writing that goes beyond ‘raw material’. I did not have the skills or resources to conduct quantitative research so I decided to take Pennebaker’s work into account but explore the potential of writing for therapy using the elements of story: character, plot, dialogue, setting, theme, point of view and narrative voice. It turned out there were other people exploring this form of therapeutic writing and I will discuss them in the next post.


Pennebaker, James W., and Janel D. Seagal. ‘Forming a story: The health benefits of narrative’, Journal of clinical psychology, 55.10 (1999): 1243-1254 and Graybeal, Anna, Janel D. Sexton, and James W. Pennebaker. ‘The role of story-making in disclosure writing: The psychometrics of narrative’, Psychology and Health 17.5 (2002): 571-581.

2 thoughts on “Therapeutic Writing: The Power of Constructing a Story.

  1. Janet this is so exciting! My proposal – I think – is to investigate how the actor’s performance skills can augment performance autoethnography as a methodology. Performance has been embraced by social scientists operating on the “fringe”, but they are not trained creative professionals. I’m curious not only about how the actor can add to the methodology, but also why the creative arts as a discipline seem to be so reluctant to embrace the subjective in research writing. Has this been your experience?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s