Therapeutic Writing Workshops: Exploring the Benefits

A group of people sit around a large table set in a well-lit, comfortable room. Everyone is writing about a difficult experience or a health or emotional problem that has been bothering them for some time. They have been working together for several hours or perhaps a day or two. Alternatively, they are in their fourth or fifth week of an ongoing program. The group leader is a personable, organised individual, a writer and a therapist who has carefully led the group through several exercises designed to limber their ‘writing muscles’. She, or he, has just asked the group to write about a significant, perhaps distressing, certainly life changing incident.

‘Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or punctuation,’ the guide says. ‘If you wish to, you can deal with those things later. Let’s just see what emerges as you write. If you find this distressing, stop and let me know. We can sit together and talk through what’s happening.’ The facilitator motions towards a corner of the room where two easy chairs are arranged. Several group members have had occasion, during other writing sessions, to talk with the guide, but by now they trust themselves, their guide and the other participants. If tears fall as they write, they trust them too; tears are a relief and a benediction. After fifty minutes, the facilitator asks the writers to stop, stretch, silently read what they have written and then write a brief reflection about the piece. After another ten minutes the group breaks for refreshments. People discuss what happened as they wrote; some are astonished with what they have produced and everyone is eager to hear the stories and share their own. The facilitator has checked that everyone is comfortable with editing their work and when the break is over they return to the table and begin to craft and refashion their stories.

Workshops like these have been held for several decades but can they be compared, in terms of whether or not therapeutic writing is a useful therapeutic tool, to the carefully controlled and measured writing sessions Pennebaker designed back in the 1980s? Does personal experience measure up alongside scientifically valid trials? What can we learn from comparing the two kinds of writing?

Sophie Nicholls writes that it is possible to transcend cathartic writing, and James Pennebaker’s ‘expressive writing’, by developing a critical approach to one’s therapeutic writing. I think Nicholls echoes and extends Pennebaker’s idea of ‘constructing the narrative’, but does so from a writer’s perspective. She suggests, and I agree with her, that we begin by writing about our bodies, our inner self, our feelings and our experiences, and then edit, craft and redraft our work. When the ‘raw material’ generated through confessional and cathartic writing is turned into a story, the therapeutic writer avoids becoming fixated on a single emotional response and can develop an objective and flexible understanding of their situation. But to do this, therapeutic writers need emotional support and clear writing guidelines.

There are several excellent books that declare their writing activities and exercises are successful but, for the most part, the hard data about the benefit of these exercises is scarce. I think we need to address this problem by moving back and forth between the quantitative and qualitative research methods I discussed in my second post. We need to test what kinds of writing exercises help a writer develop a coherent piece of therapeutic writing and why that exercise worked. It is time research into therapeutic writing examined the part narrative elements (plot, character, dialogue, setting, theme, voice, symbol and metaphor) might play in improving the effectiveness of therapeutic writing.

Reflective writing is also a crucial part of therapeutic writing. When Pauline Cooper divided a therapeutic writing workshop into two groups, one led by a ‘non-therapist facilitator’, the other by a therapist, she made an interesting discovery. The first group were given a warm-up writing activity and then a writing exercise; they were encouraged, but not expected, to share and discuss their writing and provide feedback to other members. They were not instructed to edit their work although they were not stopped from doing so. During their series of workshops, this group’s attention wandered, and they were less amenable to the experience. They also wanted more guidance from the facilitator. Cooper believes they experienced ‘non-engagement with exploring emotion [and this] increased the repetition of harmful narratives.’

The second group were given structured writing activities that included editing their work and reflecting on what they wrote before and after a writing session. They were also asked to share their thoughts with the group and provide feedback. The members of this group developed the ability to deal with their past because, Cooper believes, sharing their work and reflecting on their discoveries helped them find different ways to address their problems.

Therapeutic writing remains an imprecisely understood therapy but rather than contrast or compare Pennebaker’s statistical research with hands-on workshops, perhaps we should see both as part of a continuum. Research verifies many writers’ instincts; writing is healing. Thousands of workshops support the findings and make it possible for people who have never picked up a pen to write and, as a result, feel better about themselves and their lives.

Do you have any personal experiences, or feelings, about therapeutic writing workshops? If you are struggling with a life-changing experience would you try a therapeutic writing workshop? Do you believe polishing, editing and sharing your work would help or hinder you?

References (Please note that this is a partial list only.)

Gillie Bolton, Write Yourself: Creative Writing and Personal Development (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2011)

Gillie Bolton, The Writer’s Key: Introducing Creative Solutions for Life (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2014)

Gillie Bolton, Victoria Field, and Kate Thompson, Writing Works: A Resource Handbook for Therapeutic Writing Workshops and Activities (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2006)

Gillie Bolton, Victoria Field, and Kate Thompson, Writing Routes: A Resource Handbook of Therapeutic Writing (London: Jessica Kingsley, 2011)

Sophie Nicholls, ‘Beyond Expressive Writing: Evolving Models of Development in Creative Writing’, Journal of Health Psychology (2009), 14.2, 171-180 (p. 172-174).

Jeannie K. Wright, Writing Cures: An Introductory Handbook of Writing in Counselling and Psychotherapy (Hove, East Sussex: Brunner-Routledge, 2004).

Links (Again, this list is partial as I am currently working on building a set of  links to various sites. If you do nothing else, see Rita Charon’s moving talk on the power of Narrative Medicine.)

Celia Hunt

Centre for Journal Therapy

Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust

Durham University Centre for Medical Humanities

Health Story Collaborative

Lapidus

Metanoia Institute 

Pauline Cooper (The paper I referred to can be found here)

Rita Charon on Narrative Medicine

Susannah Sheffer

Words for Wellbeing

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