By Perry Garfinkel
The British author Graham Greene, in his 1980 book “Ways of Escape,” put into words what most writers know when they face the blank page or screen: “Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”
Academicians trace the idea of writing as therapy to the time of Egyptian King Ramses II some 1,200 years before the Common Era. The entrance to his royal library declared: “House of Healing for the Soul.” American Unitarian minister Samuel Crothers coined the term bibliotherapy in 1916. In the late 1980s University of Texas psychologist James Pennebaker spearheaded the modern writing therapy movement in a landmark study showing the potential health benefits of “expressive writing” in times of emotional upheaval.
In the last two decades, writing therapy has become a legitimate, well-researched therapeutic tool for everything from depression and anxiety, to reducing cancer-related symptoms, to improving cognitive processing, to overcoming PTSD.
There is now a growing interest in a type of writing that disregards the elegant turn of phrase or the obtuse metaphorical allusion and focuses instead on the healing power of putting feelings on paper or screen – as evidenced by the burgeoning popularity of the personal memoir literary genre, including the evergreen celebrity confessional, as well as journaling in businesses and school settings.
“We see writing as a valuable vehicle to help students achieve deeper, richer self insight,” says Greta Vollmer, Ph.D., former director of UC Berkeley’s Bay Area Writing Project, a program for K-12 teachers who teach writing. “It forces you to carve out the space to slow down, to step out of yourself to get into your Self. We find people can write their way to solutions, to inner peace and self understanding.”
Here are some of its applications.
The Pros of Heartfelt Prose
Personal memoir writing workshops are very popular now. Teacher Nancy Aronie, however, is not a newcomer; for 25 years the author of “Writing from the Heart” (Hachette Books, 1998) has been leading eponymously entitled workshops at Esalen in California, Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, Kripalu in Lenox, Mass., and from her home on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.
“So many people carry their secret stories of shame for years and years in their bodies, not just in their minds,” says Aronie, “but they feel lighter – less emotionally burdened – when they can literally let them out by putting them on paper or screen.” She helps enable that by creating a safe and nonjudgmental space in her workshops.
As evidence, among many examples, she recounts the story of an 83-year-old retired Episcopal priest who disowned his daughter when she announced she was a lesbian. “As he read his account to our group, he broke down crying,” recalls Aronie. “He realized how wrong he was and said, ‘Who am I that I could I have lost my daughter over such small-mindedness?’ It was gorgeous.” His breakthrough led to a reconciliation with his daughter, Aronie says.
For her own therapy, Aronie is writing a book about her younger son Dan, who passed away in 2010 from multiple sclerosis at the age of 38. “It has helped me understand how his illness had held me hostage for so long,” she says. “Those insights helped change our entire relationship.”
Writing Through Teenage Angst
A 2013 study showed that blogging has therapeutic value for teenagers experiencing social and emotional difficulties. So why not apply that notion to teens facing perhaps the most difficult writing assignment of their young lives – the college application essay?
“High school seniors come to me with so much fear about this,” says Craig Heller, a Woodland Hills-based TV Emmy Award-winning writer who tutors students preparing their college essays. “By and large the majority distain writing and are not self reflective at that age.”
Introspective writing would therefore be a double whammy inducing high anxiety. Yet the prompts from colleges ask them to dig deep, in words. Stanford, for example, famously asks: “What matters to you and why?” Phew!
Heller encourages students by saying, “Writing this essay is an opportunity for you to explore what you didn't know you didn't know about yourself.” He finds that patience and perseverance help them use this process to gain greater insight into themselves and their motivations.
“I recently worked with a student who had extremely low self esteem,” recalls Heller. “Developing and writing his college essays put him in touch with his positive qualities, which bolstered his confidence both socially and academically. The more drafts he wrote, the more he realized he was a unique person with uncommon skills and interests.”
Therapist's Poetic License
“Not I, but the poet discovered the unconscious," Freud once wrote.
The German father of psychoanalysis would likely wax poetic about the fact that now there are certified and registered poetry therapists and applied poetry facilitators, a 30-year-old National Association for Poetry Therapy (NAPT) and the International Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy.
Psychiatrist Robert Carroll, faculty at UCLA School of Medicine’s psychiatry department, and a former vice president of NAPT, says that throughout history “humans have turned to poetry as a much more evocative and personal means of expressive writing when they are trying to get in touch with their deepest emotions.”
In 2003, Carroll undertook a 2-year project at UCLA’s department of Neuro-oncology called The Art of the Brain, in which brain cancer patients wrote poems, paired with poet colleagues, to help them cope with pain, acceptance, surgeries and more.
In a paper entitled “The Healing Power of Poetry,” published in the professional journal Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, he distinguishes poetry from prose: “When using ‘I,’ the poet most often means him or herself, while the prose writer may be referring to characters he or she creates,” or is quoting real people.
Dr. Carroll often uses the works of poets as prompts to inspire patients to write their own poetry. Among his favorites is Rainer Maria Rilke, the late 19th century Bohemian-Austria poet, who wrote: “Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.”
You’ve Got TherapEmail
It was inevitable. Now you don't have to drive to your therapist’s office; you can log on for your mental health counseling. Dan Mitchell, who holds a masters degree in counseling psychology from the University of British Columbia, is a pioneer in the field with partner Lawrence Murphy at Therapy Online. The pair has published papers in the British Journal of Guidance & Counselling and other professional journals on the subject.
“We find people will write revealing things about themselves that they would not do in person,” he says. “Disinhibition comes into play because body language is not involved and in that sort of anonymity, they feel free to open up more than normally – even people insecure.”
On-screen communications look like text messages, with comments appearing in bubble quotes. The therapist can interject thoughts and responses anywhere in the back-and-forth thread. Sessions can be in real time or asynchronistic (i.e., the therapist will answer at another time).
Among the advantages to online therapy, Mitchell points out, is that clients tend to forget 80 percent of the exchanges. But with this format, they have a permanent record of every word they and the therapist wrote, to review whenever they want.
Perry Garfinkel, author of "Travel Writing for Profit and Pleasure" and “Buddha or Bust,” leads writing retreats throughout the country and at hotels.