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Why Writing For Therapy Can Change Your Life

    Categories: Writing

I wrote my first book, Career Change, because I was so miserable in my day job that I would weep in the toilets at lunch-time, wondering what the hell I was doing with my life. 

Excerpts from my journals appear in most of my non-fiction books, and I still write for therapy when I am going through tough times. Because writing can heal you, and it can help others. 

In today's article, A.L.Michael shares how writing for therapy can change your life. 

When people ask you why you write, you can probably answer immediately, can’t you? Because you love it, because it’s fun, because it’s your business, because it’s your escape.

I’ve known more than a few authors who have answered ‘because it’s my therapy.’

There are always two responses to this reason. There are the authors who treat their writing very seriously. Writing is their business, their job and it’s something to be respected. Not just anyone can do it.

The other response is a sigh and a smile: me too!

I will tell you this – I used to be in the first camp. I trained in writing, I spent hours writing and editing and adapting, struggling to weave something out of an unholy mess of ideas and words.

Writing may be fun, sometimes, but I had no desire to write my feelings out on the page. I didn’t do therapy. I wrote fiction. Fiction was not for expressing your feelings, it was for bringing them out in your readers.

I was doing perfectly fine thank you very much.

And then I discovered CWTP – creative writing for therapeutic purposes. Which destroyed my whole concept of what writing was.

Because

  • Writing has been proven to have a positive effect on your mental health; and,
  • Anyone can do it.

How is writing good for you?

There have been studies in how writing affects the mind and mood for years – in all sorts of settings and forms. Poetry classes, writing in prisons, in hospitals and hospices, writing in addiction centres, bibliotherapy sessions – writing is finally being recognised as a creative therapy, alongside dance, drama, crafts and music.

One of the most powerful pieces of research in this field was undertaken by researcher James Pennebaker – he got a group of people to spend 20 minutes a day writing expressively.

By expressive, he meant they had to write about something that evoked an emotional response, usually something traumatic or upsetting. He then had a control group who wrote about things they had no connection to.

The result? Those writing about non-emotional subjects experienced no difference, but those who wrote expressively visited the doctors less – they literally felt better.

I’m not a trauma therapist, but I’m pretty sure most of us have had the experience of release when you finally express something you’ve been holding on to? Whether that’s in a screaming match or a therapy session, or on a page.

When you let go of the things that are holding you down, when you are free to express how you feel, you feel better.

So how does writing do this?

Well, obviously, you can write expressively and therapeutically alone, as people have done for centuries, keeping diaries and journals. Think about the range of writing you do, and how it affects your feelings. Even writing a humble shopping list or to do list has an effect on your mood. It makes you feel in control.

Writing for yourself and reading it back can put an experience in perspective – it can distance the pain, can draw a line under it, or can help you explore how others in the situation perceived it.

I would argue that therapeutic writing is more powerful in a group. Firstly, you’ll have a workshop leader (therapeutic facilitator) to hold the group, make you feel safe, take care of the timings and set the activities.

For those of you who have been to creative writing groups only to tremble through reading your work aloud, and then have it savaged under a guise of ‘constructive criticism’, these writing groups are different. Because it’s not about the piece.

I’m going to say that again:

It’s not about the piece of writing.

Whatever you have written, whether it’s a memory that makes you smile, or a jagged little poem that shares your brokenness with the world, the point is not the form or the punctuation or anything else. The point is that you wrote it. The point is how you felt when you wrote it, and when you read it out loud. The process is more important than the outcome.

Sharing something that feels authentic can make you feel powerful or vulnerable, but the point of the group is to be your audience and support you in your writing journey. Not to suggest that you use a different similie.

Writing for wellbeing is about connection and exploration. You will still use the craft of writing, metaphors and colour and structure, but it is not in the way we usually use them as writers – to delight or shock or create something pretty. You use your craft to express the truest version of yourself.

The power of writing for wellbeing is half in the writing, and half in the sharing. Reading something out that tells a group of near strangers about your hardest time, or your deepest desires can be terrifying.

But to be thanked for sharing, to have someone acknowledge your pain, or relate to your dreams? It is immensely powerful. Empathy has a large part to play in writing, and in wellbeing.

The benefits of writing for wellbeing have been acknowledged as feeling more confident, feeling ‘heard’, leaving behind negative memories and associations, finding joy, feeling comfortable with vulnerability, managing stress and having fun.

Pennebaker’s research could suggest there were physical elements that changed in response to writing, but I think it says more about how the writers felt – they didn’t feel like there was something wrong with them, or that they needed to go to the doctor.

My own research in this field was with women who were recovering from eating disorders, and which specific writing activities were useful to them in recovery.

The elements of writing that we don’t even question as authors – finding the perfect word, creating powerful images, using archetypes, viewing a situation from a different perspective – all of these things were used in workshops, and can be harnessed in recovery.

Writing about Recovery as a powerful woman, creating an image of the writer as a boxer, fighting against her illness. All of these things we would not even question in a book, as a creative device. But the devices are not just for the end result – they have value in and of themselves.

How can therapeutic writing benefit authors?

Authors are a group who can benefit from therapeutic writing massively – and not necessarily because they have writing skills (I have run writing for wellbeing sessions with people with low literacy levels, like I said, the quality of the writing in and of itself doesn’t matter.)

One half of being able to benefit from a writing for wellbeing workshop is enjoying writing.

The other half is being open to the process, and being happy to try writing in a different way.

Authors can benefit from this because their jobs are filled with doubt and fear and imposter syndrome and all sorts of feelings that often can’t be expressed, for fear of damaging their brand, or their work or their income.

Having a space to explore those feelings, to own them and play with them creatively is important, and I would argue, necessary for any professional creative.

The other reason might shock you – it causes you to get the hell over yourself.

You’re a professional writer, yes, you know about tone and form and language, you can carve worlds out of words. But when was the last time you wrote a silly limerick, or made up an acrostic? School, probably.

When we become authors, a title many of us have worked hard to earn, we don’t want to lower ourselves to something as silly as play. I’m here to tell you that play has a lot to offer in the therapeutic writing sphere.

I’ve worked with people who have written books for years, but were moved to tears by the words they put in an acrostic about how they were feeling. I knew a bestseller with a huge publishing deal who wrote a poem about her feelings about nature and stability, and the images used in that poem have stayed with me for years. I can’t remember the discussion, but I remember that image of a young girl sitting in the embrace of a tree, feeling alone.

Writing fiction therapeutically gives us the safety to explore themes we didn’t want to touch on, and definitely couldn’t talk about directly. Writing about a failed relationship as a fairytale, a moment of shame from the perspective of an object in the room, even just freewriting how you’re feeling without stopping for three minutes, these are all things we can do as writers.

We have the tools. What we need is the desire to use them to heal ourselves. We need to be brave enough to write something awful, something unimpressive, unpublishable and frankly, sometimes, embarrassing. Because when we shift from the product of the writing, to the act of writing – that is where the therapeutic magic happens.

Writing has probably changed your life in one way or another, so why not let it do it again?

Do you use writing as a therapeutic tool? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

A.L. Michael is the author of 9 novels. Her latest book, Cocktails and Dreams, is book one in the Martini Club Series, and like most of her novels, is a love letter to London.

Andi has a BA in English Literature with Creative Writing, an MA in Creative Entrepreneurship and an MSc in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes. She works as a creative therapeutic workshop facilitator, and just finished her research on how creative writing can be useful to those in recovery from eating disorders. When she's not writing novels or helping others to write, she works as a digital content writer. You can find out more about Andi's books or about therapeutic writing at www.almichael.com or on Twitter @almichael_

Joanna Penn:

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  • I can fully testify that "play has a lot to offer in the therapeutic writing sphere." When I was diagnosed with breast cancer last February, I started a GoFundMe campaign called The Abandoned Boob Chronicles so I could get by financially since I am a freelance editor without a spouse to fall back on in tough times. Rather than do short updates, I've opted to do a weekly post there of around 1,200 words where I've shared all manner of the things I've gone through as a cancer patient. Sharing the writing has helped me process the ordeal, but it's also helped me find my way back to writing again. Now I see the posts as what will eventually form the needed structure for the memoir that is my stranger-than-fiction life story. My group of friends have noted authenticity is my superpower, and I'd have to say I agree. Writing fiction always felt disingenuous to me, but I'm at home in narrative nonfiction, and it took cancer to finally make me choose my path. Oddly enough, I have the hankering to write short stories again as well now that writing isn't this huge chore to me anymore. I will always be a recovering self-editing fool...

  • Thanks so much for this post! I have found that writing has been a therapy for me. I suffered a pretty serious illness of the brain a while back and found writing about a silly, fictional world where little made sense ended up being a huge release for me. I think it might have been my brain’s way of getting the confusion, fear and more out in a fun, light way. :)
    Thanks so much for your thoughts in this area!

    • Fantastic to hear - and yes, stories can definitely help the brain mend as it can think about things and relearn things in a roundabout way!

  • My writing is my therapy. It has been for the past 4 and half years since my parent was diagnoised for a very deadly cancer. They have survived it thankfully. BY MIRACLE. But the writing has been my therapy keeping sane and alive myself. It was very difficult to deal with

  • Thank you for sharing this. I too have used my writing as a therapeutic escape. This year alone, I have lost my 26-year-old neice, my brother and my faithful dog. I do get lost in the process and feel some small release.

  • Thank you for sharing these thoughts. I wrote about two difficult experiences in my life. The pieces themselves were not the best things I’ve written but, after finishing them, I felt the clouds had parted and I could see the figurative blue sky. They also led to a greater awareness of psychological causes that , I hope, have improved both my writing and my empathy.