Writing for Healing and Making Meaning

. . . writing is the slow, cumulative way of accepting your life as valid, of accepting yourself over a lifetime, of realizing that your life is important. And it is. It’s all you’ve got. All you ever had for sure. – Richard Hugo

I first started keeping a journal in college and have maintained that practice for over thirty five years. Expanding into creative writing followed as a natural progression of this practice of putting pen to paper along with a deep love of books and working with words. Besides the experience of deep satisfaction that comes from engaging the creative process, writing has also served my personal growth in profound ways.

Journaling differs from creative writing in that it is more a conversation with yourself. It provides a way of making sense of your life experiences and becomes a form of self analysis. Creative writing allows you to more deeply access the unconscious and the insights of your Self. The benefits of engaging the writing process on these different levels are many.

James W Pennebaker, PhD, who spent years researching the healing effects of writing. describes in his book, Opening Up, what many people who have kept a journal often discover on their own, “that if we can create a cohesive personal narrative of our lives and if we can link up our emotions with specific events, then we have the power to take control of how those emotions and events affect our lives.” As Isak Dinesan, the author of Out of Africa, said “All suffering is bearable if it is seen as part of a story.”

Evidence for the positive effects writing has on our physical health is found in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that showed, “that merely writing about past stressful life experiences results in symptom reduction among patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis.”

Poet May Sarton said that “… the only way through pain … is to go through it, to absorb, probe, understand exactly what it is and what it means …. Nothing that happens to us, even the most terrible shock, is unusable, and everything has somehow to be built into the fabric of the personality ….” Through writing, we can find order and meaning in everything that has happened to us. Whichever form our writing takes: journaling, poetry, memoir, fiction, or essays; it has the power to heal us and to help us grow.

Recently in one of my ongoing writing classes a participant new to the writing process exclaimed with a sense of happy surprise, “I’m learning so much about myself” I know I am always having that experience when I write. Robert Frost said, ” No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” One of the greatest joys, I get out of writing is when I uncover ways of seeing or perceive that I wasn’t consciously aware of. I’ll stop in the middle of reading over something I had just written and say to myself, “wow I didn’t know I thought that.” It feels good to grasp the deeper threads of meaning in our lives. Writing helps us to form connections with what is going on inside us and with others, allowing us to understand who we are and where and why we do the things we do. It can help us gain a new perspective on habitual behaviors and subconscious patterns that get in the way of living our full potential. Writing can help us to get clear and make the constructive changes in our lives.

There are lots of different ways to use writing for healing and self discovery. You can start by writing about a specific event or situation or relationship. Or begin by writing a letter (that does not get sent) to a person you are having a conflict with in order to more deeply understand what you are really feeling about the situation. Or try writing a dialogue with a pain in your body and ask it what it needs from you as way to tapping the body’s natural ability to heal.

You need to write freely without censoring or worrying about punctuation, spelling or grammar or even how it sounds. Write for ten to twenty minutes without stopping. Don’t edit. Simply write and see what comes out. By allowing what wants to be written without trying to consciously control the flow, you tap into the wisdom of the unconscious and open yourself to the healing power within.

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