Following my interview on Grief and Healing with Dr. Robert Wright and Christine Wright of Stress-Free Now, I’d like to share a bit about my earliest personal experience with the role of writing as a vehicle toward healing. My own “healing narrative,” in addition to writing, includes meditation, physical exercise, wandering in nature and conversation/relationship as practices that nurture healing. An earlier post and the interview are available here, and what’s below makes most sense in the context of the interview.
My earliest memory of intentionally engaging writing as a healing practice (that language emerges through hindsight – at the time I was simply venting my frustration at a perceived injustice) occurred when a Vice-principal told me he would throw me out of school if I didn’t get my hair cut. This was 1970-’71, my junior year in a Catholic High School in New York. I wrote for several weeks in a notebook about how, in light of everything I did at the school (which I’ll spare you here), a focus on my hair was horribly unjust. Today I can embrace both the superficiality of the length-of-hair issue and the developmentally necessary self-expression it represented for the naively obedient-to-authority sixteen-year-old I was.
I learned that expressing my feelings in writing allowed me to vent without fear of repercussion. It also, over time, gave me some distance from what and how I was feeling – what I now understand as the subject-to-object move that is necessary for development. The writing allowed me to look at what I had previously been looking through. I was, over time, gradually able to more clearly see myself, how I felt, the Vice-principal, and our respective roles in a rapidly changing culture. I know now that he was struggling to keep his head above a rising tide of longer hair and loosening ties for the boys and shorter skirts for the girls.
My next significant writing/healing experience began as I attempted to reconcile my athletic and academic experiences – more specifically, doing well academically and getting cut from basketball teams in high school and college while working hard at both, and then being moved by the experiences of the high school student-athletes I coached and taught for 13 years. My notes and scribblings evolved into a book manuscript, The Quality of Effort: Integrity in Sport and Life for Student-Athletes, Parents and Coaches, which was published in 1991, and then revised and re-released in 2013.
When first engaged, the writing often intensifies difficult feelings – we become sadder, or more frustrated or more angry as we re-experience through the written word what needs to be healed. Over time however, writing that reflects and broadens perspectives, as opposed to writing that persistently and only revisits the details of the transgression, illness or injury, leads more often than not to a sense of increased well-being.
I’ll bring this piece to a close with a bow to James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D., Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, and the essential researcher on the role of writing and better health.
Pennebaker, James, W. Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions. New York: Guilford, 1990/1997.
Pennebaker, James, W. and John F. Evans. Expressive Writing: Words That Heal.
Enumclaw, WA: Idyll Arbor, 2014.
See Dr. Pennebaker’s site for more.