Guest Post: Writing, Reading, and Healing

This week, I am focusing on Writing and Healing. Storytelling is a form of expression, communication, and connection. We often tell stories to share our experiences, and we read them to find out that we are not alone. Later in the week, I will post a review of Cheryl Rainfield’s Scars, a novel which includes sexual abuse and self-injury. Rainfield bravely drew on her own experiences to write this book, and I think it is fitting that a review of the book, a guest post from Rainfield, and a giveaway of a signed copy of Scars will be featured this week.

For today, I’d like to share a guest post from Isaiah Vianese, a teacher and poet whose blog features reviews of poetry and music, and often highlights the connection between the two. As a graduate student in English, Isaiah researched Writing and Healing. He was kind enough to join me to share some of his research and thoughts on the field.


I first developed an interest in Writing and Healing as a field when I began to work with developmental writing students. Developmental students often have a deep anxiety about writing that cripples their ability to express themselves on the page. I saw Writing and Healing techniques as possible solutions to unlocking and moving beyond this anxiety. The idea behind Writing and Healing is that expressing one’s pain, secrets, or anxiety prevents burdens from remaining only the writer’s problem by allowing both the writer and his or her audience to share the difficulty of those experiences. Though it does not have a long tradition in composition, Writing and Healing has a deep heritage in counseling, and in turn creative writing.

Though still a small field, Writing and Healing has motivated some interesting research, such as that of James. W. Pennebaker, author of Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions. In his research with the bereaved, he makes the claim that the act of writing seems to alleviate psychological and physiological stress.

Some other findings emerged from this project that surprised us.  First, those who didn’t talk about the death often obsessed or ruminated about it. That is, people who talked about their spouses’ deaths tended not to think about the death as much as those who inhibited talking. Second, ruminating about the death was correlated with poor physical health. (Pennebaker 23)

Creative writers have taken such research to heart. Poet Ellen Bass has long advocated for the use of writing in therapy for sexual abuse victims. In her groundbreaking book, The Courage to Heal, co-authored with Laura Davis, Davis and Bass discuss the use of Writing and Healing workshops to help unblock memories about abuse, freeing the author (159). Bass is just one of a growing number of advocates for Writing and Healing who bridge the worlds of creative writing and therapy.

I also have a theory that reading about difficult experiences can be almost as beneficial as writing about them. If writing about tragedy—abuse, loneliness, insecurity—can free the writer by creating communion with the reader, the converse, I think, can also be true. Perhaps there should be a field called Reading and Healing. For a young reader suffering with thoughts of suicide or self-harm, a novel about a protagonist with similar feelings might help that person not feel isolated. For a lesbian or gay reader coming to terms with his or her sexuality, a book featuring positive portrayals of homosexuality could be very comforting and healing; a poem about coming out of the closet could help that reader have the courage to do the same.

The wonderful thing about both reading and writing—especially about difficulties in our lives and in the lives of others—is that both are transformative acts. Writing a poem about a broken heart can help someone put that old relationship behind him or her. Reading a book about physical abuse might help someone realize that he or she can reach out for services and support. Literature changes our lives; Writing and Healing just reminds us of that, and gives me hope that we, as writers and readers, can help make the world a kinder place.

References

Bass, Ellen, and Laura Davis. The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. 3rd Edition. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994. Print.

Pennebaker, James. W. Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions. New York: Guilford P, 1997. Print.


Isaiah Vianese is the author of the chapbook, Stopping on the Old Highway (recycled karma press, 2009). His poems have appeared in the Ballard Street Poetry Journal, The Oak Bend Review, The Fourth River, and other journals. He lives in New York.

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