Friday, November 6, 2009

Three Aspects that Make Writing Healing--And Create Good Books

This past weekend I taught my trio of one-day workshops at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. One of them, the most difficult to teach and the most rewarding for me, is called "Writing through Healing, Healing through Writing."

Twenty-eight writers of all skill levels, genres, and ages gathered in one of the Loft's beautiful classrooms for a day. We explored what made our writing go deep enough to be healing--for us as well as for a reader.

I've taught the class for about ten years, using ever-growing research about the healing effects of certain types of writing. James Pennebaker, from the U of Texas, Austin, launched my interest in this topic. He clued me into the amazing medical documentation on creative writing's benefit in reducing physical illness and emotional stress.

One of my favorite books on this subject is Louise De Salvo's Writing as a Way of Healing. De Salvo talks about Pennebaker's research and how important it is that writers use all three of the elements that make writing actually heal. I've journaled for years and was very interested in hearing that venting into my journal, for instance, doesn't have healing effects on me. It's good for processing, not healing.

To heal us and touch the reader, writing must have:

1. specific details (senses-rich images, rather than concepts)
2. how the writer or narrator felt about the event when it happened
3. how the writer or narrator feels about the event now

De Salvo cites the research of Pennebaker and others, noting that it is the combination of these three elements that makes writing a healing process. Not one alone, not even two.

In my workshop this weekend, writers asked themselves which of these three aspects they naturally favored. A person who writes about thoughts and feelings will use doorways #2 or #3 to enter her story--reflective, conceptual writing. The third aspect, specific image-rich detail, is the missing element. When it's added to the piece of writing, the magic happens. The writing becomes healing. Same with a writer who lists events and specific details with no trouble. But the missing element is the feeling, the "what does this mean to me?" analysis of the experience. Some writers believe that the events should speak for themselves. But there needs to be some reflective writing to make it mean something to both writer and reader.

Why don't writers naturally incorporate all three aspects, giving themselves a healing boost from their own art?

Because it causes them to re-experience strong events, re-feel the strong feelings.

I wrote many times about my experience with cancer. I could reflect for pages on my feelings and thoughts about what happened. But it wasn't until I began to add the specific details--describe the room and the chair where I had chemotherapy, tell about the movie I went to each week as a treat to keep myself from throwing up too much, talk on the page about what it looked like when I lost my eyebrows--did I begin to heal.

This Week's Exercise
List 10 turning points in your life, events or moments when you experienced a big change. Pick one. Set a kitchen timer for 20 minutes. Write about it as it comes, then read it over. Ask yourself which of these three doorways did you go through? See if you can fill in the missing aspects. Does it make the writing more healing for you?


  1. Brilliant. Finally, the curtain drops and I understand why some of my writing "feels" whole, while some doesn't; and why most of my journal entries feel hollow and why some rare ones don't. And if I finally accept the fact that I write for my own healing (and that is okay), then your three simple elements are excellent stars to steer by. Thank you, Mary, for pulling this all together into a cohesive explanation. Best, Barb