Friday, April 30, 2010

Cracking Open the Heart--The Triad of Healing through Writing

How recently have you cracked open your heart?

One of my favorite--and riskiest--writing classes to teach is called "Writing through Healing, Healing through Writing." It's all about cracking open the heart to reveal the inner story of our lives to ourselves and others. Not an easy process, but oh, so rewarding. I teach this class a couple of times a year at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.

This past weekend I spent a day on the subject of writing through healing with a group of 22 amazing beings, all doing their best to move through life with consciousness. Via a series of writing exercises, we experienced the cracking of the heart and began to explore what possible gifts and learning our particular traumas held.

Not everyone was ready for this. I'm very aware, from my own experiences of cancer and loss of family members, moving and divorce and business failure, how hard it is to write when you're in the midst of BIG STUFF. Deep grief, and the resulting numbness, is not often a great jumping off place for writing. Especially when the transition is not expected or welcome, not something you initiated. But in each of my big changes, the writing has helped me heal.

Why Does Writing Heal?
Fifteen years ago people scoffed at the idea of writing being medically effective. Now we have documented medical studies that show it.
James Pennebaker, currently with the University of Texas Austin, helped start our national awareness about the healing effects of writing. He was one of the forerunners that studied the results of writing regularly on immune function, emotional and mental health, and general well-being.

Another favorite researcher is Dr. Louise DeSalvo, author of Writing as a Way of Healing. DeSalvo details three elements that must be present for writing to heal you. If you just vent on paper or detail all the facts, it won't transform your heart. But if you include these three elements, you have a good chance.

In class we practiced writing (1) how we felt during or before the trauma, (2) how we feel now in comparison, and (3) what specific details about the event we remembered. I offered these three steps one by one, letting the class members sense how the change began to build inside as they added one more of the three elements.

For instance, a writer might list all the minute details of a life-threatening hospital stay. It feels good to get it all out on paper, but this is only one of the three elements. This recording process can take a year, or months, or weeks, depending on how long the healing journey needs to be.

One day, the writer might begin to write about feelings--what life was like before the accident or illness. It seems like another era, to be sure, but memories are there. Perhaps one memory is triggered by a sense. A piece of music, a certain smell, the slap of a screen door against a wood frame, the light on a lake at sunrise. Writing this feeling moment becomes the second in our triad of elements. It also includes the feelings during the trauma, if they can be remembered. It's often hard to write about these, but it is putting the second element in place--even if only a few sentences are put on paper.

The third element is now. How does the writer feel now, looking back on the time that's passed? This requires enough time to have passed! If the trauma just happened, it may not be possible to include this third element. If the daily details of just coping are overwhelming, there's no perspective yet to write about feelings now in comparison to then.

So time must pass. I make sure to mention this in the class. Let time pass, then healing can begin.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1. Make a list of 12 moments in your life that were major turning points for you.
2. Choose one and begin the three elements. First write about the details of that experience, as much as you can remember. Include three of the five senses--smells, sounds, visual details, weather or temperature or season (touch), or taste. These will help awaken the sense memory that makes the details real.
3. Write about how you felt during the change.
4. Write about how you feel now, in comparison.
5. After you finish this exercise, spend a little time musing about what might have happened to crack open the heart a tiny bit. Do you have any new perspectives from the writing?
6. How might this writing be used in your book--either as part of a character's life or part of your narrator's experience, as an anecdote about something your topic addresses?


  1. Great post. I know writing has been a tremendous aide in healing for me. I think I've done this without even realizing it, but I like how you created an actual exercise. I think I need to take a look at things that perhaps I haven't gone through the entire process with, so thank you.

  2. Thanks, Lynn, let me know how it works for you! And as always, thanks for reading the blog.

  3. A mutual friend shared this with several of us. I must say, my own writing began in earnest when I experience a terrible event and needed healing. Thank you for sharing this. By the way, your pictures are beautiful.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  4. Thanks for writing, Nancy. It's very true that profound and terrible events prompt deeper writing. I appreciate your friend sharing this post with you and that you visited the site to tell me.