Friday, October 7, 2022

Three Aspects to Create Healing via Writing--and an Exercise to Try This Week

Writing being one of the healing arts is not a new idea--there's been research since the 80s on this topic. James Pennebaker, from the University of Texas, Austin, launched my personal interest in this topic when I faced a life-threatening illness in the late nineties. Reading his and others' books on healing via writing clued me into the amazing medical documentation that's accumulated.

A favorite book I've mentioned before on this blog is Louise De Salvo's Writing as a Way of Healing. De Salvo reviews the three aspects that actually make writing a healing experience. They are key.

Before I learned about them, I thought just processing (on paper, with a friend, with a therapist) was enough. I've journaled for years and believe in its power. I've done the Artist's Way morning pages and many other techniques. But I was very interested to hear from De Salvo's book that simply venting (into my journal, into a friend's ear) doesn't have healing effects.

In other words, processing by itself is not necessarily received by the body and psyche as healing.

To heal, writing must contain:

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

To back this up, 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.

I had to test this out.

I found myself favoring one of the three aspects when I wrote about a traumatic event. When I quizzed other writers, I found the same. Very few were naturally at ease with all three. 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. Or 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, will not experience the impact of this synergy until that third aspect is added. These writers may feel that the events should speak for themselves. But there needs to be some reflective writing to create the healing transformation, according to De Salvo.

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, for instance. 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 via the writing.

In some of my classes, I like to give this exercise to introduce writers to the power of combining these three aspects of writing to allow healing. Here are the steps if you want to try it this week:

List 10 turning points in your life, events or moments when you experienced a big change.
Pick one.
Set your phone alarm for 20 minutes.
Write about this turning point in any way it comes forward. Stop when your alarm rings.
Read it over. Aloud is often fruitful, if you have privacy.
Ask yourself which of these three aspects you used in the writing. Which is missing?
Add to the piece, filling in the missing aspect(s).
Notice yourself the rest of that day or evening, maybe for a few days. Did the writing, using all three aspects, brining any interior changes? Did you see the event differently? Did it make the writing more healing for you?

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