Expressive Writing for Healing

 

poem
Mary’s poetry, age 16

 

I have a history of writing my way through difficult periods in my life, with angst-ridden poetry in my teens, through a manuscript I completed during my husband’s cancer treatment in 2006, and blogging about grief after my mother’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent death in 2010. I’d assumed the reason I turned to the journaling format as I mourned my husband in 2012 was because it came naturally as a writer. Weeks into my grief journey, however, I wondered how anyone could survive the experience without writing about it.
Through research, I discovered that expressive writing can be a powerful healing tool for anyone, not just writers. Dr. James Pennebaker, Regents Centennial Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, is often lauded as the pioneer in studying expressive writing as a route to healing. He discusses his findings in Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressive Emotions, revealing how short-term, focused writing can have a beneficial effect for anyone dealing with stress or trauma.

pennebaker
In his original study in the late 1980s, college students wrote for twenty minutes on four consecutive days about the most traumatic or upsetting experiences of their lives, while control subjects wrote about superficial topics. Those in the experimental group showed marked improvement in immune-system functioning and had fewer visits to the health center in the months following the study.

Pennebaker’s original expressive writing paradigm has been replicated in hundreds of studies since then, each measuring different potential effects of expressive writing. Not only has subsequent research confirmed his original finding regarding physical well-being, writing about emotionally charged topics has also been shown to improve mental health, reducing symptoms of depression or anxiety. This has proven true in studies with those who have experienced loss, veterans experiencing PTSD, as well as cancer patients. Expressive writing is now an accepted holistic and nonmedicinal method for wellness.

expressive writing
For anyone new to expressive writing, I include these suggestions for beginning the practice in my newly-released journal Expressive Writing for Healing and through the workshops I conduct:
1. Choose a notebook or journal that fits your personality, that you can comfortably write in. A beautiful leather-bound journal might be too intimidating to begin with. Perhaps it will be a journal with a cover that has special meaning to you; a butterfly, dragonfly, or a Bible verse. Or maybe you’ll prefer to begin with a simple notebook with pages that can easily be torn out. Just the physical act of handwriting can be therapeutic, but if you are more comfortable writing on a computer, that works too.
2. There are no rules for journal writing. Cross out sentences, scribble on the sides of the paper, doodle or draw on the pages. Don’t worry about sentence structure or grammar. This writing is for you and not an audience. You can’t help yourself if you’re holding back, afraid to be honest about what you’re feeling. Feelings and emotions can be messy, so it’s perfectly fine if your journal is, too.
3. Write down your dreams, both literal and figurative. Do you have dreams and desires for your future? Write them down. In a couple of years, you may look back and see some of those dreams have become reality. Our subconscious also works hard at processing significant changes in our life. Have you had any particularly vivid nighttime dreams? Write those down, too. I’ve solved daytime dilemmas and come up with wonderful ideas in my dreams, so I like to keep a notebook by the bed to jot them down.
4. If you are reading inspirational books or articles, copy passages or quotes that speak to you. When I read something particularly inspiring or uplifting that resonates with me, I copy pertinent passages or quotes in my journal. I’ve often referred to those past journals and can still find inspiration and encouragement from the words I chose to transcribe. C.S. Lewis once wrote “We read to know we are not alone.”
5. Date your journal entries and try to end them on a positive note. Can you find even one thing to be grateful for each time you journal? By ending your journal entry on a positive note—with words of thanks or perhaps a prayer—you are training yourself to consciously choose joy and gratitude. Some people like to keep a separate gratitude journal, listing little blessings and good things that happen each day. This practice works because it forces you to intentionally focus your attention on grateful thinking, eliminating unwanted, ungrateful thoughts and guarding against taking things or people for granted. You want gratitude to become a habit, so practicing it in your journal helps that happen.

Mary graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a BA in Psychology. A certified grief counselor and founder of the annual Heal Your Grief retreat in Dubuque, Iowa, Mary conducts Expressive Writing for Healing workshops for churches, libraries, community colleges or grief support groups. Contact her at marypotterkenyon@gmail.com for more information. 

 

Merry Mary New Year~ What will 2018 bring?

“I’ll need to go in my office and write for a few minutes at midnight,” I informed my daughters last night as we watched television. “I’d once heard that whatever you are doing at midnight on New Year’s Eve is how you’ll spend the rest of the year, so I want to be writing.”

If that superstition holds true, I’ll be sleeping through most of the year, as I woke up to laughter five minutes after it began. I’d fallen asleep! Turns out, I had that superstition wrong. The point is to actually be doing something related to your employment on the first day of the new year. By doing it well, but not working too hard, you’ll do your job well and not be overworked the rest of the year.

I’m not sure if writing for seven consecutive hours today constitutes working “too hard,” but I hope it bodes well for productivity the rest of the year. While I’ve been employed part-time as librarian since March, it’s my writing and workshops I’ve been concentrating on over the holidays.

A year ago, I was miserable in a job that should have been perfect for me; getting paid to go to work every morning and write as a newspaper reporter.  Now employed part-time, I spend my free mornings writing what I want to write. Last year, that meant finishing up a journal that will be released this April.

Expressive Writing for Healing

Since signing a book contract in November, I’m also working on a book about creativity. The seeds of this book were planted in my heart a long time ago, shortly after my mother passed away in 2010. She left behind many notebooks and journals that made it clear her greatest wish for her children was that they get to Heaven and utilize their talents. Her words became a catalyst for change in my creativity and faith. The winter after her death, I embarked on what would become one of the most creative periods of my life up to that point. In her empty house, I found solitude and solace, a private writing retreat. There, I worked on a book manuscript, wrote articles and essays, prepared couponing and writing workshops and designed a power point presentation on creativity. I also began a file folder on creativity, certain it would someday become a book in honor of my creative mother. It could be said that grief was the impetus to taking my writing seriously, the legacy of my mother as my muse. My work in progress opens with her words.

“Our main purpose on earth is to save our soul and try to do the will of God in all things. That also means using the talents he gave us, and using them for good.”

I pulled out that old file folder in March. By late June, I’d completed the book proposal. A lot of research went on in-between; on the science behind creativity, the link between creativity and health and happiness, and the spiritual aspect of creativity. (After all, how can we talk about creativity without mentioning The Creator?)

creativity book1
A few of my favorites~

I’ve continued doing research as I delve into the different topics. The Hidden Art of Homemaking by Edith Schaeffer and Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle were old favorites that I re-read. World Enough & Time I borrowed from my sister Joan and read on the airplane on the way home from visiting her in Florida. The Art of Creative Living by Thomas Kinkade was one of the last books my mother had read in the summer of 2010.

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And a few more on my to-read list~

By late summer, all this reading and writing about creativity led me to begin a Lifelong Learner’s Creativity group at the library where I work. Many of the women who joined weren’t exactly sure what they wanted to gain from it, but something in the description appealed to a restless, unnamed feeling stirring within them.
Perhaps you were the daydreamer in grade school, the child staring out the window with a head full of stories, or the one reading books from your lap beneath the desk. Then someone snatched the box of crayons from your hand, insisting you’d done it all wrong; that trees weren’t pink, and bunnies weren’t purple, and you’d gone outside the lines. Or maybe they pulled the book out from beneath your desk, telling you it was time for math, not reading. Whether you’re ready to reignite your childhood passion for all things creative, and want your crayons back, or are looking for a way to connect with your inner artist and others who think outside of the box, a new group forming at the James Kennedy Library might be of interest.

Our circle now serves as a focus group of sorts, representing my target audience. We’ve already done several of the activities I suggest in my book. This month we’ll be painting on canvas, and next month we’ll envision what our more creative life looks like with Vision Boards.

In the same vein, I’m incorporating creativity exercises into a “Legacy of Creativity” workshop. While I’ll continue doing writing workshops, I’m looking forward to doing  “Expressive Writing for Healing” and “Legacy of Creativity” workshops in 2018.

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You’ll have to attend one of my creativity workshops to see what the pencils are for~

In the early stages of working on this manuscript, I’m finding the chapters, and the information in them, moving around a bit, which can be disconcerting when you work with an outline. When I told my oldest son, Dan, about this dilemma, he suggested I use index cards and a white board so I could literally move ideas around. He gave me one for Christmas, which is why my kitchen table looked like this morning.

writing at table

So, this is what the beginning of 2018 looks like for me; a new book coming out in April, work on a manuscript that is due the end of May, and workshops and classes scheduled on my days off from the library. Despite nodding off at midnight, I’m fairly certain I won’t be sleeping through 2018.