… most writers groups moonlight as support groups for the kind of people who think that writing is therapeutic. Writing is the exact opposite of therapy. [Zadie Smith, from interview on Random House site*].
Really!!? It’s a poor arguments that uses the phrase ‘the kind of people who …’. And that suggests underhandness by the choice of the word ‘moonlight’. I wonder if Zadie Smith has reconsidered this rather sneery comment. She is an excellent writer herself, of course, and one who knows about the craft and skill of writing as art. But she should know that for some people writing is therapeutic.
For people who are hurt, traumatised and perhaps depressed, writing is often part of their recovery. Therapeutic writing has a pioneer: James W Pennebaker. It has 30 years of established research and guide books, such as Gillie Bolton et al’s Writing Works. And it has many, many practitioners, who use writing as part of a therapeutic process, in groups and in individual support. We should not be surprised that writing is beneficial – both art and music therapy are well established.
In addition to individual therapeutic writing we can note that it has also been used to help people in groups.
For survivors of torture
At Freedom From Torture there is a writers’ group called Write to Life. The members are refugees and their mentors. The refugees have experienced violence and torture and writing is part of their healing process. FFT also has a bread-baking group, art therapy and a gardening group. Therapeutic activities are not limited to writing and talking. Some of the benefits come from the social aspects of the group’s activities.
For people with dementia
In Reading Writing and Dementia I described how people with dementia have benefited from writing therapies. You can listen to a podcast of an event held by English Pen at Free Word Centre in March 2014: Dementia and the Power of Words.
Gemma Seltzer’s article (in 69 Mslexia March/April/May 2016) describes co-writing with older people in a project funded through Age UK. In the project called ‘This is How I see You’, Gemma talked to many of the people in a day centre and returned with a poetry portrait of each of them. She comments that it raised issues about her right to write about someone else’s experience of dementia.
In prisons, reading and writing can make a huge difference to prisoners’ lives. Many prisoners have very limited literacy skills. There are many projects helping prisoners to learn to read and to read more. The Writers in Prison Network uses reading and writing workshops and mentors to achieve their aims. Their strap line is ‘helping you change for the better’. Here’s a link to a Day in the life of a writer in residence.
How does therapeutic writing work?
It is the process of writing that helps in the therapeutic process. Sometimes it the expression of feelings, too dangerous or painful to say out loud, but needing some articulation. Sometimes it is the act of choosing words, metaphors, analogies that opens up thinking and reactions in the writer. Metaphors and imagery are ways into understanding depression, for example. And the metaphors and images we use, unconsciously, to make sense of our lives, can be revealed and new ones tried out through writing.
Sometimes the act of choosing words, in writing clarifies a thought. A writer can then reflect and learn from their insights, rather than being locked in a maddening repetitive cycle of emotions. How do I know what I think until I write it down?
Sometimes the significance is in being heard – by a group, a therapist or a friend. And sometimes the responses of a group to a writer’s efforts has a therapeutic effect. Having a voice is to have agency and presence in the world.
Publishing therapeutic writing
The projects I’ve described are about the process of writing. This process does not necessarily produce art or even text for sharing. Sometimes writing that began with therapeutic intent emerges to have something to say to others and is worth publiccation.
Not long ago, in January, I wrote a related post called Reading is good for you. Today’s post was conceived as a companion piece, but quickly turned into a post about therapeutic writing.
* I tried to check the source of Zadie Smith’s quotation, but although it is repeated many times on the internet I couldn’t find it.
Over to you
Where do you stand on this issue? Do you have experience of therapeutic writing?
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