Writing as therapy, despite Zadie Smith

… 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.

145 old handsLet us make a distinction between writing for publication (art) and writing as therapy and probably not for publication.

Therapeutic Writing

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.

239 The Land Hasani

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.

For prisoners

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?

Creative Writing Class, Southtown USA by Leesa February 2009 via wikicommons.

Creative Writing Class, Southtown USA by Leesa February 2009 via wikicommons.

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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Filed under Reading, Writing

19 Responses to Writing as therapy, despite Zadie Smith

  1. No doubt about it Caroline: in my opinion, writing can be one of the most effective tools on the healing path. The text becomes a mirror for the soul. But I take your point about distinguishing between writing for therapy and writing for publication. (Of course, there is a body of ‘confessional’ literature which may be therapeutic for readers too…). Thank you for these thought-provoking blogs – I’d like to find a moment to ask you about your blog page, how you tag etc. Perhaps a cup of tea when I get back from Spain?

    • Caroline

      Hi Jon,
      good to hear from you. Hope the writing is going well in Spain and I look forward to hearing more when you return.
      Definitely a cup on Totnes tea!

  2. Zadie seems to be oblivious to the many creative writing therapy groups on mental health units and especially ignorant of the evidence base that attests to their usefulness and efficacy.

    People need to stop projecting their own experiences onto others.

    • Caroline

      Succinctly put Nicola. As you say, evidence shows that creative writing therapy groups can be very effective.

  3. Eileen

    This is a timely post as I am just about to do my daily ‘homework’ for my ‘Inklings’ course. Its subheading is: ‘Write your self’.
    I am amazed by the power of this writing, especially the non-stop exercises we do. Without thinking too much, and just letting the pencil travel across the page in a non-stop fashion, astonishing words and ideas emerge. I have been helped by the group especially when in turn we read our pieces, without comment or evaluation. It is so powerful and I am often stunned by what I write and what I hear.
    I like the group support. I would not do this alone.
    I agree with Nicola that people need to stop projecting their own experiences onto others.
    And I like the idea of a cup of tea and sharing these ideas face-to-face.
    Love as always, E x

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this Eileen. I envy you the Inklings course, which you have said a fair bit about to me. I agree, the group aspect is important too. Writers are often unheard. Writing is often unread. One power of the therapeutic writing group is being heard and read.
      C xx

  4. Eileen

    Thanks Caroline for such lovely replies.
    E x

  5. A very interesting post – thank you! I hope you don’t mind me including a link to an online course exploring the use of therapeutic and reflective writing that is running again in April and September – it picks up on many of the ideas of your commenters and puts them in context.


  6. I wonder what she meant by the remark? It seems to me an interesting comment, but gnomic

  7. I’m a Human Givens psychotherapist and also a creative writing tutor. The HG approach to mental well being emphasises our essential human needs, among them being the need to connect with friends, to feel in control, to give and receive attention, to find meaning by doing something that stretches us and which gives us pleasure, to feel safe, to have fun, to be part of a wider community, to feel that we’ve achieved something and to feel valued and respected. If we get these needs met in balance (and use our resources well – among which is our imagination -) we’ll feel well in ourselves. Hmmmm… guess what – a good creative writing group fulfills all these needs. They are wonderful places and definitely contribute to the wellbeing of the participants.

  8. Elizabeth

    Hi . I have rather strong feelings about the distinction between writing for therapeutic purposes, creative writing and writing as an artform or for publication. I was at a writers group which I was checking out for the second time to see if it felt a good fit. The room was small, and the room was full. When it came to sharing successes one participant asked to share a poem about an experience with cancer. Listening to the poems was painful it simp,y reawakened our experiences. Now a good poem has to change the. Way I see something, question it, provide a sense of u universality. Or a sense of thenuminous. It did not and it was not a good poem. But there was no way of saying that to tthe poet/author. I felt raw and exposed in a public place, the poet felt better for venting about really difficult experiences, and the poem was applauded as art which it clearly wasnt. The poem was an experience written in a safe setting where the writing is held on the page. Therapy in all its forms is therapy in its own context and with containment when the boundaries blur there is a diminishing of the value and setting for therpautic writing, and these poems dont find their right home as shared therpautic experiences. They flounder in the world between and can cause distress to others.keep the boundaries I say, and be clear about what is good writing and what is therapeutic. Becuase they all have their place.

    • Caroline

      That was a difficult experience, and I think we find it hard to critique emotional stuff. I hope you have found a group that suits you well now.

  9. Alison Clayburn

    I have tutored creative writing since 1988 (alongside other skills in adult education) and benefitted from my own studies and writing support groups. I think approach and context is all. I would cerainly align myself with the Human Givens ethos and I understand how difficult it is to give a response to a poem expressing profound experience that doesn’t ‘work’ for the listener or reader. Nevertheless we really need to appreciate and understand each individual writer (contributor) and what THEY are there for/trying to acheive at that time. Of course this can change, and sympathetic support in any setting is paramount. Think about how people talk about good teachers or mentors – their qualites as human beings are paramount.Think too about how the best published writing communicates through voicing profound and authentic experience: self-plumbing.

    I do not espouse the either/or dichotomy in writing and if you think about what the ‘great’ writers have done fo us, and listen to successful-in- the-world writers on their process, you know it is often about making sense of/transforming negative experience. My own experience of support groups is that the best combine empathy with what is expressed and thorough, useful technical feedback. It is not hard to do with any form of person based ethos or approach.

    • Caroline

      Thank you for these thoughtful comments Alison. I think that you are right to suggest I have over-emphasised the split between writing as art and for therapy. I do think that writing can be both, but I was wanting to challenge the idea that writing can never be therapy; and that writing groups are ‘moonlighting’ as therapy groups, when many have a very writerly approach to the work of their members.
      Not sure about the phrase ‘self-plumbing’ however.
      Great to have such thoughtful comments on this post.

  10. What can I add to your many comments, Caroline? I’ve enjoyed reading your overview of the therapeutic aspect of writing and what others have said.
    More or less synchronistically to the posting of your blog, I had posted one of my own with the title: Creative and Therapeutic Writing: Overlaps, Links and Differences. My approach is very much a personal one through my own writing. My thinking rests with turning these distinctions of writing genres on their heads and then pondering on the intention of a piece of writing as it evolves. Of course there are distinctions but these rest with practitioners and writers in how they use writing whether for themselves or with others. I find myself arguing with myself about the name ‘therapeutic writing’, mostly because therapy as a word has become debased – as Zadie Smith’s glib comment shows all too well. My approach to writing is at monicasuswin.wordpress.com

    • Caroline

      You have managed to add another dimension to this discussion. Thank you so much. Letting a piece of writing evolve is a good idea.
      Often I have a particular genre or purpose in mind: a blog post, a short story, an exercise of some kind. But therapeutic effects can creep in to those without any intention from me!
      I’m going over to look at your post later on today.
      Thank you so much for your comment.

  11. I do think therapeutic unintended effects are always potentially going to creep into any piece of writing. That’s the nature of its power. I’m not sure if you’ve read my piece/blog yet but I’ll be really interested in any comments you might make too. best wishes Monica

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