Some of us think that writing is only for writers. But writing is for all of us. As Julia Cameron notes in her book The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life, “I believe we all come into life as writers.”
Writing can be beneficial for all of us, because it can be therapeutic. One of the most powerful parts of therapy is cultivating the ability to observe our thoughts and feelings, said Elizabeth Sullivan, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Francisco. And that’s what writing helps us do.
“Most of us do not think in complete sentences but in self-interrupted, looping, impressionistic cacophony,” she said. Writing helps us track our spinning thoughts and feelings, which can lead to key insights (e.g., I don’t want to go to that party; I think I’m falling for this person; I’m no longer passionate about my job; I realize how I can solve that problem; I’m really scared about that situation.)
Writing is “speaking to another consciousness — ‘the reader’ or another part of the self. We come to know who we really are in the present moment,” she said.
Writing also creates a mind-body-spirit connection, she said. “When you use your hands to pen or type something directly from your brain, you are creating a powerful connection between your inner experience and your body’s movement out in the world.”
We hold worries, fears and memories in our bodies, Sullivan said. When we use the body in positive ways — such as dancing or having sex — we stay in the present moment, we inhabit our bodies, and we can heal ourselves, she said.
“Writing is a small movement but it is incredibly powerful when you are writing down what is in your mind.”
Here are three types of writing you can try:
Free write. Free writing or journaling is simply writing what’s on your mind. It’s letting it all hang out without censoring yourself. According to Sullivan, this could be: “Today I woke up and found the car window smashed and I wondered if the glass replacement guys go out at night and do it. I texted that to Eli who called me right away to say ‘that sucks.’ I love him.”
It also could be: “I hate everyone. Why the hell do I bother to get out of bed? Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap.”
Some of Sullivan’s clients worry that if they have thoughts they don’t like (or thoughts that scare them) they must be “true.” So they try not to think them. However, it’s much more helpful to “acknowledge and accept our thoughts and feelings; paradoxically, this often makes them shift into something new,” she said.
Pen poetry. “Poetry is a natural medicine; it is like a homeopathic tincture derived from the stuff of life itself ––your experience,” writes John Fox in Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making.
But it also can be intimidating. Here’s an exercise from Fox’s book to ease into writing poetry:
- Make a list of images from your childhood. Pick the ones that have positive memories. “Treat them like snapshots you might look through after many years,” Fox writes. Recall the sensations you experienced — what you saw, smelled, heard, felt and tasted. “Absorb the image into your body — feel as if you are reliving the remembered image.” Describe your experience quickly.
- Write down the emotions associated with these images, such as “wonder about flight” or “love and sadness for the hurt of a creature.”
- Write a poem using the details you’ve collected. “Stay in touch with your senses as you focus on your image; listen for the voice of the image; and then express the feeling drawn from your primary image.” Show the feeling in your poem instead of labeling it as happy or sad.
Sullivan suggested writing your poetry in a very small notebook, on the bus or train. Or write an email to yourself, she said. Essentially, “break writing down into lighthearted, short stretches of time.”
Compose a letter. Sullivan suggested writing a short letter to a loved one. Imagine this person has written to you and asked you: “How are you doing, really?” Another exercise is to “write to someone with whom you have ‘unfinished business’ without sending it.” The goal is for you to gain a clearer understanding of your own thoughts and feelings about the person, she said.
What makes writing therapeutic is telling the truth, Sullivan said. And as Cameron writes in The Right to Write:
We should write because it is human nature to write. Writing claims our world. It makes it directly and specifically our own. We should write because humans are spiritual beings and writing is a powerful form of prayer and meditation, connecting us both to our own insights and to a higher and deeper level of inner guidance as well… We should write because writing is good for the soul… We should write, above all, because we are writers whether we call ourselves writers or not.