“Writing was supposed to make me feel better,” my friend said one day at dinner, her shoulders hunched. “But now I feel worse.”
She had been journaling about her family every day for a month at the suggestion of a spiritual teacher who said writing had been shown to be healing. I was visiting her for the weekend, and we were swapping stories about work, dating, and life.
“What have you been writing exactly?” I asked. “Negative stuff?” She nodded. “Are you writing about anything else? Like what you’ve learned, or what you’re grateful for?”
Her brow creased. “No. [Name] told me to write down everything that makes me angry or frustrated with my family. That’s what I’ve been doing.”
I winced. “That kind of writing made me very sick.”
I started writing my memoir in 2006. After banging out more than two thousand words each day, I dissolved into tears while bingeing on leftover Halloween candy from an orange plastic pumpkin. Before bed, I pushed out another few hundred words of very vulnerable prose and then started over again the next day. Soon I was admitted to the hospital with chest pain that turned out to be stomach acid so bad it almost became an ulcer. After that, I slowly learned better ways to write about trauma. I learned that a certain kind of writing is healing, but wallowing in the negative—on the page or elsewhere—isn’t healthy.
I told my friend about one of my favorite writing books, Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives. DeSalvo talks about a groundbreaking study led by social psychologist James Pennebaker and his associate Sandra Beall, who studied the healing potential of writing with four test groups who journaled for fifteen minutes a day, four days in a row. The first group wrote about any subject in a neutral way, while the other groups recalled a traumatic incident. The second group vented about this incident, and the third group simply described what happened.
It was only the fourth group—which described the traumatic incident while connecting thoughts to feelings—that displayed measurable health benefits six months later with fewer doctor visits and increased peace of mind. This same group experienced increased stress during the week they wrote due to the nature of their topics, highlighting the need for life writers to practice self-care.
So, what makes a piece of writing healing as opposed to simply venting? The following tips are based on the process DeSalvo recommends and what I’ve learned along the way.
Tips for Life Writing:
- Write in scene. Describe the incident as a fully fleshed out scene with dialogue, setting, and bodily descriptions. Where are the characters and what are they doing? Use sensory description (i.e. the senses: smell, taste, touch, hear, see) and vivid details. Facial expression and physical ticks can hint at emotion.
Describe a traumatic incident cinematically, as if it were playing out as a movie. You can write in the third person if that’s easier. Instead of saying “I stepped backwards,” slow down and paint a picture in the reader’s mind: “The girl backed away, her jaw gaping and hands grasping at the empty air behind her.”
DeSalvo talks about how this kind of writing offers distance and a new perspective. By writing in scene, you can watch a traumatic incident play out as if it happened to someone else, which helps elicit empathy for your younger self. I’ve used a similar practice in other healing modalities, such as The Presence Process, where you picture your younger self experiencing the pain currently raging through your body and you offer the solace of a hug.
- Describe your thoughts and feelings about the incident at the time. Try thinking of your younger self as a character in a story. How did they experience this event? How did they feel in their body?
In my childhood memoir, I wrote a scene when I was ten where my mother hits me for the first time. Following DeSalvo’s advice, I described how Mom came home from a night of dancing, paid the babysitter, and then screamed at me for not feeding my wailing baby sister before physically advancing on me.
I noted my thoughts and feelings: Why did my mother expect this of her ten-year-old daughter but not the babysitter she’d hired? I felt terrified and helpless and wondered how I deserved this.
- Reflect on the event now. What new information have you learned about the people involved, the context, or yourself? Do you understand anything better? How do you feel about the incident now? Connect thoughts to feelings. If this is challenging, try completing these sentences: “At the time, I felt/thought…Now, I understand…” Try writing in the third person to gain some distance.
In the scene with my mom coming home from the bars, I reflected that she had been a single mother living on welfare with a newborn and a pre-teen, and she would soon be diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. While this doesn’t excuse how she treated me, I now understand that she was dealing with a lot of external factors that I hadn’t been privy to.
I can also consider societal context—why hadn’t there been more support for single mothers in Canada, especially ones living on social assistance? Why did it take so long for doctors to diagnose and offer support for an illness many had suggested was “all in her head”?
- Go beyond venting. Explore how this event has shaped you. In what ways might you feel grateful for this challenging experience? Can you find anything good here, or can you create any meaning from your experience?
One New Year’s Eve I came across this journal prompt: Describe one good thing that happened during your childhood.
Nothing good happened, I thought, my face flushing. It was horrible.
But I was determined to finish my annual writing assignment, so I free-wrote an answer. Memories flooded me. Fun summer camps and ice cream treats with my aunt. My dad buying me Archie comics as we drove across the country to visit family.
I realized I did have a good childhood—and a bad one. It was complicated. There were things to mourn, but also things to celebrate. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I penned this discovery into my hardback journal.
This realization proved to be incredibly healing. The story I told about my life shifted from, “I was abused; I am broken,” to “I got battered, and it sucked—and it often still sucks a lot. But I had good experiences in my childhood, too. I am a survivor.”
Therapeutic writing organizes our thoughts and feelings about a traumatic event in a way that can offer closure, and this new understanding leads to healing and emotional growth. As Virginia Woolf wrote in her essay, A Sketch of the Past, “It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me.”
These techniques also lead to reflection, a key element in memoir. To produce personal narratives that will be helpful to others, it is necessary to first process our own trauma, ideally with the support of a therapist. Then we can add that new insight to the narrative.
I often think back to that conversation with my friend. “Why doesn’t everyone know this?” she responded. “And why would anyone recommend writing without this sort of guidance?” I agree that this should be common knowledge for anyone writing with the intention to heal.
Writing with these elements in mind has helped me better understand how trauma continues to impact my life. As I observe in one of my personal essays, “When I see enough distance on the page for a more literary voice to emerge, I know I’ve reached some sort of personal healing.”
- How to write about trauma in a safe(r) way.
- How to revise and share writing about trauma in a safe(r) way
- DeSalvo, Louise. Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives; First Beacon Press, 1999
- Pennebaker, James W. and Evans, John. Expressive Writing: Words That Heal. Idyll Arbor, 2014.