In 2010, I posted a blog on Psychology Today titled “From Tragedy to Art.” I am excited that a reader found this post over two years later and wanted to know more about how personal narrative and expressive writing can help turn adversity into art. I promised to provide some techniques for doing this…and here, at last, I am making good on that promise.
In the original post, I described the healing power that personal narrative can have in our lives. I used eminent child psychiatrist Dr. Nancy Rappaport’s autobiographical account of her attempt to deal with her mother’s suicide, In Her Wake (Basic Books, 2009), as an example. However, you don’t need credentials like Nancy’s to take advantage of the benefits of expressive writing and personal narrative.
There have now been over 150 studies of the beneficial effects of narrative and expressive writing since James Pennebaker, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin, first introduced the technique in the 1990’s. These studies have shown benefits in both mental and physical health, including reduced sick days, improved immune functioning, and decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety (Frattaroli, 2006; Pennebaker & Chung, 2011).
I discuss why this type of writing is so powerful in my original 2010 post. Other PT bloggers have discussed the topic as well. Here, I would like to provide instructions for how to do the expressive writing exercise. Note that some of the studies of expressive writing have suggested writing for three straight days, some for four days, and some for five. I suggest you begin with three days. If you feel you have more to say on your topic, add another day or two. These instructions are adapted from an exercise in my book Your Creative Brain (Carson, 2010, p. 231) which is, in turn, adapted from Pennebaker’s original expressive writing instructions (Pennebaker. 1997, p. 162):
You will need a writing implement, a pad of paper or a journal, and a stopwatch or timer. Find a quiet spot where you can write uninterrupted. Set the timer for twenty minutes and begin to write using the following guidelines:
For the next three days, write about your very deepest thoughts and feelings about an important issue that has affected you and your life. As you write, really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts. You might write about how your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends, or relatives, are critical to your past, your present, or your future, or how they have affected who you have been, who you would like to be, or who you are now. You may write about the same general issues or experiences on all days of writing or on different topics each day. No one will see your writing but you. Don’t worry about spelling, sentence structure, or grammar. The only rule is that once you begin writing, continue to do so until your time is up.
When your writing is finished for the day, put it up and don’t look at it again. Start your writing tomorrow without reviewing what you wrote today. The value of this exercise is in the actual writing. You never need to look at what you wrote to get the benefit of it.
There are two caveats to this exercise. First, don’t write about something that is so recent and so raw that you risk re-traumatizing yourself by writing about it. If you become terribly upset, please suspend the exercise. It may be the case that you need to put more time between yourself and the uncomfortable topic before you can get the benefits of writing about it. You may want to work through really traumatic material in the presence of a mental health professional. Second, if you feel a little discomfort about the subject matter while you’re writing, that’s normal and is a sign that you’re stretching beyond your mental comfort zone. Personal growth comes from this kind of stretch. The more you write, the more you will be incorporating the topic of your writing into your personal schema. What was once a “sore spot” that you mentally avoided can become an accepted (and perhaps even positive) part of your personal journey.
While this exercise may help you make meaning out of your negative experiences, it may not produce a narrative that you consider a work of art. In my next post, I’ll describe another narrative writing exercise that will help you put an artful story together. In the meantime, let me know how the expressive writing exercise works for you.
Frattaroli, J. (2006). Experimental disclosure and its moderators: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 823–865.
Pennebaker, J.W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science 8(3),162-166.
Pennebaker, J. W., & Chung, C. K. (2011). Expressive writing and its links to mental and physical health. In H. S. Friedman (Ed.), Oxford handbook of health psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Rappaport, N. (2009). In her wake: A child psychiatrist explores the mystery of her mother’s suicide. New York: Basic Books.