Expressive writing is a cornerstone of wellness and writing connections. If you are not familiar with it, you may be asking: "Just what is expressive writing, and how is that related to my wellness?"
Expressive writing comes from our core. It is personal and emotional writing without regard to form or other writing conventions, like spelling, punctuation, and verb agreement. Turn off your resident Dr. Comma Splice. Expressive writing pays no attention to propriety: it simply expresses what is on your mind and in your heart.
Expressive writing pays more attention to feelings than the events, memories, objects, or people in the contents of a narrative. Like narrative writing, expressive writing may have the arc of a story: beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes expressive writing behaves like a story that swells to crest and resolves itself on firm ground. But often, expressive writing is turbulent and unpredictable, and that is OK. Expressive writing is not so much what happened as it is how you feel about what happened or is happening.
The connection between expressive writing and wellness has been notably explored by Dr. James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin.1 In his landmark research project, Pennebaker developed an expressive writing prompt to uncover the potential health benefits of writing about emotional upheaval. Pennebaker's research project has been replicated many times with positive outcomes. The prompt and subsequent studies are often referred to as the Pennebaker Paradigm.
Become Your Own Researcher
To help you get a better understanding of expressive writing and what it can do for you, I am asking you to become your own researcher. Try out this exercise and report on your findings by commenting on this blog post.
Please read these general instructions completely before you begin writing.2
1. Time: Write a minimum of 20 minutes per day for four consecutive days.
2. Topic: What you choose to write about should be extremely personal and important to you.
3. Write continuously: Do not worry about punctuation, spelling, and grammar. If you run out of things to say, draw a line or repeat what you have already written. Keep pen on paper.
4. Write only for yourself: You may plan to destroy or hide what you are writing. Do not turn this exercise into a letter. This exercise is for your eyes only.
5. Observe the Flip-out Rule: If you get into the writing, and you feel that you cannot write about a certain event because it will push you over the edge, STOP writing!
6. Expect heavy boots: Many people briefly feel a bit saddened or down after expressive writing, especially on the first day or so. Usually this feeling goes away completely in an hour or two.
The Pennebaker Writing Prompt (Write for 20 minutes)
In your writing, I would like you to really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts about the most traumatic experience in your entire life. You might tie this trauma to other parts of your life: your childhood, your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends, relatives, or other people important to you. You might link your writing to your future and who you would like to become in your future, or to who you have been, or who you are now. Not everyone has had a single trauma, but all of us have had major conflicts or stressors, and you can write about these as well. All your writing is confidential. There will be no sharing of content. Do not worry about form or style, spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, or grammar.
Give yourself some time after writing to reflect on what you have written and to be compassionate with yourself. If you are worried about someone else seeing what you wrote, put your writing in a safe place, or simply tear it up or shred it. But if you are not concerned that someone may read what you wrote, you may want to keep your writing, so you can come back to it after you have completed the four-day exercise.
A week or two after you have completed the four days of expressive writing, you may want to reflect on what you notice in your life, how you feel, and how you behave. And perhaps you will share what you discovered with our readers.
1) James Pennebaker's Web Site: http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu/homepage/faculty/pennebaker/Home2000/JWP…
2) Pennebaker, JW. (2004) Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval. (18-26)