Writing Into Healing

Telling your story can change your life.

Posted Mar 03, 2019

David B. Seaburn/Bonnie Seaburn
Source: David B. Seaburn/Bonnie Seaburn

When I was a practicing marriage and family therapist and saw a family or couple or individual for the first time, I would ask them to tell me what their problem was. It was rare for people to say depression or marital conflict, or abuse. Instead they would answer me by telling a story. They would take the scattered speech in their mind and, often for the first time, fashion it into a structure with syntax, and then speak it, and feel it, and wait to see what it meant to the story-listener—me. They would once-upon-a-time their experience, believing that telling a story was the best way to make sense of what they wanted to say about their lives.

Writing is an even finer distillation of that once-upon-a-time urge to use language to make sense of life. When we write, we take the random flow of what is in our hearts and minds and shape it, like a sculptor might shape some formless clay, by putting it down on paper; we look at it, we read it, we reread it, we rewrite it, we throw it away and start again, we scribble and scribble until it’s not so bad, we look for readers, for others to enter this dialogue.

When we write we are building the road as we drive on it, we are creating meaning as we search for it. And the impact is visceral because it is so bone real. I remember completing the first chapter of a novel of mine called Chimney Bluffs in which a tragedy unfolds; a woman loses her son and husband in the most catastrophic way, in a way that I hadn’t completely understood when I started to write. I walked up the basement stairs from my office and my wife looked at me and said, “What’s wrong?” And I said, “I’ve dug myself a hole and I don’t know if I’ll be able to get out of it.”

When we take language in our hands and then muck around making stories that we hope will have meaning, that is the risk we run. And that is also the reward. I felt stunned not only because the story was difficult, but because I was being transformed through the process of writing it, I was being taken to the edge of something painful and forced to look over that edge not because I would find some pat answer but because I would be able to see what I was exploring more clearly. For me, at least, therein lies the healing potential of writing.

In my view, healing comes when the desire to make sense of things couples with language in the process of creating stories or narratives or poems or journal entries or essays or whatever form of written expression you prefer. Let me hasten to add that there is a difference between healing and curing. I am not saying that writing cures, which is to say it makes something go away; what I am saying is that writing can heal, that it can alleviate, that it can diminish, that it can reframe, that it can put things in their place, that it can create a container with which you can carry almost anything that you need to carry, no matter how heavy or painful.

Now is there any real evidence that writing can heal? Is there evidence that using language to make meaning through writing really matters to those who may be suffering? The answer is simple—yes.

Researchers, especially James Pennebaker, have shown that writing for as little as 15 minutes per day can bring about improvements in mental and physical health; patients with hypertension can lower their blood pressure through journaling; writing can increase the number of CD4 helper cells among HIV patients; men with prostate cancer show fewer physical symptoms if they follow a writing program. Writing about yourself and your experiences can improve mood disorders, help reduce symptoms in cancer patients, and improve health after a heart attack. College students participating in a study were asked to write their own life stories and then edit them with the idea that one can change one’s self-perceptions by languaging one’s experience differently. Participants got better grades, better grade point averages and were less likely to drop out of school. In another study, couples were asked to write about a conflict; those who participated in the study showed greater improvement in marital happiness.

Behind this research is the idea that telling one’s story in written form provides the writer with the opportunity to alter his or her narrative and in the process alter themselves. This is the amazing thing: In the end, writing is action. It is movement; it is change; it is renewal and redefinition; it is healing.

And such writing takes a kind of courage. And by courage, I mean the willingness to go out not knowing, reticently eager to approach the darkness, hoping for the light. As James Baldwin said, “You go into a book and you’re in the dark, really. You go in with a certain fear and trembling. You know one thing. You will not be the same person when this voyage is over. But you don’t know what’s going to happen to you between getting on the boat and stepping off. And you have to trust that.”