Mind Matters — Write for Your Life

In the sturm und drang of adolescence, I remember sitting alone on the living room sofa or in my bedroom writing about my wretched state of being in stream of consciousness fashion. After doing this for twenty minutes or so, I could hardly read these tomes and so would tear them up with a “blah”! however, I felt relief in pouring out my soul on paper and could get back to doing homework with a clearer head.

It was not until many years later as a psychologist did I come upon the research of psychologist James Pennebaker on Writing To Heal. My intuition as a teen to scribble down my feelings corroborated with Pennebaker’s discovery that expressive writing can help a person feel less negative. Sandra Marinella, in her book, The Story You Need To Tell: Writing To Heal from Trauma, Illness, or Loss, revisits Dr. Pennebaker’s research and gives us an outline of the Pennebaker writing process.

First, find a safe and comfortable place to write. Then, choose some difficult feeling or experience that has affected you deeply. With no holds barred, just let your story unfold, writing non-stop for at least twenty minutes. Pennebaker notes to do this for four days straight. You many continue writing about the same event/experience for the four days, or you may choose different themes. Consider, if the topic remains constant, how this event has changed your life. Attempt to write a complete experience and reflect on your work each time to see if you’ve gotten to your deepest thoughts and feelings.

Marinella, herself a writing teacher, chose to write about healing after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Not long after, her adult son was diagnosed with testicular cancer! In her book, she not only describes her own journey writing her way through loss and struggles, but also gives insight into how others have used writing to face their difficulties as well. Of the numerous examples she reports is the story of a father whose six-year-old son died in the Sandy Hook Shooting. This father cherishes precious moments with his son by writing letters for the Sandy Hook Promise.

We all have stories arising from whatever experiences we claim as our own: family of origin difficulties; interpersonal conflicts; sexual or physical abuse; past traumatic stress of soldiers, refugees, rape victims; the death of loved ones; illness; miscarriages; and on and on.

For many years I have urged clients to journal, to write out their feelings and take the time to put on paper what’s churning in the brain: free up those thoughts. I’ve also suggested to clients upset with someone to write out all their feelings in a letter that will never be sent.

Marinella considers that there are stages to writing and healing. First, to experience the pain and the grief: it may not be possible at first to write or talk about the traumatic event. (I remember a lovely woman whose daughter died in a car crash. She came to the grief support group and sat in silence for almost a year before she could utter a word.) Eventually, the silence is broken and we are able to speak and to write. Writing helps piece together “the shattered story.” New meaning is found from the brokenness and the story is transformed.

Marinella’s book is a thoughtful and caring guide on how to embrace difficult feelings and experiences by engaging the “power of the pen.”