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What is ‘writing therapy’ and ‘therapeutic writing’?

Posted Jan 14 2011 8:29am

If you’ve been following my story of the unfolding events in my life over the last couple of weeks you’ll know that, in addition to the other tools in my therapeutic/developmental toolkit, I like to use writing to process difficult or challenging experiences.

Writing and the way that it can help us to make meaning out of experiences which, at certain points in our lives, appear to be utterly devoid of any meaning, really is my  passion and my area of special interest and research.

So I’m excited and delighted to be relaunching Word Sauce and a new online home for my Word Sauce Programme (now available as two self-contained and modular e-courses) right here .

If you’re interested, in any sense – perhaps as someone who longs to write or to write more or as a therapist, educator, coach or healthcare professional – in the connections between writing and wellbeing, please do come and take a look. Right now, there is no other networking site (to my knowledge) where people interested in writing for their personal or professional development can connect, ask questions and exchange experience and ideas.

Over the next few weeks and months, I’ll be posting articles, videos and links to relevant research. There is a Professional Network area for people who use writing in their work with others to share ideas, discuss best practice in our growing field and generally hang out with one another.

The reason that I can offer this for free is because I’m also using the space to host private areas where participants in my courses can download course materials and engage in the course discussions and writing exercises.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be posting more here about writing therapeutically. Today, I thought I’d begin by talking about the idea of a ‘writing therapy.’ What is it exactly? People ask me all the time.

And it’s a very good question. Right now, there is actually no such thing as ‘writing therapy’ or a ‘writing therapist,’ although there are many people working in health care or as private therapists who use writing as part of their work. This usually takes the form of facilitating writing workshop groups in which people engage together in writing exercises and then reflect on their experiences and insights; or in one-to-one work, usually as part of homework tasking or sometimes within the session itself.

In terms of best practice, I think it’s fair to say that there is currently a very rudimentary framework for this work – both practically or theoretically. There are many good accredited courses in art therapy right now, within which practitioners can learn to work using writing.

In the States, the National Association for Poetry Therapy runs an accredited training through which it’s possible to become a ‘poetry therapist’ and offers practitioners supervision and continuing professional development.

In the UK, the organisation LAPIDUS (Creative words for health and wellbeing) currently has around 200 members with interests in writing and also bibliotherapy (the therapeutic ‘prescription’ and reading of texts); whilst NAWE (National Association of Writers in Education) brings together writers involved in teaching creative writing either formally or informally in schools, unversities and in the community.

Within these two groups there has historically been a somewhat political divide between people who feel that writing is not ‘therapeutic’ and should not be taught in that way and those – myself included – who feel that taking a certain approach to writing can be enormously helpful in terms of our personal development and our development as writers.

In my experience, drawing upon tools and approaches that help us to get our feelings into words can help us to extend our writing skills, establish a regular and more fulfilling creative practice and change the way that we read ourselves.

There are many writers doing wonderful work running workshops for the general public in healthcare and educational settings. Some of them, I think, struggle to support workshop participants with the emotions and feelings that can emerge for them because they may not have any formal training in this area. I often meet writers who tell me this. So I think there is a real need for further training and support.

Over the past two decades, the key figure in terms of research into the health benefits of writing has been J. W. Pennebaker. Pennebaker developed a paradigm called ‘expressive writing’ that focuses on the benefits of expressing ourselves and getting our feelings out onto the page. He describes the process of writing as a kind of catharsis and his research has found benefits across a range of contexts, including measuring outcomes such as lowered blood pressure, faster rehabilitation periods after surgery, reports of improved wellbeing after redundancy, etc.

Pennebaker’s paradigm involves asking people to write for twenty minutes about something that is important to them.

Personally, although the research in expressive writing is enormously helpful and has served to establish a basic foundation for the place of writing in healthcare, I think it’s time to go beyond expressive writing to look at the many different writing exercises and approaches we can use; and also at what happens when we begin to shape our writing, to craft it and redraft it, to share it with other people, to read ourselves on the page. If you’re interested in reading a basic overview of my thoughts in this area, you might want to check out a paper I wrote for the Journal of Health Psychology in 2009 on this topic here .

In recent years, Celia Hunt at the University of Sussex has been pioneering research into these aspects of writing. Celia was my  superviser for my doctoral research between 2003 and 2006 and her rigour in researching this field is inspiring. Sadly, since Celia has taken retirement, her unique MA programme in Creative Writing and Personal Development, where I initially studied and then taught, has closed. She tells me that she’ll soon have a web site up and running with links to her current freelance work, books and activities and she’ll be among the people I plan to interview here on the blog and over at Word Sauce .

That’s a mini snapshot of the current situation in terms of writing and therapeutic writing. These days, I like to call the kind of work I do ‘developmental writing’ because it captures the very wide spectrum of reasons why people might want to engage in writing for welbeing.

It’s not always therapy per se (in the way that we tend to connote that word), unless people want to engage in a particular framework with me. It can simply be about exploring feelings, connecting with a sense of creativity and joy, finding your flow.

Over on the Word Sauce site , I’ll be fleshing this picture out, little by little, drawing together lists of resources and practitioners.

Please do come and say ‘hello.’

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