Writing as Therapy

For the sake of variety, I had hoped that I wouldn’t start this final blog entry of the semester with a personal anecdote, as I’ve done in many of my past posts. But the reason I even considered the topic I decided to write about here is quite personal.

Over the last few months I’ve been dealing with the serious illness of someone in my immediate family. Something that has struck me in going through this experience has been the extent to which the act of communicating can be a trigger for emotional release. I’m thinking of “communicating” here fairly narrowly as being on the outgoing or receiving end of verbal or written communication. What I’m talking about is how you might be more or less holding it together, emotionally speaking, until you talk to someone about what’s going on or read the supportive words of dear friends. At least that has been my recent experience. What I haven’t tried out is the potentially therapeutic outlet that writing about difficult experiences appears to offer a lot of people.

I think there’s a general notion in our culture that for a lot of professional writers, putting pen to paper offers them a crucial emotional vent (like music for musicians, painting for visual artists, etc.—though I think most people would exclude academics and journalists from this group). I’d imagine that people who practice regular journaling might affirm that the emotional benefits of writing about one’s personal travails are in fact available to the wider public. Personally, I haven’t practiced the type of “expressive” writing that I think could yield such benefits. For the better part of ten years I’ve focused almost exclusively on the research-based writing that is standard in grad school, neglecting most other literary modes. I’ve been thinking about the therapeutic value of writing recently as I’ve come across memoirs by people who have gone through serious illness and as I started reading a friend’s blog dedicated to her own health issues. So, for this post I figured I’d do a quick web search for “writing therapy” to see what the popular wisdom of the internet has to say about it. Here’s some of what I turned up:

Psychologist James Pennebaker appears to have done important research that sought to investigate the positive effects of expressive writing. In a widely cited article published in 1997, he compared the long-term effects on a group of subjects who wrote extensively about traumatic events to a control group that wrote about “superficial” topics. According to one assessment:

If you followed the people in these studies [who wrote about personal trauma] over time, they reported fewer illnesses, they went to the doctor less often, and they suffered fewer symptoms of depression in the future. They were less likely to miss work and school, and their performance at work went up. These effects lasted for months and years after writing.

A 2008 study on cancer patients who were involved in an expressive writing program found that for a sizable percentage of them writing about their illness brought about some improvement in their quality of life. On a more anecdotal level, a search for the tag “writing therapy” on The Huffington Post brings up a number of interesting articles describing different people’s experiences with using writing as a tool to overcome some sort of difficult experience.

Since the rise of the internet age, blogs have become the preferred medium for people of all stripes to share their personal turmoil. By 2005, a Washington Post article reported that blogs combined the benefits of writing about one’s problems with the possibility of forming virtual communities. An AOL study cited in the piece indicated that “nearly half of bloggers consider it a form of therapy.” Unsurprisingly, blogs about people’s experiences with serious illness—written by themselves or by their relatives—make up a sizable portion of the blogosphere.  Early on, hospitals began featuring patient blog postings on their websites, apparently recognizing both the therapeutic value to patients but also their marketing potential. Over the last decade, there have been several efforts to scientifically explain the potential benefits of blogging.  A recent study on teenage blogging concluded:

the engagement with an online community allowed by the blog format made it more effective in relieving the writer’s social distress than a private diary would be.

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In the process of writing several drafts of this post I wrestled with whether or not I wanted to test out some of the ideas outlined above by writing something more confessional. That didn’t feel like a risk I was ready to take yet. But in versions in which I specified up front the “illness” (cancer) and the “someone” (my mom), I was again caught off guard by the emotional power that merely typing characters into a word-processor can effect. I probably won’t start up a blog, but I may do well to practice more of the low-stakes writing us peddlers of Writing Across the Curriculum philosophy tend to preach.


  1. Christine A. Pinnock says:

    Wow, this was a really powerful post Joshua, and thank you for writing it. My mother passed away now 13 years ago from breast cancer and I was her primary caregiver before she passed so I know how hard it is to see your mother fight for her life. I’m so moved by this because during my adolescent years that were filled with angst and god knows what else, my mother would often say to me: “why don’t you write?” My older sister had a journal and she thought journaling would help me and it did. I became a poet, I wrote for my junior high newsletter, became a performance poet and writer in college. Writing is a bug that once it gets into your system, it never leaves. I didn’t write for years when I started my doctoral program for fear that DuBois, Boas, Hegel, Weber, and Marx wouldn’t absorb into my anthropological analytical brain. I realized 2 years ago how crazy that was to become a stranger to the one thing that gave me freedom and confidence particularly when the doctoral experience left me feeling less than human at some points. I’m sitting here smiling, because your post is a reminder of the gift my mom gave me, that will never leave me. It’s a way of life that means more to me than being an anthropologist. I am a writer, and writing sustains me. When my mother was first diagnosed, I gave her Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals, she read some of it, but I don’t think it helped her in the way I thought it would. She had her own journals and could still write, and she did. During the last year of my mother’s life all she wanted to do was pick up a pen and write. Her hand was too swollen from lymphodema to do so, and I was too tired to do it for her. At the time, I fully recognized how hard her struggle was not being able to pick up a tool to help you express your private thoughts. I took it for granted then, now having lived a bit more I take nothing for granted. Writing is a luxury, a privilege, and a precious gift. I write for myself, but am fully cognizant that there are people out there who are too tired, sick, busy to write. Writing helped me heal after my mother transitioned. Years ago I went through her things, I found several expensive pens she left behind and I wrote an essay about it. After the dissertation, I may actually publish it because it was cathartic for me. Joshua do what works for you, just know that thinking about writing is a process that can be very cathartic. Your mom is fighting cancer and in many ways, knowing that she is dealing with this disease, you’re fighting it too.

  2. Mari says:

    Joshua, thank you for a beautiful article. I’ve shared it on my company’s Facebook page and will put a link to it on my site’s, Journaling Tips page. Any time you’d like to do a guest blog post about your writing therapy journey, I’d love to have you on our Journal Writing Power Blog. If you really want to experience the infinite benefits of writing therapy, do your writing pen to page every day and you’ll discover who really lives in your body! :) WriteON!

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