How writing helps when you’re challenged

More than three months into the pandemic restrictions and social isolation, these continue to be unusual and unsettling times.

In March, shortly after the near country–wide shut down, I sent out an email – midpoint in my usual a once-a-month newsletter pattern – sharing some of the resources for writers that were appearing online. I was not alone in as I considered how people could use writing to face the upsets. I posted a blog on “Writing Challenges for Your Life,” including practices like Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” and Cheryl Richardson’s “Life Map.”

A recent published in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), by Elizabeth Bernstein, “Feeling Upset? Try Writing,” offers another option – expressive writing.

This expressive writing is different from the type I discussed in the overview of the history of grammar instruction, which included its relation to theories and practices of writing pedagogy.

The expressive or empowerment writing approach in contemporary composition instruction resulted from efforts of many writing teachers, like Peter Elbow (Being a Writer and Writing Without Teachers), to encourage students to free write in order to find and express their individual “voices.”

It was actually a revival of earlier expressive writing pedagogy, showing that the old is new again: In the late nineteenth century, “[p]ersonally-oriented writing on the college level appears to have gained a foothold” and became a popular practice by the early twentieth century, writes Candace Spigelman in her essay, “Teaching Expressive Writing as a Narrative Fiction.”

Spigelman goes on to elaborate how this expressive writing developed “in response to a series of historical and social changes: a change in literary taste, influenced by the Romantic movement, to a preference for a depiction of everyday experience expressed in everyday language; a change in the center of knowledge, from divine or external truth to the individual’s inner consciousness; and in education, a shift to a Dewyian* emphasis on the individual student” (121). [*“Dewyian” refers to John Dewey (1859-1952), an influential American philosopher, psychologist, and educational and social reformer.]

The later twentieth century expressive writing pedagogy also reflected the time period – the social revolution movements in the 1960s and 1970s, where students were encouraged to discover their unique voices in order to express their own opinions and to dissent.                                                         

Quoting Donald Stewart, Spigelman notes how this pedagogy was furthermore informed by the desire “to escape from the pasteurized and pedestrian prose … [students] had been conditioned to produce in [standard] writing classrooms,” particularly “the hollow and formulaic five paragraph theme” (121).

In several earlier posts, I have talked about the practice and benefits of free-writing, in becoming a writer, finding your voice, and using rhetorical devices for revision. Regular free-writing, the basis of my 21 Day Challenge: Writing More, Writing Faster©, has been promoted by many as a way to break out of old, stale, and unoriginal prose and to develop a prose style that is insightful, rhythmic, authentic, and compelling. Advocates include Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones), Robert Ray (Weekend Novelist series), Tara Gray (Publish and Flourish), and Joan Bolker (Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day), all of whom figure in the posts listed above.

The expressive writing detailed in the recent WSJ article is a type of free-writing, but it’s a very specific technique used for specific reasons: “It’s different from just writing in a journal. People need to reflect honestly and thoughtfully on a particular trauma or challenge, and do it in short sessions – 15 to 20 minutes for a minimum of three days is a good place to start.” (This is the beginning to establishing a practice and pattern as we do in the 21 Day Challenge sessions.)

As in the free-writing exercises we know from the Writing Workshops, people write, not worrying about spelling or grammar or sharing the work.

The goal of the expressive writing exercises is to find meaning in a traumatic and upsetting events or to face something troubling you.

Since the 1980s, expressive writing has been used and studied by psychologists like James Pennebaker. The  potential benefits, especially for people with cancer, PTSD, asthma, and arthritis, include strengthening the immune system, reducing chronic pain and inflammation, and lowering symptoms of depression and PTSD. Surprisingly, it has been found to help relationships, even if only one person in the couple is doing it:  “when one partner wrote about his or her deepest thoughts and feelings about a romantic relationship, both partners began using more positive words . . . and the couple stayed together longer.”

The article begins with a story about a man Yanatha Desouvre dealing with his father’s sudden hospitalization for gastrointestinal bleeding. Desouvre says, “Writing allowed me to face my fear” and “my pen was a portal to process the pain.”

A veteran of expressive writing, he turned to it some 15 years ago after the breakup of an unhealthy relationship, writing to understand why he felt vulnerable and sometimes physically ill.

The article’s author, Bernstein, writes, “Expressive writing works because it allows you to take a painful experience, identify it as a problem and make meaning out of it, experts say. Recognizing that something is bothering you is an important first step. Translating that experience into language forces you to organize your thoughts. And creating a narrative gives you a sense of control.”

For Desouvre, the writing also brought up earlier trauma (a shooting) – something I caution my Writing Workshop participants about, asking them to be careful and take care of themselves and to find support if old hurts and traumas surface as a result of their writing.

Desouvre wrote about the shooting and went on to write about his grandfather’s death and about growing up poor in New York and Philadelphia, as well as writing a screenplay and a novel.

Lately he’s been keeping a “spring of 2020” notebook, not unlike my Writing Workshop participant who is writing a COVID-19 journal for his one-year old granddaughter.

Is expressive writing for you? With all the benefits that seem to accrue, not just in physical and mental health, but in writing practice and productivity, it may be worth a try. And if you use it to deal with COVID-19 and its after effects, you can even go to a website, part of Pannebacker’s Pandemic Project, which gives people an opportunity to write about how the novel coronavirus is affecting them.

FYI: The article states that if you hate to write, recording your thoughts works just as well. Of course, as readers of this blog, you love writing, but there may be situations or physical limitations, where recording your speech is preferable. Sandra Wendel in a recent post, “Stop Staring at a Blank Page,” recommends several programs: Voice Memos (iPhone): speech-to-text apps like Speechy (free) and Dragon (paid); speech-recognition software built in word processing programs (like in some versions of Word); and Rev, a paid service that captures dictation and conversations and is transcribed for a fee within hours).

(Resources: Bernstein, “Feeling Upset? Try Writing” at wsj.com (pay to access), reprinted in part online at psychologicalscience.org (free); Spigelman, “Teaching Expressive Writing as a Narrative Fiction.”)

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