Book review - Writing as a Way of Healing

Currently I'm reading a book called Writing as a Way of Healing: how telling our stories transforms our lives, by Louise DeSalvo. Possibly I shouldn't review it yet as I'm not quite finished reading it but it's so good I couldn't wait to share it.

The book talks about writing (journalling, fiction, biographical narrative) as a way of working through trauma. The author is very careful to note that this should never be the only method; she strongly suggests that people should have good support structures in place, including counselling, when working through things. What I found very interesting about 'writing through pain' is this: studies have shown that not all forms of writing are beneficial and some may actually be slightly harmful. She draws heavily on the studies of psychologist James Pennebaker, who did a writing study with three groups of university students. He asked all three groups to write about a significant event that they'd never shared with anyone before. The first group was instructed to write only about the events; the second group was instructed to write only about their feelings; and the third group was instructed to write about what happened and the way they felt about what happened. Pennebaker found that the third group almost without exception reported that they believed writing about the events and their feelings helped them to resolve their feelings and work through the pain of the event. Additionally, the third group reported fewer visits to doctors and fewer illnesses after the writing task, while the second group, who wrote only about their feelings, reported more illnesses and medical visits.

DeSalvo gives good, practical advice in this book. The first section of the book is devoted to explaining the benefits of writing and explaining how to write in ways that are beneficial, including how to get started. That section was helpful because for some people the events are so traumatic that they don't feel able to write about it at all. The author addresses that and has good suggestions for how to write about other things that will lead slowly to the event in question, or how to write about other aspects of the trauma.

The second section of the book is practical advice about writing itself, including planning, writing every day even when you don't feel like it, writing without inspiration, and keeping a journal about the writing process. She debunks myths like the idea that books appear fully formed in a writer's head, that writing should only happen when one has a great idea, and that if writing is difficult it means you're not a real writer and should stop.

Readers of my private blog will know that I've been dealing with some significant issues in my personal life and I'm only a little way into the healing process. Obviously I've always found writing helpful (2 blogs and several journals on the go at the same time will testify to that) but writing in the way suggested in this book has been enormously helpful to me. Once I got started I couldn't stop and I can definitely see the difference between writing in this structured way and just pouring out my feelings. There's a place for pouring out feelings but ultimately it doesn't resolve things. The type of writing I've been doing while reading this book has been helping me begin to grieve, finally, some traumas that happened a long time ago. It's going to be a long process and I don't think writing alone should be the only method of healing (I definitely needed to debrief with my counsellor after some things) but I'm finding it an extremely beneficial addition to the mix of help I've been utilising.

You can check out the book here... although if you plan to buy it I would suggest searching on Bookfinder or AbeBooks for a cheaper copy.


Hippomanic Jen said...

That looks really interesting. When I did a course on 'Hospital Ministry and Pastoral Care' there was lots of focus on feelings. My last assignment I did on a visit where the people wouldn't talk about feelings at all - information questions got the conversation going and feeling ones closed it down. I must check out this book, because it might have more background. Thanks.

femina said...

Yeah, you'd think that talking about feelings would be very 'unsticking' but I've found it doesn't work that way if feelings is ALL you talk about. I changed counsellors recently because my previous one wanted me to talk ONLY about feelings and in the end I was just going over the same stuff with no analysis and no resolution. It was enormously frustrating. I was right to move on to someone else.

Joce said...

That's really interesting Femina, though I've always found writing poetry has helped me process difficult events, etc greatly. And another poingntant (scuse my spelling) moment was when my bro and I sang along to a favourite pop song one afternoon. My bro at the time was deeply depressed and largely uncommunicative, so music has a really important part in the healing process, I think. Well, probably all the arts do, really... worth thinking about. I'm glad its been a salve for you! xo

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