Expressive Writing: simple DIY writing therapy for painful memories

Expressive Writing: write, shred, write, shred, write, shred: done!
Expressive Writing: write, shred, write, shred, write, shred: done!

Write over your troubles: that was the theme on Day One of our 2018 summer writing school.

In three short sessions, we followed the instructions of Professor James Pennebaker, which have not changed much since his discovery of this extraordinary process many years ago. He calls it Expressive Writing. Interspersed with those three sessions, we did some positive journaling exercises to increase objectivity, empathy, and optimism.

I offered alternatives to the Expressive Writing sessions, but everyone (I think) wrote about a personal experience. We shredded our writing ceremoniously after each session, and we didn’t discuss it: that’s a rule. However, half the members said privately that this had been highly effective for them, helping to free them from something that was hindering their life and writing.

 

What is Expressive Writing?

Pennebaker had a hunch that simply writing three or four times about a trauma, each time examining the story more closely, would favourably affect people’s health.

In his first experiment, he asked groups of students to write for 20 minutes on three consecutive days about an emotional event that still disturbed them. Each time, they were to express their deepest, most private feelings and thoughts around the event, knowing that nobody would ever see what they wrote. The second time, they were to go deeper and wider, perhaps exploring the context, the impact on themselves and others. And on the last occasion, they were encouraged to try and make sense of the event, using words like because, realize, understand.

Each time, what they wrote was destroyed, and they did not discuss the event or their writing.

He wanted to see if those students then had fewer visits to the doctor in the following year than a control group. Indeed they did, and their grades improved too. And so began a wave of research that confirmed that writing this way, within these constraints, could heal. Over 200 studies have shown measurable healing effects on groups with PTSD, chronic pain, cancer, asthma, psoriasis, and even fresh wounds. Today this form of writing therapy, along with variations, is commonly used in many countries.

Writing often heals, but sometimes picks the scab

Writing has performed its own mysterious therapy from time immemorial. You have almost certainly experienced the magic of writing: it makes you feel better!

However, writing about painful experiences can certainly backfire. I see scores of bloggers writing over and over and over again about the same disturbing event, and chances are that writing is making them feel worse, not better. I’ve done it myself, in a journal: initially it feels exhilarating, but if you carry on, the writing tends to become yukky and counterproductive.

By contrast, Expressive Writing has constraints of time and exposure and theme. That makes all the difference.

Cat playing with shredded paper
All that remains of a painful event: a few shreds of paper.

Why is Expressive Writing better than a diary?

Why does this work better than just writing about painful events in a journal or diary? Well, I don’t know, but these are my thoughts after having experienced both forms.

  • No talking is involved in Expressive Writing. There’s no therapist: you can do it yourself from written instructions.
  • The writing is private, it’s safe, and there’s no threat of exposure.
  • It’s like telling a secret without talking.
  • It’s the opposite of rumination, where an ugly event loops over and over in your mind, each time the same old story, your thoughts running along well-worn ruts. That story might have been comforting at first, reassuring you, getting your version straight. But when it gets stuck, you get stuck.
  • Expressive writing gently encourages people to change their story, to see things in a different light. It’s a therapy for getting unstuck.
  • Expressive writing has a time limit. You make progress — and then you stop. By contrast, writing in a diary has no end. If you keep writing about sad or bad events, it can lure you into an unhealthy cycle of self-pity or self-justification or resentment.

Why does Expressive Writing heal at all?

Nobody seems to know for sure, but these theories are plausible.

  • It relieves stress, especially for those who are troubled by an untold secret.
  • Stress relief improves the immune system.
  • Stress relief improves sleep.

If this interests you, you’ll find ample information about it online, and even a book of instructions:
Expressive Writing: Words That Heal by James Pennebaker and John Evans, on Amazon

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Old writing skills: new uses for real life problems

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Planning a writing course gets serious

Oh, help, my summer writing school is less than two weeks away! I’ve been preparing seriously for a couple of weeks. Now it gets super-serious, tick tock!

“Write into life” brings a brand new emphasis to my work. I’ve taught writing skills to thousands of people — for poetry, fiction, plain language, digital writing, corp comms, editing, and so on and so forth. We’re talking experience and authority here, oh ho ho, yes we are, I’m not a newbie.

Except… I’ve stepped into foreign territory where the words write and life have equal weight. These workshops lock writing to life, in a very positive and deliberate way.

Writing is a multi-purpose tool for life skills

As bloggers, you already know just how powerful writing is, and the many ways it helps the writer. (I’m not talking about money or fame.)

A few examples: when we write, we discover, clarify, develop, review, analyse, and prioritise our own thoughts. We confess, confront, explore, examine, purge, revise, and modify our feelings. We — oh stop, I could go on all day, and you could instantly give me another 50 ways that writing helps us in our lives. (I’d like to hear them!)

Writing skills for particular life issues

Anyway, I’m preparing three completely new workshops within this Write into life framework. I need to make sure that participants really do gain new writing skills; and that those skills are useful not only for them as writers, but also for them as people. I need to deliver for writers with a life.

Each day has a topic, and the three topics are:

  • write over your troubles
  • a writers’ group that works for you
  • write into the bonus years.

As I get each day’s programme clear, I’ll let you know more. Meanwhile, I’m very interested in what you think about all this. As you see, I’m starting from scratch— I could do with some tips!

Here’s an outline of the 2018 summer school.

The case of the missing blog posts

I am darned if I’ll write more than a couple of lines… because my last few blog posts have been kidnapped. This is just a test. Will this link do as instructed or lead you to Badlands 404?

Update on the missing blog posts

Problem solved, for now. Everything back in place. It was the pixies.

Of most concern were some drafts and scheduled posts: not yet published but almost ready to go. Along with the last few blog posts they had apparently vanished from my blog. My friends and followers were receiving the usual automated emails alerting them to a new post. Then they’d click on the link provided and land on a 404 (bad link,no-such-page) page.

No likes, no comments for about a week. Funny, I thought. What I had done to offend you nice people? Because it had to be my fault, right?

Then the phantom posts all reappeared again, and we’re kind of back to normal, I think.

I  haven’t copied or saved anything. I’m going to trust in the mighty community of WordPress developers to carry on doing their magic.

 

Maddie’s thought

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When talking with friends, their philosophical thoughts fly by and we may toss them around a little before we move on. But often, I want to hold those thoughts in my own mind a little longer. Maybe I need to incorporate them into my own practical philosophy. Then it helps me if I make such useful thoughts into a poem.

In this case—as our time on earth is so precious, so limited, why not weigh everything we do in terms of its value? Always the question has more than one answer, layer upon layer. We can stop at any layer, our choice…

Maddie’s thought

Why am I doing this thing?
There is always an answer, if only
But why? and again,
OK, but why?

There are so many books
in the world, good books.
Is this the one I want to read?
But why?

poem and pic by rachel mcalpine cc by 2.0; more poems at www.aybrow.com

A favourite sort of day: writing, editing, designing a course, no pressure

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My next book of poems

The end of December: summer satisfaction. After a perfect family Christmas in two acts, I’ve come back to a quiet city and a chance to peck away at my favourite sort of project.

This year I’ve got two projects lined up.

Project 1: Finalise writing school programme

That might not sound like fun to you, but to me it will be fascinating. Enrolments are closed: nine people enquired, and eight people booked. Perfect. I like to believe that’s because I was clear about the content and style of the workshops, and also judged the level of publicity accurately — just one announcement did the trick. Soon I’ll update my Gantt chart (whee!) and dig into the details.

I prefer to over-prepare, despite knowing that the plan always changes on the day. In this case, I hope to meet the needs of everyone in this small group of writers.

I nearly wrote, in this elite group of writers — because it is: in a small group, everyone is important, everyone’s ideas carry weight. Nevertheless, I shall over-prepare as usual.

Project 2: playing with poems

Right now, I’m having a go at sorting some poems ready for a new collection. They’re derived from my granddaughter’s chatter when she was a little girl, and she’s old enough now to give me permission to publish them with her real name. So it’s time to start editing and playing around with some poems that still make me laugh or smile. No rush with this labour of love.

Joy of Gantt charts: documenting a Summer Writing School as a project

 

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Gantt chart of tasks for the Summer Writing School project, 2018

Why did I get such delight out of creating my very first Gantt chart — let alone admit that I’m proud of it?

  • If you use Gantt charts (made by someone else), it’s a big “ho hum” from you.
  • If you make them, I see an indulgent head-shake, because you know this is the simplest Gantt chart in the world, using a template from Someka.net (bless them).
  • If you don’t use them, I caught you rolling your eyes.

A Summer Writing School: analysing the project

About my summer writing school, January 2018, in Wellington

I wanted to break down the jobs involved in running a summer writing school in accordance with the principles of project management. The thinking took most of the time required to construct the Gantt chart, of course. After I succeeded, I spent the next week in a glow of self-satisfaction. And I think that’s fair enough.

  1. I found a template that worked — what an achievement.
  2. It’s something I have admired for years.
  3. I don’t have an IT department to help me.
  4. It took a week: long enough to require perseverance, short enough to avoid frustration.
  5. It certainly helped me to analyse what I need to do to make the summer writing school a success.
  6. It also showed me what a massive project this is going to be.
  7. Mastering a new skill is a pleasure: end of story.

Now I just have to do all those jobs, untouched since I created the Gantt chart! The danger is, half of me now believes that I am ready, all those tasks done and dusted. Not so fast, lady…

 

 

Bullied by technology? You be the judge

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This has been a terrible horrible—well, rather difficult—year for me and my writer’s technology. I love my computers and software, love them to bits. I look after them like a devoted slave, I praise them to their face and to anyone who will listen. And in return, what do they do? This year they all joined forces to torture me month after month, taking it in turns to deceive and fail and crash and burn and betray me, their devoted protector and caregiver. Don’t read this. It’ll only depress you.

ACT ONE: HARDWARE. I used to have two laptops and a phone. I upgraded the phone last year, with only minor problems. Endured a couple of months when both laptops were running slow and crashing: but where was the problem? Incompatibility between laptops and certain software? Problems in the network with my Time Machine backup drive? Ditching the Air and changing security software seemed to help.

ACT TWO: REPLACEMENT. Decisions, decisions. A new MacBook Air, for travel and working on the fly? Ouch, Apple appeared to be deliberately dragging the chain with upgrades. Old screens, limited hard drive capacity and other clues steered me towards the new swept-up iPad Pro — that’s where the action is for lightweight portable work computers. OK, I got one. And a keyboard. And an Apple Pencil. Looks like fun. I never never never used my old iPad, so there’s a lot to learn: I’m an iPad virgin. (Sh, don’t tell anyone.)

ACT THREE: SECURITY ALARM. Hack attack on the iPad Pro (what happened to Mac immunity?) and it took three hours on the phone with a very nice technician in California to fix it. Plus new security software, again.

ACT FOUR: WRITING SOFTWARE. Good news: MS Office has finally upgraded their Mac suite of software. Bad news: now you can’t buy it outright, have to pay an annual fee. Meanies. I did so. Then I thought, I hate Scrivener, the gold standard for writers’ software, hate it with a shudder and a retch. But maybe there’s something better now, something aesthetically tolerable that’s fully compatible with the iPad Pro, I thought. After a few days’ research I bought Ulysses, rather excited about the whole concept.

ACT FIVE: 1PASSWORD. So it’s now about six months since a perfect storm of technology problems attacked me, and I’m dying to start my new book. On the iPad Pro, you understand: after all this hassle, nothing else will do. But wait! On any new computer, storing passwords is high priority, and that should have been a breeze. I’ve used 1Password for years and it’s great. I’ve got a licence. So, just install the app on the iPad Pro and get going, right? Wrong. “They” have decided we must also have an account (what’ve I had all these years?) aka a subscription. OK, I’ll do anything — but I can’t. Two hours later I’m in the queue for help.

That book is screaming, “Write me! Write me!” But I’m determined to do that on my new toy, not on my faithful workhorse.

One day it’ll all be over, and I’ll be able to write again. Meanwhile, maybe I’ll practise using the Apple Pencil. That might cheer me up. Bye now.