arts & creativity, mental health & wellness

Therapeutic Writing

As I said in “Back in the Blogosphere,” I need to write. The process and result of writing are helpful — therapeutic even.

I’ve experienced this phenomenon throughout life while studying creative and expository writing, as well helping teach it to adolescents for a couple summers. I’ve experienced it recently while blogging. And, recently I got to study it by giving a presentation to my Psychology of Shame seminar about the potentially therapeutic nature of writing and writing classes. (It was a fun presentation. Yep, I’m a nerd.)

My presentation was based on a chapter called “Unmasking Shame” from English professor Jeffrey Berman’s Risky Writing: Self-Disclosure and Self-Transformation in the Classroom. So, for today’s Psychology Saturday, I’m just going to post an outline of “Unmasking Shame,” which I found to be a useful tool for teachers and students of writing.  

  • Berman gives the example of a student named “Nick” (a pseudonym), who wrote a piece about being sexually abused by his uncle when he was younger, including in the piece a long letter detailing what he would say to that uncle if he were to write to him. The chapter goes on to unfold how Nick felt about writing the piece and sharing it with his professor and class. Berman assesses: “Nick’s writings dramatize the unmasking of shame — expressing the inexpressible. The process of writing leads to nothing less than the reclaiming of the self.”
  • What effect did writing about his past have on Nick?
    • It helped him figure out his own thoughts.
    • It helped him feel understood by others.
    • It helped him build self-confidence
      • Perhaps distinct from talk therapy and akin to art therapy, writing builds self-confidence because it allows the writer to not only share his story but also share his story in a way that creates something new and might benefit others — like making something good out of something bad, making beauty out of ashes.
  • How did the professor manage a class on personal writing? (He’s not a trained therapist, after all; he’s a trained English professor.)
    • Assign topics in an increasingly personal manner. (Example: Start with requiring a story about travel or nature, and work up to ones about death or sexuality.)
    • Assign topics with options. (Example: When writing about death, students can write about the death of a loved one…or a pet, a plant, or a celebrity.)
    • Be careful about making comments on papers.
      • Include comments about grammar, structure, etc. (That might feel like sticking commas in someone’s diary, but it is an assigned paper after all, and correcting commas gives dignity to the assigned paper and its writer.)
      • Include comments about content. 
        • FIRST encouraging comments (Example: “This was brave. Thank you for sharing.”) 
        • THEN questions/concern if necessary (Example: “Is this currently occurring in your life? If so, you might consider [fill-in-the-resource]…”) 
    • Be careful about making comments in class.
      • Have the class read a piece (perhaps anonymously if the author wants)
      • Instruct the class to “take a minute to think about it” (to avoid visceral reactions)
      • Engage the class in a “critique sandwich” (constructive praise, then constructive criticism, then one last summarizing praise)

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