Healing with Writing

Autumn Forest
Autumn Forest | watercolor | copyright Liz Macklin 2004

I have a new routine for feeling good: eat lots of vegetables, exercise and write! What’s writing got to do with it? I might say “taking time for reflection” and perhaps “finding a way to speak up and recognize one’s own voice.”  What do you think?

Last Tuesday I met with five women to explore expressive writing. Together we read a poem. Then our pens took the lead, and we wrote whatever came to mind.

After fifteen minutes Nancy Morgan, our guide and the Director of the Arts and Humanities Program at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, asked if we’d like to share our feelings about our writing. Reading aloud was purely voluntary. The content of the conversation was, as always, confidential. Let me say simply that people talked, laughed, sighed and commiserated — not in any particular order!

Each Tuesday a different group gathers, but Nancy is there every week with a new idea. Sometimes she brings a poem, sometimes a painting. The themes include nature, family, identity and life with all its bumps and lucky breaks. Sessions are free of competition and critique. Nancy greets everyone with encouragement and assurance that writing can help people find relief from stress and the emotional effects of illness.

Writing is recognized as beneficial to care in the cancer center, not in a small part as a result of a recent study conducted by Nancy and her colleagues Kristi Graves, Elizabeth Poggi and Bruce Cheson. Their findings indicated that “cancer patients are receptive to expressive writing” and that “a single brief exercise is related to patient’s reports of improved quality of life” (The Oncologist, 2008, 13; 192-196.) In addition to her other administrative duties at the Arts and Humanities Program, Nancy leads workshops, plans readings and edits Lombardi Voices, an anthology of writing by people with cancer and caregivers. This summer she’s also taken time to train writer/researcher Michelle Berberet and me in therapeutic writing techniques. As prompts for writing, Michelle explored the evocative power of scent and gave writers a beautiful card and a sprig of lavender. I began with a silly image and asked fellow writers “What tickles your funny bone?”

Since my sessions with Nancy, I’ve tried to write — well, let me say more often — because I’d be lying if I said every day. I also attended a weekend workshop with editor Deborah Brodie. She recommends exploratory writing with a focus on ways to make creative connections and develop story ideas.

If you’d like to try expressive writing, find a pen and paper and begin with any thought that comes to you. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling or perfect punctuation. Start, write and see how it feels! Need help with an idea? It can come from anywhere. I’ve included an image, “Autumn Forest,” in this post. After these scorching sunny days, what are you thinking about?

(author’s note: I made an update in paragraphs 1 and 5 on August 1, 2010.)