Is writing or journaling always appropriate? Does it always lead to healing?
Last week, one of the participants in my class read a short piece,”Why do I Journal?” in which said, “Sometimes pain doesn’t go away…..Hope–the jury is still out.” I appreciated her honesty, and even more her pain-filled eyes as she turned to me. Writing wasn’t helping her. She was in a dark depression, a cyclical depression, and nothing she could pull up was helping her. It had helped her greatly in the past, and the journal had been her companion. But now–nothing. I thanked her for her honesty, which led to a discussion about the times writing may not be appropriate. I suggested that finding comfort in other ways might help, and if she wanted to keep to her journaling rhythm, that haiku, with its focus on the external world, on nature, might be a good place to start, but not to add any more stress to herself by forcing introspection.
In contrast to her, another woman, new to the class, wrote several powerful laments about feelings of abandonment by her family when she became chronically ill. Her poems were full of feeling–of hurt, rage, fear, despair. This woman did find relief in her writing, at last expressing all the feelings that had burdened her as much as her illness burdened her.
What was the difference between each of these women’s experiences? Is one experience “better” than the other? What are the variables a writing facilitator should keep in mind when encounter such different responses?
Findings involving journaling suggest that “dwelling on emotions alone may be counterproductive in terms of health outcomes. …writers may be able to relive the physiological and emotional activation of the trauma during its recall, but because they are focused on the affective experience, they may not be able to work through the trauma to reach a state of resolution from which they have a different perspective.” (Lutgendorf and Ullrich in Lepore and Smyth,The Writing Cure, 2002, p.182). In the case of an intractable depression, intense introspection may not yield relief. What is needed is a connection outside the self, as in nature, and a sense of being part of a community. In this sense, the fact that this woman attends the class, responds to others, and is able to read of her failure to find comfort in writing, is in itself, salutary.
On the other hand, the second woman’s writing provided for her a strengthening of her voice, a relief of a burden of unexpressed emotions. By writing about the chaos of her illness, she was able to come finally to an imagination of a place of refuge, where “No Harm is Done Here. ” The class, by witnessing to her struggles, provided the very support that she had found missing previously. She seemed to come into focus, both for herself and for us. Her writing had been a gateway into a stronger sense of self, something that we would hope for all participants, yet it is not the only response.
As writing facilitators, I think we have to be aware that there is no one template for responding to writing. Writing is not always a panacea. I think we need to be aware of formulaic thinking, of assuming that one size fits all. Sometimes confronting trauma head on is curative, sometimes it is destructive. Sometimes introspection is fruitfull, sometimes it is not. In this way, we can bring a more nuanced sensiblity to the process of leading writing workshops.