Footprints: the power of writing
So, here I am, finally putting pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard) to write my very own blog. I’m excited and nervous. Writing has always been a very important part of my life, a powerful support in difficult times as it is for many people. But what is it about writing that makes it so useful, so powerful? Why are so many people drawn to it? Why are so many of us now writing blogs, or even self publishing our own books? What exactly is it about expressing ourselves in this way that makes it so seductive?
Perhaps, unconsciously, one of the key draws is relationship. In a world which is increasingly globalised, where our local face to face communities are shrinking and more and more of us feel alienated and alone, perhaps more of us are looking to create different kinds of relationship. As with psychotherapy, writing is about relationship and connection: relationship to ourselves if we’re writing privately or relationship to others if we are a “writer” or “journalist”, or a sense of community when we share a love of a particular publication with others, such as a newspaper.
I’ve written a personal diary with varying degrees of regularity and intensity since my early teens and it has been an incredible therapeutic tool to help me sort through feelings and thoughts and deepen my understanding of myself. It was New York psychologist, Ira Progoff, who first formalised the process of “therapeutic writing” in the 1960s with his “Intensive Journal Method”. Since then, interest in therapeutic or journal writing has exploded and there is now an entire field of study dedicated to it. Author and writing coach, Gillie Bolton, suggests that writing can be powerful simply because it makes direct contact with a deep enduring self and that – crucially – “writing leaves footprints which aid progressive thoughts”. Beautifully put and I think, true. When you write something down it moves out of the realm of vague, meandering thought to concrete, tangible words which we can somehow get hold of in a different way. Once down, there on paper (or screen), we can move on, take our thoughts forward whether to action or to further thought.
What’s more, unlike blog writing, journal writing is private, safe: there is no judgement, it’s not good or bad, it’s simply you and your thoughts, which is very freeing. Artist and writer, Julia Cameron, is a strong advocate of what she calls “morning pages”: getting up a few minutes earlier each morning and writing three pages. It doesn’t matter what you write, stream of consciousness is all it takes, just make sure you fill three pages. The idea is that writing when you’re just waking up, at a time when your inner censor may still be drowsy (!), offers a deeper and more direct connection with yourself, a way of accessing parts of yourself you don’t normally have contact with in order to spark creativity. Equally, whilst writing in and of itself can be healing, reading back over a journal years later can also offer us a unique relationship with ourselves – helping us to be compassionate, understanding and more deeply aware of what brought us to where we are today.
You might have also noticed the explosion of autobiographies on the shelves of your local bookshop. This is in part spurred by the modern cult of celebrity, but I think, more importantly, points to our flourishing interest in understanding ourselves as human beings. As Adrian Furnham suggests in Psychology Today, autobiographical writing is a very powerful process because it requires serious introspection: an attempt to make the best of the past, to examine it from various angles rather than simply try to shift blame onto others. It’s about singling out experiences, events and people that contribute to one’s life. And in our therapeutic journey, seeing cause and effect and understanding psychological processes can significantly increase self understanding.
Research tells us that writing isn’t simply powerful for our emotional wellbeing but for our physical wellbeing too. Studies show that writing can help with post traumatic stress and may also have physical effects on people battling terminal or life threatening diseases, as well as a positive impact on our immune systems. As the author of one study emphasises, however, as with any psychotherapeutic process, the key to healing is in the use of writing to deepen emotional understanding rather than simply record feelings. This is potentially very exciting research and I live in continual hope that acceptance that our emotional wellbeing impacts on our physical wellbeing will become incorporated into mainstream medical thinking.
As I did my research for this blog, I came across many categories of writing: “free writing”, “journaling”, “therapeutic writing”, “personal diary writing”, “autobiographical writing”; there are even online training programmes in therapeutic writing, but really it’s all just about your writing and through that, your relationship with yourself. As relationship is the cornerstone of psychotherapy, so it is with therapeutic writing. Most of us develop our difficulties and issues through relationship with others and neuroscience tells us that these difficulties and issues are therefore most effectively healed through relationship – perhaps with a partner or a therapist. As we’ve seen, committed therapeutic writing is also about developing an important relationship – with the self, a way of deepening our understanding of ourselves and learning to perhaps accept ourselves. I’ve done this for many years. Perhaps writing a blog will help me develop another part of myself, perhaps it will help me develop greater courage and set the footprint to take myself further out into my community.
If you would like to read more about any of the articles or people I’ve mentioned here, here are some references:
Writing Therapy for Posttraumatic Stress: A Meta-Analysis in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics
van Emmerik A.A.P.a · Reijntjes A.b · Kamphuis J.H.a Vol. 82, No. 2, 2013
Writing to heal by Bridget Murray, American Psychological Society, Monitor Staff June 2002, Vol 33, No. 6
Gillie Bolton www.gilliebolton.com
Ira Progoff www.intensivejournal.org
Julia Cameron www.juliacameronlive.com
Adrian Furnham in Psychology Today August 29 2013
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