“Writing…is a very sturdy ladder out of the pit.” Alice Walker
This is an often-used quote when talking about the healing potential of writing. It speaks to the enormous power that comes from using our words to name our experience. Whether you do this by talking—maybe in therapy or with a good friend—or in writing, the naming of something allows us to step outside ourselves for a moment and take perspective.
Dr. James Pennebaker, author of Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, began studying the effects of a specific type of writing on health and well-being in the 1980’s. His studies have been replicated with numerous populations, and research tells us that cathartic writing has a positive impact on immune functioning and perceived level of well-being. One theory on why writing is helpful is that it takes a great deal of energy NOT to name how we are feeling. In other words, the effort required for us to ignore/minimize/push away our thoughts and feelings, contributes to our sense of distress. When we allow the truth of how we are feeling to be put into words, we often experience a sense of relief, a lifting—physically, mentally and emotionally.
Perhaps you know all of this already, and the fact that research says writing is helpful is just the icing on the cake. Or, if you are someone—and you are in good company—who fears writing for all sorts of reasons, think to the last time you went to a movie or read a book that told an emotionally true story. Can you remember how the knowing of something true settled in your middle? Made you feel connected, part of something, even if it was hard?
There is a part of us that aches to tell the truth and it is the telling that is “the sturdy ladder.”
Here’s an exercise to get you started on some truth-telling. One of the practices I am most fond of is writing in response to a poem. Poems, by their very nature, go right to the heart of things and can be useful as a starting point. Read the poem below. Read it several times if you want—underline any words or phrases that move you. Begin with any one of them and write for 10 minutes—anything that comes to mind. Write quickly without thinking of grammar or sentence structure. In fact, I think it’s best to tell myself I’m going to TRY TO DO IT BADLY just to free up my critical self. At the end of the 10 minutes read over what you’ve written. And then ask yourself—what do I see in myself here? Write about that for a few minutes. Don’t skip this last step–it’s where you are practicing paying attention to yourself!
–by Lisel Mueller
It hovers in dark corners
before the lights are turned on,
it shakes sleep from its eyes
and drops from mushroom gills,
it explodes in the starry heads
of dandelions turned sages,
it sticks to the wings of green angels
that sail from the tops of maples.
It sprouts in each occluded eye
of the many-eyed potato,
it lives in each earthworm segment,
it is the motion that runs
from the eyes to the tail of a dog,
it is the mouth that inflates the lungs
of the child that has just been born.
It is the singular gift
we cannot destroy in ourselves,
the argument that refutes death,
the genius we all know of God.
It is the serum that makes us swear
not to betray one another;
it is in this poem, trying to speak.
Published in Alive Together, New and Selected Poems, Louisiana State University Press.