HEALTH & WELLNESS

How the ancient art of writing therapy can help you create a brighter future

British author Graham Greene, in his 1980 book, "Ways of Escape," put into words what most writers know: "Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation."

Academicians trace the idea of writing as therapy to the time of Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II, about 1,200 BC. The entrance to his royal library declared: "House of Healing for the Soul." American Unitarian minister Samuel Crothers coined the term "bibliotherapy" in 1916. In the late 1980s, James Pennebaker, psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, led the modern writing therapy movement in a landmark research study that showed the potential health benefits of "expressive writing" about emotional upheaval.

In the last two decades, writing therapy has joined dance and art therapy as a legitimate therapeutic tool. And that has triggered growing interest in a type of writing that focuses on the healing power of putting feelings down on paper or screen — as evidenced by the burgeoning popularity of the memoir, as well as the use of journaling in businesses and American schools.

"We see writing as such a valuable vehicle to help students achieve deeper, richer self-insight," says Greta Vollmer, former director of UC Berkeley's Bay Area Writing Project, a 40-year-old program for teachers who teach writing in kindergarten through 12th grade. "We find youngsters can write their way to solutions, to a kind of inner peace and self-understanding."

Heartfelt prose

"So many people carry their secret stories of shame for years and years in their bodies, not just in their minds," says Nancy Aronie, the author of "Writing From the Heart." She leads workshops at Esalen in Big Sur and other locations. "But they feel lighter — less emotionally burdened — when they can literally let them out by putting them on paper or screen."

As evidence of her process' therapeutic value, among many examples, she recounts the story of an 83-year-old retired Episcopal priest who disowned his daughter when she announced she was a lesbian. "As he read his account to our group, he broke down crying," recalls Aronie. "He realized how wrong he was and said, 'Who am I that I could I have lost my daughter over such small-mindedness?' It was gorgeous." His breakthrough led to a reconciliation with his daughter, Aronie says.

For her own therapy, Aronie is writing a book about her son Dan, who died in 2010 from complications from multiple sclerosis at age 38. "I'd started it two years before he died. It helped me understand how his illness had held me hostage for so long. Those insights helped change our entire relationship."

Therapeutic value

A 2013 study showed that blogging has therapeutic value for teenagers experiencing social and emotional difficulties. So why not apply that notion to teens facing perhaps the most difficult writing assignment of their young lives: the college application essay?

"High school seniors come to me with so much fear about this," says Craig Heller, an Emmy-winning writer in Woodland Hills who tutors students preparing their college essays. "By and large, the majority disdain writing and are not self-reflective at that age."

Yet the prompts from colleges ask them to dig deep, in words. Stanford University, for example, famously asks: "What matters to you and why?" Another college: "Pick an experience from your own life and explain how it has influenced your development."

Heller encourages students by saying, "Writing this essay is an opportunity for you to explore what you didn't know you didn't know about yourself." He finds that patience and perseverance help him help them use this process to gain greater insight into themselves and their motivations.

"I recently worked with a student who had extremely low self-esteem," recalls Heller. "Developing and writing his college essays put him in touch with his positive qualities, which bolstered his confidence both socially and academically. The more drafts he wrote, the more he realized he was a unique person with uncommon skills and interests."

Here are some contacts for writing therapy.

"Writing from the Heart" workshops, http://chilmarkwritingworkshop.com

Craig Heller's college essay progam, www.collegeessaysolutions.com

health@latimes.com

Garfinkel, author of "Travel Writing for Profit and Pleasure," will lead a writing retreat in Baja California at Costa Baja Resort April 14-19.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 16, 2016, in the Features section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Writing has long been known as a healing art" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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