Discover more from The Slow Train
Creative Writing for Well-being: 'Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart'
A brief review of some of the research that's been done around creative writing for well-being… 🐌
In my last newsletter, I introduced my practice-based research and shared some thoughts on definitions of well-being. This month I’m going to tell you a bit about some of the research I’ve been reading on the benefits of putting pen to paper. If you have any questions, or have your own experience of writing as a tool for well-being, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you!
The potential for ‘expressive writing’ to enhance both mental and physical health has been widely studied since the pioneering work of Pennebaker and Beall. In 1986 they published the results of a preliminary investigation on the long-term health benefits of writing about traumatic events.1 This original study, which has since been replicated, showed ‘that expressive writing is a beneficial method to address traumas and emotional upheavals in a healing way’.2 Through creative self-expression those who are troubled and anxious can find solace. As Gillie Bolton—a writer whose innovative work has been based in U.K. health care settings from the 1990s onwards—observes:
Writing is different from talking; it has a power all of its own […] The very act of creativity—of making something on the page which wasn’t there before—tends to increase self-confidence, feelings of self-worth and motivation for life.3
Research has demonstrated that the benefits of expressive writing have been shown to include: fewer stress-related visits to the doctor; improved immune system functioning; reduced blood pressure; improved lung and liver function; improved mood; fewer days in hospital; feelings of greater psychological well-being; and reduced depressive symptoms. Other outcomes include quicker re-employment after job loss, and improved working memory.4
Thanks for reading The Slow Train! Subscribe to receive new posts & support my work.
Writing, as a tool for self-care, self-exploration, and personal development, goes by various names. Alison Jones has used ‘exploratory writing’ in a book published in 2023 that repositions the value of pen and paper in the digital workplace. She highlights ‘the everyday magic’ of free, expressive writing to tell stories, solve problems, increase a sense of agency and well-being, and enhance empathy and creativity.5 While Gillie Bolton uses the term ‘creative writing’, and focuses not only on the potential of ‘free-writing’, but on the benefits of writing memoir or autobiography, poetry and fiction, and of keeping a journal. Earlier in the 20th century Marion Milner, the British psychologist and author, published an extraordinary book of self-observation and discovery based on her own diaries. In A Life of One’s Own Milner described how the process of writing in her journal proved to be both illuminating and regenerative:
Writing down my experiences … seemed to be a creative act which continually lit up new possibilities in what I had seen […] I felt an urge to go on and on writing, with my interest gradually shifting from what to do with my life to how to look at it.6
Recent studies have addressed topics as varied as the use of collectively-written poetry to research principals of care within academic collaboration;7 developing poetry as a research methodology with people with dementia and their family and carers;8 and an online writing program for university students in a project researching ambivalence towards change.9 The UK’s well-established Social Prescribing movement will receive £3.6 million in government funding over the next 2 years, offering support to patients who feel ‘desperate—powerless to do anything’, and for whom arts interventions can help to ‘see life differently’.10 As the charity Freedom from Torture’s long-standing creative writing group for survivors proves, there are many people for whom putting pen to paper can be an act of hope and healing. One group member described how:
Write to Life created an environment where I could regain trust…I feel that I have regained my voice, that I’ve gained a space to recover my freedom here. It’s like finding a friend to whom I can tell whatever is inside me.11
Whether rebuilding your life after profound trauma, living with a long-term, chronic health condition (as are about 15 million people in the UK), navigating a stressful workplace, or dealing with any of the myriad other challenges of contemporary life, research has proven what people have intuitively known for centuries: ‘expressive and explorative writing can be deeply healing and therapeutic’.12
Putting pen to paper you find a friend who will listen without judgement. Who won’t interrupt. Who will hold the space and hear you out. Who is unexpectedly wise. You can’t exhaust or bore the blank page. And when you’ve written yourself out you’ll likely feel better, although it won’t at first be clear why. Looking back on what you’ve written you might notice something that did not register at the time. A kernel of an idea, or a solution to a problem, or another perspective. Maybe even a spark of inspiration, like the electric blue flare of a kingfisher winging down the canal on a grey morning. This spark will take you by surprise; a moment of astonishment, pleasure, or consolation, all arising from a deceptively simple process that Natalie Goldberg calls writing down the bones.13
Pennebaker, J.W. and S. K. Beall. ‘Confronting a Traumatic Event: Toward an Understanding of Inhibition and Disease’. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 1986. Vol. 95, No. 3, 274-281.
Gao, X. ‘Research on Expressive Writing in Psychology: A Forty-year Bibliometric Analysis and Visualization of Current Status and Research Trends’. Frontiers in Psychology. 2022. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.825626
Gillie Bolton. Writing Cures: An introductory handbook of writing in counselling and therapy. 2004. p. 1
Baikie, K., & Wilhelm, K. ‘Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing’. 2005. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 338-346. DOI:10.1192/apt.11.5.338
Alison Jones. Exploratory Writing: Everyday magic for life and work. 2023.
Marion Milner (writing as Joanna Field). A Life of One’s Own. 1934. p. 44-45.
CRIS Collective. ‘Let there be a “We”: introducing an ethics of collective academic care.’ https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/EJM-04-2022-0269/full/htm
Camic, P. et al. ‘Developing Poetry as a Research Methodology with Rarer Forms of Dementia: Four Research Protocols’. 2022. DOI: 10.1177/16094069221081377
Batista, João, et al. ‘Write and Let Go: An Online Writing Program for University Students’. 2022. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.874600
Gillie Bolton. The Therapeutic Potential of Creative Writing: Writing Myself. 1999. p.16
Natalie Goldberg. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. 1986.