Writing Therapy

Originally posted to SuiteU, part of Suite101. SuiteU is being removed from the site. I wanted to save the ecourses so this resource would not disappear.

Writing Therapy

By Tom Bell


You may have always thought you couldn’t write a poem if your life depended on it. It turns out you can and you’ll find out how. It may also turn out that it will improve your health. It’s certainly more fun than visiting doctors. Or maybe you’ve always wanted to write poetry but have never done it.

This course will help get you started writing a poem or two. It will also teach you to play with forms so you learn how to write what they call “experimental” poetry since playing, action, and expression are important in “experimenting” or trying to write a poem.

While there has always been speculation that writing has health benefits, it is only recently that a solid body of good psychological evidence has appeared which is starting to document how / why this is true! You will get an introduction to this growing body of research and some thoughts on what health issues it affects.

In brief, you’ll get a few tools and prompts. You’ll get a chance to play with words and feelings and come up with a poem. You then can (if you like) share it with the instructor and other students for feedback. If you like you’ll have a chance to comment on others’ — and the instructor’s — work. You might want to revise it or try another. If you like, you also have the option of keeping a journal.

Your poems may not get ‘published’ but there is a good chance at the end you’ll have some that you’ve done, along with an appetite for doing more.


Lesson 1: What is a poem?

What do you think a poem is? This lesson will help you discover the answer then allow you to share a poem — or respond to an “I wish” exercise!


Regardless of what you learned in school or may have heard in the past, I would like you to start for the purposes of this course thinking of a poem as a ‘gesture that expresses.’ This is consistent with contemporary thinking and it’s the way I work, as do many of my contemporaries.

Try to like something
Some thing and the anger will go.

may not be your idea of a ‘poem’ and you may not especially like it but it’s one I recently did. As Deena Metzger has said in a book that’s not the one in your reading list, “I suggested, ‘Write as if you are a blind man. Write….as if your intelligence is in your ability to taste the world. (Writing for Your Life)”

While not everyone would agree, and there are alternate models in The Making of a Poem, for example, this is a model I would like you to consider trying out for this course. There certainly is room for other models and if you would like to suggest some this would make a good topic for our first discussion: what do you think a poem is? How do you define a poem?

I am going to ask you to write a poem that ‘expresses emotion’ for this course and then revise it based on what you learn from the readings here and feedback from others. It is possible to use something you already have written if you like. Any judgment on the poem will be from the perspectives we develop here as we go about expressing emotion and not from the perspective of whether it is a good or publishable poem.

In the second lesson we will be examining some ideas on what expressing emotion means poetically and psychologically and models of how the emotion can be exaggerated, but for now just use your concept of an emotion and be open to changing your idea about this as we go along. The third lesson will be an examination of ways that this emotional expression might relate to improved health and the fourth lesson will be on how your expression might be shaped or modified for a better health outcome for you.

Right now I am sure that you are hesitating about taking the course . You also doubtless are hesitating about writing the poem either because you are hesitating about ‘poem’ or about expressing emotion. This is very understandable and we’ll be moving into this in the next session. I don’t have any magic answers here that apply to everyone but I’d like you to take a deep breath, close your eyes and count to at least ten. While you are counting see if you can think of any reasons why you are hesitating.


Lesson 1: What is a poem?

Getting started

Section Two: Barriers?

It is fine, by the way, if you are not able to write a ‘poem’ right now or hesitate to share it. There are a lot of reasons for this and it’s also no big deal. There are a lot of times when I and other poets don’t feel like writing and very often we don’t feel like sharing. Often it helps to start the juices flowing if someone starts, which is why I included my poem above and if anyone would like to offer there poem for discussion it might helps us all?

It is interesting to me that there are really two sets of barriers here: the barriers to writing poetry and the barriers to expressing feelings. Since this is not a clinical setting Jim Pennebaker’s comments on emotional expression should be sufficient unless someone wants to discuss this further. The barrier to writing poetry is one that we all share to some extent. For example, I spent ten of my writer’s block years due to a teacher giving me a model of what a poem should be and grading me down because I didn’t do it right. Others?

This is not to say that a poem shouldn’t have structure. It’s just that there are many more ways than one to skin the cat. Kowit and Strand have their thoughts on this as do most poets. I’d be interested here in discussing any other views any of you have picked up in your readings.

As an experimental poet, Mullen has utilized what can be called Oulipo methods in her work as do most ‘experimental’ poets. Does anyone care to share what they think her methods were? Oulipo refers to a group of French thinkers who were influential in philosophy and experimental poetry but it’s used to refer (at least by me) to any method which is an arbitrary way to write (like, “take the first word on the last five pages of your dictionary and make it into a ‘poem‘“).

If you are still having trouble getting started on your poem, it might be helpful to relax again and thinking of it as a form of play and that you are five years old again. There is no way that you could do it wrong! Despite what you’ve been told, there really is no such thing as ’writer’s block’ even though it can be painful and last a long time – it’s really just an inhibition about letting your hair down and playing, from my ten years’ experience of it.

If all else fails, I’d like to borrow an exercise that was actually developed for kids by Kenneth Koch, sit back and thing of some things you want and then write a list of them in the form:

I wish I had…..
I wish….
I wish…..

Let yourself go here. You can have anything you want. It’s only a poem. When you’re done you’ve got a poem there on paper which you can alter any way you want, including crumpling it up and throwing it in the trash. This, by the way, would be a ’poetic’ gesture, wouldn’t it?


Lesson 1: What is a poem?

Throwing a feeling

Lesson One, Section Three: Throwing a Poem.

The gestural quality of a poem is somewhat like the gestural quality of an emotion. As Metzger wrote and I’ve learned from my experience as a psychologist, emotions typically have a bodily or physiological quality to them. There is a lot of information on what an emotion is http://www.questia.com/Index.jsp?CRID=em… and it’s definition is currently in a state of flux but I don’t want us to get sidetracked into this here. Let me just invite you to take a look at http://litsite.alaska.edu/uaa/healing/em… which is a summary of the connections here by Esther Sternberg who is a prominent scientist who likes to write. If you are intrigued by this subject, I’ve listed her recent book, but it’s not mandatory reading.

Emotions have a physiological or bodily quality to them. For me this becomes obvious when I talk or think about ‘gut feelings’ and if you care to think about it, most of our words for emotions are metaphors with a bodily dimension like this. It might not be too distracting to discuss this briefly and it might put you in the mood for the next step which is to poetically ‘throw’ an emotion. What I (and others like Deena) have in mind here is the concept of becoming aware of how you feel physically (for example, in your gut) and ‘throwing’ that feeling out onto the page or through your computer keys without letting yourself become too consciously aware of the ‘right’ word to describe it.

I’d invite you to be fairly physical here, in the sense of actually feeling yourself making a physical motion while doing it, as if you were throwing a ball, for example. Perhaps it would help you get in the mood if you were to take a walk or go for a run or do some sit-ups and then return to writing. You might also want to read what Pennebaker has to say about expressing emotions or read what Danish says about anger, if you can get her book.

The difference between talking about emotions and expressing them is something I could help you understand if we were interacting person-to-person, but I’ll try and explain. Lucia Capacchione’s Living with Feeling might also be helpful here. You might also want to think back to what Deena Metzger said about poetry above and think of yourself as blind and without too much conscious awareness just let yourself become aware of a feeling and get it out.


Lesson 1: What is a poem?


Lesson One, Section Four: Bibliography

Pennebaker, James. Opening Up. NY, Guilford, 1997. Metxger, Deena. Writing for Your Life. SF, Harper, 1991, Strand, Mark, ed. The Making of a Poem. NY, Norton, 2002.


Lesson 2: Turn Up the Volume?

Ways to modify your poetry to turn up or down the emotional volume.


Lesson Two, Section One: Introduction.

During this lesson we will be working on ways you might want to try using to deepen your expression or change it. I will be using a chapter Barbara Danish has in her book, Writing as a Second Language, on anger as I happen to like it and anger is always a fruitful topic to generate discussion. But there is no need for you to own this particular book as the techniques are pretty general and I would hope we would all be bringing in and discussing a wide range of techniques from the books on the list here and elsewhere.

I have arbitrarily divided the techniques here into 1) owning feelings and 2) changing feelings by changing form to give you a better feeling for how the process works. These two ‘types’ of techniques cannot really be separated, but I would like to invite you to look at them separately. In addition to the example from Danish in section two, I would like you to consider what Pennebaker has to say about expression (I will explain this further in the section as it is quite close to the clinical meaning of emotional expression).

When we come to the second aspect (changing), I’d like to invite you to think about this quote which is from a blog of a major contemporary poet, Ron Silliman:: http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com “So what is meaning & where do you find it? Williams called it ‘the news,’ but that phrase, bandied about as much as it is, is often understood in far too narrow a fashion. I often will find it in a poem lurking not in the words as such so much as in the vowels, or in the way a phrase alters my expectation in how lines enjamb or a phrase is inverted, in the length of a line. All to me seem primary modes of meaning.& the student who is not taught how to see, to read these things, has in fact never been taught to read.” Williams here refers to William Carlos Williams, who was a major American poet of an earlier generation.

I certainly don’t expect you to understand this in it’s entirety but I’d like to direct your attention to the way that the poet is aware on a conscious or unconscious level of very subtle nuances as he or she constructs a poem. You will find the same attention to nuances in Mullen’s work This attention to what is called the ‘materiality’ of a poem, be it a traditional work, a sound poem, or a visual poem, is one hallmark of contemporary ‘experimental’ poetry. The other major characteristic I want to draw your attention to here is the tendency to distort, mangle, or cut up traditional forms. Both of these tendencies are useful in accentuating gesture and expression.

A poem as a gesture made by the poet is a reflection and expression of the poet’s emotional (and embodied) feelings. I am not going to encourage a lot of reading here as these are complicated issues and I would like to stick as close as I can to a ‘common’ or popular conception of these ideas without getting stuck in clinical or research issue.


Lesson 2: Turn Up the Volume?


Lesson Two, Section Two: Owning the Feeling.

Even though this is therapeutic jargon “owning a feeling” does have general applicability and in some ways is just a commonsense concept. What is called “owning a feeling” appears to involve at least two processes on the part of the ‘owner’: 1) exaggeration of intensity, and 2) visceral or bodily awareness. Both of these processes are an integral part of the writer’s process, as Danish and others have pointed out. As Danish points out it’s important for the writer to gather details about what he or she is angry at, just as it’s important to gather details about anything when writing. This is really what a writer, William Carlos Williams for example, is getting at when he tells writers to focus on things and it’s what writing teachers are after when they talk about the importance of specifics and recommend concrete details rather than abstracts. It is these details that communicate thoughts and feelings vividly by writers to readers.

Other ways of exaggerating intensity would include varying the intensity of colors, such as using violet rather than pink, for example. Size can also be varied. Size as well as other elements of the process can refer both to the thing or person described and to the words used in description. For example, a person you are angry at can be seen as little or big, and he or she can be described using these or other words. He or she can also be described as luke warm or tepid, as hot, or as boiling hot. Why not take a look at varying the intensity of what you’ve written and we can discuss what you find out and other ways you see that intensity can be varied? This difference between the object and the words used to describe it (and changing them independently) is one way of gaining distance from or perspective on things and feelings and we will be getting to this further in lesson four here.

Intensity is an interesting concept when it comes to writing. Sometimes less is more. This something I think you can see when you think of what seems erotic to you. Personally, for example, I prefer scantiness to blatant sexuality, I’m sure you have other.


Lesson 2: Turn Up the Volume?

Use of Formal Elements

Lesson Two, Section Three: Use of Formal Elements

This is a few lines from a poem by Robert Frost. “the Road not Taken“ which I‘m sure you have heard before:
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

If you look at it without paying attention to the meaning, you can see some elements of what are called poetics. There is a rhythm and it rhymes, for example. I suspect all of you have been introduced to this way of looking at poetry and the elements that make it work at some time in your life. If not, the book edited by Strand has some information on this. Once again, I don’t want to get hung up on this issue. This is from Mullen (and off the web)
as horses as for
as purple as we go
as heartbeat as if
as silverware as it were
as onion as I can
as cherries as feared
as combustion as want
as dog collar as expected
as oboes as anyone
as umbrella as catch can
as penmanship as it gets
as narcosis as could be
as hit parade as all that
as ice box as far as I know
as fax machine as one can imagine
as cyclones as hoped
as dictionary as you like
as shadow as promised
as drinking fountain as well
as grassfire as myself
as mirror as is
as never as this

As you can see this is somewhat different. She is using a new rhythm and odd format, which is called signifying. This related to the tendency in poetry to use the vernacular or common everyday speech.

Contemporary or experimental or avant-garde poetry also at times goes in the other direction from the vernacular into the artificial by using artifice consciously. I mentioned OULIPO earlier as an influence here on poetics. OULIPO was a group of French Theoreticians which met regularly to develop interest ancient forms of poetry and in combinatorial or artificial forms of poetry. I’m sure by now most of you have come across works that use this and it might be interesting if you could provide an example or two for us.

It also might be helpful here to take a look at the experimental poetry examles Charles Berstein has pu on the net and also the other sites I provided.

I think you all have come up with some thoughts on the ways these formal elements of poetics could be used to exaggerate or accentuate the feelings you write or throw out in your poems.


Lesson 2: Turn Up the Volume?


Lesson Two, Section Four: Bibliography

Capacchione, Lucia. Living with Feeling. NY, Putnam, 2001
Danish, Barbara. Writing as a Second Language. NY, Teachers and Writers, 1995.
DeSalvo, Louise. Writing as Healing. San Francisco, Harper, 2002
Mullen, Harryette. Sleeping with the Dictionary. Berkeley, Univ. of California Press, 2002.
Pennebaker, James. Opening Up. NY, Guilford, 1995,
Strand, Mark, ed. The Making of a Poem. NY, Norton, 2002.


Lesson 3: Writing and health

Ways that writing might influence health.


Lesson Three, Section One: Introduction.

In this lesson we will be talking about and discussing the relation of writing to improvements in health functioning that are beginning to emerge in a large number of studies over the past twenty years. While some of this material is technical I hope not to have to bore you with details and try to present it in an understandable fashion. I will be basing this on James Pennebaker’s book and work, and on the summary Louise DeSalvo furnishes in her book.

Another way of understanding how this works, that is the beneficial effect of writing on health, is provided by the way science currently conceives the of the role of the immune system. This is basically pretty complicated and much of the research needs to be done. Here Esther Sternberg provides one useful guide to this complicated field.

Other accounts of ‘how it works’ come from a variety of orientations concerning with what I call coherency or healing. I happen to like Deena Metzger’s approach to coherency and healing, but I’m quite sure you all have versions of this which you might like to share as it turns out that here we are moving into the realm of spirituality, I hope there will be time here to share these ideas when we come to this section and to Lesson Four which is on Shaping the Feelings into Healing Feelings.


Lesson 3: Writing and health

Health and writing – Pennebaker Model

Lesson Three, Section Two. The Psychology of Writing and Health.

The most important work on this connection clearly is that based on the work of James Pennebaker. He does have a website on writing and health at http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu/homepage/… and reading his book and Louise DeSalvo’s summary would be helpful. Even though the general idea has gone through some changes over the years and has been challenged by other psychologists, the simple idea he began his work with is still considered applicable,

In 1986, Pennebaker and his colleague, Sandra Beall, conducted some experiments on writing about feeling and discovered that many of those who wrote emotionally according to the guidelines made fewer visits to the college health center six months later. They were surprised and conducted some other experiments. Since that time many others have conducted similar studies with essentially the same results.

The theory they developed to account for these findings was that suppressing trauma was work and this work expended energy that could have been used by those people in improving their health. The basic idea is that people possess a certain amount of energy and if they use those resources in suppressing thoughts they won’t have that energy to fight disease and promote their health. I’d like you all to take a few minutes here and think about something you may want not to think about. This is the basis of some interesting psychological concepts in what is called self-deception – try not to think of a white bear. Can you do it?

Once again, I don’t feel like it is constructive for us to delve into these issues extensively.

While we are pausing here, you might find it worthwhile to consider the poems you have written or are writing from the perspective of trauma and healing. What happened to make you feel the way you did or do? Is it a feeling you have been ‘suppressing?” DeSalvo suggests that there will be no benefit, health or otherwise, if you are not ‘releasing‘ something that you have ‘suppressed.’ In other words, as they say, “no pain, no gain.” (this is consistent with what Pennebaker and others have said).

It should be noted that the explanation that Pennebaker and Beall came up with goes along with the general psychological perspective on therapy for those who have been traumatized (which we won’t get into here). It is also not contradicted by the perspectives we will be touching on in the next section on healing, the immune system, and spirituality.


Lesson 3: Writing and health

Section Three: Story

Lesson Three, Section Three. Other perspectives on healing.

One of the major routes to healing, at least theoretically, these days is seen ass being through healing the immune system. This is a very complex question these days and one that is on the cutting and growing edge of research. We could spend days literally in discussing how this works, but if you care to pursue it, a glance at the book by Sternberg in the bibliography should be helpful,

This is undoubtedly applicable to many disorders, but I hope I can explain the way it works through using one of the diseases I suffer from. Irritable Bowel Syndrome is one of what are called functional somatic syndromes. This class includes such things as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia etc. A characteristic of this group of problems is that they often can include a stress or psychological component, although not always. The role of the immune system appears to be that it is important in strengthening response to stress. If the immune system is strengthened by writing, which seems to be the case, this could be how writing affects illness through strengthening the immune system. Once again, I don’t want to go into the extensively here.

Other ways that writing can contribute to improved health include the opportunity it provides the writer to change focus or perspective or it might provide an opportunity to gain a spiritual perspective on illness. I think of writing primarily as an action or gesture as I said before, and DeSalvo provides a bridge from the scientific explanation through this perspective to the spiritual when she talks about writing as a ’fixer’ or ’sturdy ladder’ that we can use to ’fix’ (in the photographic sense) past thoughts and current feelings as we move on to healing. I’m sure here that I’ve made some jumps for you.

This I think brings us to the role of the spiritual in healing. The spiritual dimension, no matter how it is phrased, is what puts us in touch with nature and with our version of God. I happen to be in tune with Deena Metzger’s perspective here: According to her and to many others we all have a story, “To know a story is the beginning; to write it down, to shape and refine it are another story altogether.” (Writing for Your Life)

The dimension of story and ways to shape the feelings of your poems is what we will be working on in the next lesson.



Lesson 3: Writing and health


DeSalvo, Louise. Writing as Healing. San Francisco, Harper, 2002
Metzger, Deena. Writing for Your Life. San Francisco, Harper,1992
Metzger, Deena. Entering the River. Malibu, CA, Hand to Hand, 2002
Pennebaker, James. Opening Up. NY, Guilford, 1995
Sternberg, Esther. The Balance Within. NY, Holt, 2001


Lesson 4: Shaping the Feelings

Writing as healing..


Lesson Four, Section One: Introduction

Now that you have had some experience of the process of writing and gained some knowledge of exaggerating feelings in writing and life along with some perspectives on the potential healing qualities of writing, we are ready I think, to start putting it together into healing through what you have done or shaping it so that you can heal.

As Metzger says, “The image, the myth, the story, the gesture, the ritual, the ceremony – they are similar; all events of the imagination.” (Writing for Your Life)

In a sense a poem is life, or can be. You have made the gesture of expressing a feeling in a poem. You have learned ways of deepening and owning it. You have hopefully discovered ways or altering it (the gesture and the poem) and different forms to give it. I would invite you right now to take a few minutes and consider those ways of writing that you personally felt comfortable with – just as there are certain pens that you feel comfortable using. “Fix” those ways in your mind and body so that you keep them in awareness as we move through this lesson.

Something that might help if you are having difficulty here is a story DeSalvo tells about Eudora Welty reshaping her work into stories. According to her Welty took a typescript of her work, cut it into sections, and shuffled the sections around until they made narrative, artistic, and emotional sense. Then she used pins to fasten the pieces she felt belonged together like the pieces of a dress. This was a way of assembling or shaping a story that Welty felt comfortable using.

As you may be aware, shaping a work is very much an individual thing. There are really no guidelines for this any more than there are guidelines for becoming a great artist – everyone in the end has to blaze his or her own path. The hope here is that I can provide a few suggestions that you might want to incorporate into your life.

The shaping of a gesture has two major components which we will take up in the next two sections: 1) the shaping or refining of a gesture and 2) it’s communication function.


Lesson 4: Shaping the Feelings


Lesson Four, Section Two: Gesture

One of the elements that I have stressed in earlier sections is the gesture as it is manifested in emotion, in writing, and in health. This is because it’s the way I’ve learned to work, but it also has been seen as important in the arts. I happen to appreciate Jackson Pollock, for example, and I like to use him as a model (of an artist if not necessarily of a person). He might well not be your idea of a model artist but I think if you consider it carefully even classical artists do have gestural quality in their work, even though that work night more carefully follow guidelines. The quality of the expressive gesture is what counts artistically and possibly health wise.

As DeSalvo writes, “in the ordering and shaping stage it’s important to follow our intuition about how our work should be organized – what scene should come first, what should follow, what should be juxtaposed with what, and how it should end. This Involves and openness to our creation, to the form it has started to take without our realizing it. (Writing as a Way of Healing),” Intuition will be coming up again in the next section and it is one of those qualities we all know but nobody has ever defined. It is actually, I think, something we all know without knowing that we know.

Ordering of course can be orderly or ‘messy’. It can also work or not for you. I’d like you here to take a step back from what you’ve done and into yourself, perhaps take a few breaths and become aware of your bodily feelings. Then take a look at your work and feel how you want to change it. Have any of you felt like changing What you had done before?


Lesson 4: Shaping the Feelings


Lesson Four, Section Three: The Audience

Just as in a work of art and with a poem, the audience is an integral part of a feeling or health gesture. For example, if you are angry you’re often angry at someone and how you communicate that feeling is an important part of the communication process. Even if you think you are silent and saying nothing it often turns out that you ar communicating.

Metzger talks about seeing and then believing what we see (or putting your body into it). She then says that “the creative can bridge the gap between the inner and the public worlds, between daily life and the world of the spirit (Writing for Your Life).” We are now in this public or spiritual world. You might like to try out your “public” displays with a small and safe audience before trying them elsewhere.



Lesson 4: Shaping the Feelings


DeSalvo, Louise. Writing as Healing. San Francisco, Harper, 2002
Metzger, Deena. Writing for Your Life. San Francisco, Harper,1992
Metzger, Deena. Entering the River. Malibu, CA, Hand to Hand, 2002
Pennebaker, James. Opening Up. NY, Guilford, 1995
Sternberg, Esther. The Balance Within. NY, Holt, 2001


Leave a Comment