Writing to Heal

This class is for cancer patients/survivors, their caregivers, family, and friends, and takes place in Grass Valley, CA, sponsored by the Community Cancer Center at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital, a part of Dignity Health.

Starting in May, 2000, I’ve been running eight-week sessions throughout the year, on Thursday afternoons from 2:30 – 4:30. We meet three blocks from the hospital (whose need for space outgrew its capacity a few years ago). The class is designed so each week is a separate entity — this way if you’re currently in treatment you can miss a week or more and you’re not behind in the class. Just come back when you have the energy. Bring writing materials. We write and share (you’re welcome to decline the sharing part if you wish). It’s a safe and healing environment, with quite a bit of laughing going on, too.

June 16 – August 4 (you can join us any time during this session, even though it’s already started)
August 25 – September 15 (half-session)
October 20 – December 15

Tuition is only $20 for each eight-week session. Subsidized by generous donors to the Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital’s Community Cancer Center who wish to remain anonymous.

E-mail me here for more information, to sign up, and to get directions. You can pay by cash or check at our first meeting. Here’s an explanation of what we’re doing, excerpted from an article I wrote a few years ago:

Writing to Heal

For many years, people have said that writing can be healing. Sometimes this healing is attributed to having the problem out of your head and on the page. Sometimes it’s put down to getting whatever you’re writing about “out of your system,” whatever that means. The evidence has been vast, but always anecdotal: people often say they feel better, and act as if they feel better, after they’ve done some writing.

I’m a child sexual abuse survivor, the kind who didn’t remember the events of my childhood at the time, but recalled them later in life. When I began to remember my history, piece by jagged piece, I started writing poems, something I’d never done or wanted to do before. For me, the medium of poetry seemed to be a way to talk about the pain I was in without necessarily having to write in complete sentences: I could express my emotions (my huge and unmanageable emotions) more easily.

As I wrote, the emotions poured out, but so also did some of the specifics of what had happened to me. I began, at great length, to feel a tiny bit better. Able to cope with my circumstances, and live in the real world again. The process took about ten years, so it certainly wasn’t fast, or easy. But incrementally I began to recover.

I started to teach writing, and at some point came across the work of James Pennebaker, a psychology professor then at Southern Methodist University. In his book Opening Up, The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, Pennebaker describes an experiment he did with his graduate students at SMU. He wanted to find out if there were a way to prove that writing could be healing.

The experiment involved writing for 15 minutes every day for four days. Participants — all of whom were undergraduates in an introductory psychology class getting course credit for their participation — were randomly assigned to one of four topics. Three groups were to write about the most traumatic thing that had ever happened to them, but in different ways: one was to vent their emotions about the trauma but not mention it by name. One was to write about the details of the trauma but not their emotions. One was to include both details and emotional venting. And one was to write about something superficial or irrelevant to trauma, like what their dorm room looked like.

Pennebaker and his team had access to records of the prior two months of health service attendance for all their participants, and tracked them for four months after this four-day experiment. Only one group showed a significant reduction in health service attendance: for the people who had written about both their trauma and their emotions, health service attendance was cut in half.

Pennabaker et. al. repeated this experiment but included drawing blood from participants at several points in the process, and found that not only were the health service attendance results duplicated, but the t-cell count was elevated in participants who wrote about the trauma and their emotions, right after the last day of writing and sometimes for as long as six weeks afterward.

In writing about the facts of the trauma and the emotions surrounding it, Pennebaker posits that his participants are using both sides of their brains simultaneously. As I looked back on my own recovery from childhood trauma, I could see that unconsciously I had used the same technique in writing poems: expressing strong emotion, and also using specific details to describe aspects of the trauma itself: what the room looked like, what I had been doing just before being attacked.

I collaborated with Marilyn Kriegel, one of my poetry students and a marriage and family therapist and friend, to see if we could invent a method of writing poems that would also use both sides of the brain. Our goal was to develop a technique that people could use on their own, without the structure of an experiment, but which would also have some structure to it, and be easy for people who were not used to writing.

We are not scientists, and have not tested this method in formal experiments of any kind. But anecdotally, writing this way has made two of the populations I work with feel much better: cancer patients (and their caregivers), and sexual abuse survivors. For several years, I taught the technique to therapists to use with their trauma clients. I encourage people who’ve received any big life-threatening diagnosis to try it too, and see if it helps in the emotional processing of their trauma.

The basic idea is that through four simple steps, you can make a list into a poem. The making of the list involves the logical left side of the brain, and the other steps gradually bring in the right side of the brain, identifying sensory information and digging deeper into an experience. I advise people to practice this technique with non-traumatic topics a couple of times before moving into something with more charge on it. It’s good to get a feel for the way the process works, so you’re at least slightly familiar with it before your emotions get too involved. When writing this way on a traumatic subject make sure you’re in a safe environment, and that you won’t need to drive immediately afterward.

©Molly Fisk, 2000-20016