What is writing for wellbeing?

Writing for wellbeing comes in  all shapes and sizes. It might be a purely individual exercise or it might be engaging in writing alongside others. I run writing for wellbeing groups, but some other forms it might take include:

  • a to do list, quickly scribbled down in the morning to sort out your mind and day
  • a dream journal
  • writing in a notebook on your own, working through your feelings
  • an online blog or forum post, sharing with others going through similar experiences
  • an unsent letter to someone who has died
  • a community-based creative writing group
  • a reflective practice shared by a group of professionals for professional development.

Since I first began writing stories in primary school under the guidance of a seriously lovely teacher, I have been engaged in writing for wellbeing, often without even knowing it! For example: in adolescence I wrote and shared poetry with other angst-ridden teenage friends as a way of understanding our feelings and experiences. We assiduously copied out and passed round favourite poems of our own and others, sticking them into our school diaries. Later, as a student and then a professional I have journaled as part of reflective practice in counselling roles.  And for a couple of years I kept a poetry blog when I was struggling with my feelings as a stay-at-home mum. During those times, writing might just have saved my sanity, if not life.

Professionally, I have suggested practical writing exercises to clients as interventions in bereavement work.  In doing so, I saw how powerfully a writing exercise could work in that setting and I became ever more curious about why it worked, how it worked and what other ways it might work for a wider group of people.  This inevitably led me on to begin further training (I’m a life-long learner).

Writing for wellbeing falls under the umbrella term ‘creative writing for therapeutic purposes’.  What a clunky term! Let’s try to unpack it as a way to explore what is at heart of writing for wellbeing:

  1. Creative: Put simply, to be creative is to create something. And being creative is a big part of being human, we just don’t always recognise it in ourselves.  But we create things everyday – meals, solutions, songs, crochet, knitting. We create works of art and things that are more mundane.  It is vital we appreciate our creativity as an inherent potentiality, something to nurture and not crush. Most of us have at some point as a child had our fledgling confidence knocked by the careless words of a critical teacher or parent. This is the enemy of creativity. And its not how our creativity is treated in a writing for wellbeing experience. Instead, we aim to listen sensitively and honour all products of our own and other’s creative endeavours. Gillie Bolton says (2014, p.135):

‘Every piece of writing is right because it is an exploration of the writers’ own work, knowledge, memories etc.: in fact, right or wrong are not appropriate here.’ 

  1. Writing: creative writing for therapeutic purposes is a wide field.  It is writing and story-telling that is fictional across all genres and includes autobiographical writing. The term ‘fictional’ is used loosely, any narrative is fiction because stories are recreated and retold from a perspective. It might be free writing where pen is put to paper in order to write continuously what comes into your mind, unfiltered and unedited. Or it might be prescriptive exercises focussing on a particular form (e.g. acrostics, alpha-poems, pantoum, haiku etc.). It incorporates different formats and media: Online forums, blogs, e-publishing, twitter, writing apps and virtual groups. And it’s not about creating works of literary genius, the focus is on the process of writing; not the end result. It is more than just the written word.  Speaking/sharing is important too and it incorporates oral traditions of story-telling; transcription of other people’s words, e.g. working with people with dementia who may no longer be capable of writing.
  1. For therapeutic purposes: What is the therapeutic benefit we are hoping to achieve? And how do we know there is one? There are many different approaches to these questions. Some suggest we might achieve both physical and mental health – wellbeing of the whole person: of particular interest are James Pennebaker’s writing experiments in Opening Up (1990). His personal journey exploring scientifically the therapeutic benefits of writing is an engaging read if you want to know more.  He even describes experiments exploring physical health benefits experienced by people writing about trauma. Others, such as Gillie Bolton, talk about the benefits from a perspective of personal development, as part of a personal or professional reflective practice to integrate ourselves as humans. Allowing ourselves to write freely can help us get to know ourselves, to see ourselves as a fluid character who is dynamically evolving, who can write our own stories and make sense of the world around us.

All writing has the potential to improve your wellbeing and the best thing about it is that it is cheap – all you need to get started is yourself, your thoughts, a pen and something to write on. Why not give it a go today?

References/ further reading:
Bolton, G., Field, V. & Thompson, K. (2006) Writing Works.  London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Bolton, G. (2014) Reflective Practice: Writing and Professional Development (4th Edition). London: Sage Publications
Hartill, G.  (2005) ‘The Art of Memory: Poetry and Elderly People’ in Hedges, D. Poetry, Therapy and Emotional Life.  Oxford: Radcliffe Medical Press
Pennebaker, J. (1990) Opening Up. New York: The Guildford Press

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