Medicine & Research

Writing as Healing and Self-Expression, an Introduction

By John A. Crandall

"When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives meant the most to us, we often find it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand." - Henri Nouwen (1932-1996)

Writing as healing (also referred to as "writing to heal" or therapeutic writing) is one of many complementary and alternative medical therapies that help with some of the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Writing as healing can help transform ineffective mental and emotional patterns. 

Upheavals touch every part of our lives; our health doesn't affect just our bodies. We don't just leave a job, and we don't just get divorced. These events affect all aspects of who we are - relationships with others, our views of ourselves, our issues of life and death. Writing can help us focus and organize these experiences. 

It is in our nature to try to make sense of the things that happen to us. When a traumatic event occurs or we undergo a significant life transition, our minds have to work overtime to process the experience. Thoughts about these events may keep us awake at night, distract us at work, and even make us less connected with other people. Without some resolution, the echoes of these events can affect us all our lives. 

Studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that asthma and arthritis patients showed a significant reduction of symptoms when they wrote about stressful experiences. Further research into growing fields of writing (of any kind), journaling, and poetry therapy holds much promise in the areas of personal development, healing, and growth. 

Self-expression through writing has a measurable, positive effect on both healthy people and those with illness. Expressive writing can shape, mold, and recast human experience. By writing and reading aloud to others in safe group settings, not only does our writing improve, but we also heal what ails us. 

When we translate an experience into language, we make the experience graspable. We may see improvements in "working memory." Essentially our ability to think about more than one thing at a time improves. We may also find we're better able to sleep. Our social connections may improve, partly because we have a greater ability to focus on someone other than ourselves. Standing back now and then and evaluating where we are in life is essential.

Joining a Writing as Healing Group

Journaling is helpful, but it won't provide any group interaction, which is the writing as healing method's foundation. When we share our experiences in a safe, supportive environment, we gain even more benefits. We no longer endure in a vacuum; we become a part of a community with individuals who give and receive support from each other. With the pandemic, few groups meet in person. The virtual meetings, such as Zoom, have allowed us to continue to write as a group. 

Not every group is the same. The foundation of the groups I lead is the process developed by Pat Schneider and the Amherst Writers and Artists. If you interested in the mechanics of the process, Schneider's book Writing Alone and With Others is a good resource. Schneider's book and the writings of Peter Elbow and John Pennebacker are excellent places to begin. The most important aspect of a facilitator's approach is how safe you feel disclosing feelings that are hard to say out loud. Confidentiality is a must. Another crucial point is how writers, in a group, respond to one another. Would you feel comfortable sharing private details about them? If not, perhaps that group isn't for you.

The tenet I cherish the most from Pat Schneider's work is that everybody is treated as fiction, and we only respond with "What We Liked," "What was Strong," and "What Will Stay with You." Not everyone will respond with these "rules," but they are an essential part of the process that keeps the group safe. 

Not all groups address just one issue such as MS, but don't despair. A skilled facilitator will be able to address the healing component, not just disease. Lacking a facilitator, you could use Schneider's book as a beginning. Even better would be a group that meets virtually. Here is a snapshot of what I would look for in a group:
  • Confidentiality (an absolute must)
  • Training. I would be interested to know if the facilitator had some experience leading writing as healing groups and "Crisis Intervention" training. 
  • Group size is an important consideration.
  • What is the makeup of the group, and would you feel comfortable sharing with them?
  • After being with your facilitator, do you feel more like writing or less like writing? You should never be made to feel embarrassment or shame in the group. If that happens, there is something wrong with the way the facilitator is leading it. Drop the group. Find another.
What's It Like

The writing groups usually convene for two hours (the length is up to the facilitator). The facilitator offers writing prompts that are meant to stimulate the imagination. Depending on the number of participants, and the prompts, there may be two or more writes. No one has to read what they wrote to the group. The only "rule" is that you have to write - anything: write to the prompt, write to your mother, write a shopping list, just write.

You don't have to read your piece, but your experience of the process will be more beneficial if you do. Don't be surprised if, while reading, you discover new or formerly unacknowledged emotions. (Shhh, you and others in the group might cry. But that is okay.) Again, the listeners will be listening to fiction, so you don't have to worry about truth or accuracy or their reaction to you. You are only the reader at that point. If you think it would be helpful, you can ask that your piece be considered non-fiction.

Just know:
  • It is normal to feel nervous or intimidated.
  • When we read, we are no longer the author; we are the reader.
  • Read, then be silent and accept the feedback from the listeners.
  • If there is silence, understand, and accept that it is honoring. 

As above, when we respond, we confine our comments to:
  • What I like.
  • What was strong.
  • What will stay with me?

Expressive writing isn't for everyone, but it is worth trying. To get you started, here are some of my prompts:
  • The body, what about the body?
  • What matters.
  • I am from...
  • Imagine a place...
  • Favorites (or maybe not): smell, taste, sensation, sight.
  • I need...

My groups, CrandallWriters, meet in person, if or when appropriate, and virtually with Zoom. If you want a more in-depth look at the method as I have adapted it, you will find more information on my web page,, and I am always glad to entertain questions.