Expressive Writing for Healing

poem

Mary’s poetry, age 16

I have a history of writing my way through difficult periods in my life, with angst-ridden poetry in my teens, through a manuscript I completed during my husband’s cancer treatment in 2006, and blogging about grief after my mother’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent death in 2010. I’d assumed the reason I turned to the journaling format as I mourned my husband in 2012 was because it came naturally as a writer. Weeks into my grief journey, however, I wondered how anyone could survive the experience without writing about it.
Through research, I discovered that expressive writing can be a powerful healing tool for anyone, not just writers. Dr. James Pennebaker, Regents Centennial Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, is often lauded as the pioneer in studying expressive writing as a route to healing. He discusses his findings in Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressive Emotions, revealing how short-term, focused writing can have a beneficial effect for anyone dealing with stress or trauma.

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In his original study in the late 1980s, college students wrote for twenty minutes on four consecutive days about the most traumatic or upsetting experiences of their lives, while control subjects wrote about superficial topics. Those in the experimental group showed marked improvement in immune-system functioning and had fewer visits to the health center in the months following the study.

Pennebaker’s original expressive writing paradigm has been replicated in hundreds of studies since then, each measuring different potential effects of expressive writing. Not only has subsequent research confirmed his original finding regarding physical well-being, writing about emotionally charged topics has also been shown to improve mental health, reducing symptoms of depression or anxiety. This has proven true in studies with those who have experienced loss, veterans experiencing PTSD, as well as cancer patients. Expressive writing is now an accepted holistic and nonmedicinal method for wellness.

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For anyone new to expressive writing, I include these suggestions for beginning the practice in my newly-released journal Expressive Writing for Healing and through the workshops I conduct:
1. Choose a notebook or journal that fits your personality, that you can comfortably write in. A beautiful leather-bound journal might be too intimidating to begin with. Perhaps it will be a journal with a cover that has special meaning to you; a butterfly, dragonfly, or a Bible verse. Or maybe you’ll prefer to begin with a simple notebook with pages that can easily be torn out. Just the physical act of handwriting can be therapeutic, but if you are more comfortable writing on a computer, that works too.
2. There are no rules for journal writing. Cross out sentences, scribble on the sides of the paper, doodle or draw on the pages. Don’t worry about sentence structure or grammar. This writing is for you and not an audience. You can’t help yourself if you’re holding back, afraid to be honest about what you’re feeling. Feelings and emotions can be messy, so it’s perfectly fine if your journal is, too.
3. Write down your dreams, both literal and figurative. Do you have dreams and desires for your future? Write them down. In a couple of years, you may look back and see some of those dreams have become reality. Our subconscious also works hard at processing significant changes in our life. Have you had any particularly vivid nighttime dreams? Write those down, too. I’ve solved daytime dilemmas and come up with wonderful ideas in my dreams, so I like to keep a notebook by the bed to jot them down.
4. If you are reading inspirational books or articles, copy passages or quotes that speak to you. When I read something particularly inspiring or uplifting that resonates with me, I copy pertinent passages or quotes in my journal. I’ve often referred to those past journals and can still find inspiration and encouragement from the words I chose to transcribe. C.S. Lewis once wrote “We read to know we are not alone.”
5. Date your journal entries and try to end them on a positive note. Can you find even one thing to be grateful for each time you journal? By ending your journal entry on a positive note—with words of thanks or perhaps a prayer—you are training yourself to consciously choose joy and gratitude. Some people like to keep a separate gratitude journal, listing little blessings and good things that happen each day. This practice works because it forces you to intentionally focus your attention on grateful thinking, eliminating unwanted, ungrateful thoughts and guarding against taking things or people for granted. You want gratitude to become a habit, so practicing it in your journal helps that happen.

Mary graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a BA in Psychology. A certified grief counselor and founder of the annual Heal Your Grief retreat in Dubuque, Iowa, Mary conducts Expressive Writing for Healing workshops for churches, libraries, community colleges or grief support groups. Contact her at marypotterkenyon@gmail.com for more information. 

 

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So Close to Goal…Book Giveaway 1-20

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Expressive Writing for Healing by Mary Potter Kenyon

Expressive Writing for Healing

by Mary Potter Kenyon

Giveaway ends February 28, 2018.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

If you aren’t on Goodreads, and want to win a free copy of Expressive Writing for Healing, continue reading.

One of my goals for 2018 is to grow my social media outreach, as my Expressive Writing for Healing journal comes out this year.  I’m setting up workshops on the topic, as well as Legacy of Creativity workshops in conjunction with the book I’m working on now. You can see my upcoming events HERE.

As part of that outreach, I’d like to hit 500 followers on my Mary Potter Kenyon Author Page. Anyone who LIKES my page will be entered in a random drawing for a signed copy of Expressive Writing for Healing AND a $10 Target gift card.

Don’t worry, if you LIKED my page in the last week, before you saw this post, I’ll check my notifications and add your name to the random drawing as well. I’ll choose one name on January 20th for a free advance copy of my upcoming journal and $10 Target gift card. If you already like my page, you can still win. Just go to my Author page, look for this blog post, and SHARE it! I’ll check Share notifications as well, and your name will be entered, too. LIKE AND SHARE, and double your chances!  So what are you waiting for? Go to my Author Page now, and help me meet my goal of 500 LIKES.

Merry Mary New Year~

“I’ll need to go in my office and write for a few minutes at midnight,” I informed my daughters last night as we watched television. “I’d once heard that whatever you are doing at midnight on New Year’s Eve is how you’ll spend the rest of the year, so I want to be writing.”

If that superstition holds true, I’ll be sleeping through most of the year, as I woke up to laughter five minutes after it began. I’d fallen asleep! Turns out, I had that superstition wrong. The point is to actually be doing something related to your employment on the first day of the new year. By doing it well, but not working too hard, you’ll do your job well and not be overworked the rest of the year.

I’m not sure if writing for seven consecutive hours today constitutes working “too hard,” but I hope it bodes well for productivity the rest of the year. While I’ve been employed part-time as librarian since March, it’s my writing and workshops I’ve been concentrating on over the holidays.

A year ago, I was miserable in a job that should have been perfect for me; getting paid to go to work every morning and write as a newspaper reporter.  Now employed part-time, I spend my free mornings writing what I want to write. Last year, that meant finishing up a journal that will be released this April.

Expressive Writing for Healing

Since signing a book contract in November, I’m also working on a book about creativity. The seeds of this book were planted in my heart a long time ago, shortly after my mother passed away in 2010. She left behind many notebooks and journals that made it clear her greatest wish for her children was that they get to Heaven and utilize their talents. Her words became a catalyst for change in my creativity and faith. The winter after her death, I embarked on what would become one of the most creative periods of my life up to that point. In her empty house, I found solitude and solace, a private writing retreat. There, I worked on a book manuscript, wrote articles and essays, prepared couponing and writing workshops and designed a power point presentation on creativity. I also began a file folder on creativity, certain it would someday become a book in honor of my creative mother. It could be said that grief was the impetus to taking my writing seriously, the legacy of my mother as my muse. My work in progress opens with her words.

“Our main purpose on earth is to save our soul and try to do the will of God in all things. That also means using the talents he gave us, and using them for good.”

I pulled out that old file folder in March. By late June, I’d completed the book proposal. A lot of research went on in-between; on the science behind creativity, the link between creativity and health and happiness, and the spiritual aspect of creativity. (After all, how can we talk about creativity without mentioning The Creator?)

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A few of my favorites~

I’ve continued doing research as I delve into the different topics. The Hidden Art of Homemaking by Edith Schaeffer and Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle were old favorites that I re-read. World Enough & Time I borrowed from my sister Joan and read on the airplane on the way home from visiting her in Florida. The Art of Creative Living by Thomas Kinkade was one of the last books my mother had read in the summer of 2010.

By late summer, all this reading and writing about creativity led me to begin a Lifelong Learner’s Creativity group at the library where I work. Many of the women who joined weren’t exactly sure what they wanted to gain from it, but something in the description appealed to a restless, unnamed feeling stirring within them.
“Perhaps you were the daydreamer in grade school, the child staring out the window with a head full of stories, or the one reading books from your lap beneath the desk. Then someone snatched the box of crayons from your hand, insisting you’d done it all wrong; that trees weren’t pink, and bunnies weren’t purple, and you’d gone outside the lines. Or maybe they pulled the book out from beneath your desk, telling you it was time for math, not reading. Whether you’re ready to reignite your childhood passion for all things creative, and want your crayons back, or are looking for a way to connect with your inner artist and others who think outside of the box, a new group forming at the James Kennedy Library might be of interest.”

Our circle now serves as a focus group of sorts, representing my target audience. We’ve already done several of the activities I suggest in my book. This month we’ll be painting on canvas, and next month we’ll envision what our more creative life looks like with Vision Boards.

In the same vein, I’m incorporating creativity exercises into a “Legacy of Creativity” workshop. While I’ll continue doing writing workshops, I’m looking forward to doing  “Expressive Writing for Healing” and “Legacy of Creativity” workshops in 2018.

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You’ll have to attend one of my creativity workshops to see what the pencils are for~

 

So, this is what the beginning of 2018 looks like for me; a new book coming out in April, work on a manuscript that is due the end of May, and workshops and classes scheduled on my days off from the library. Despite nodding off at midnight, I’m fairly certain I won’t be sleeping through 2018.

Book Review: The Story You Need to Tell

“After unearthing twenty-seven journals from dusty shelves and long-forgotten hiding places, I began reading them. I thought I would skim through them, a glass of red wine in hand, in two to three hours. Wrong. A week later I was still caught up in the thick of them. I learned how I opened up as a thinker. How I loved to read and explore books. I learned how some authors captivated me, while others tied me in knots. How writer Christine Baldwin taught me the value of keeping a journal for life. How I became a writer. How ideas intrigued me. How becoming a mother changed and fascinated me.”

I was hooked as soon as I read those words. As we’ve shared on this blog, Mary and I recently delved into our own journals and daybooks. Mary is still working her way through hers.

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I picked up Sandra Marinella’s The Story You Need to Tell: Writing to Heal From Trauma, Illness, or Loss as research for my upcoming workshop, “Expressive Writing for Healing” offered in August at Hawkeye  community college in Cedar Falls, and in September at NICC in Dubuque.  As I’ve noted before, unlike my Mary & Me co-author, I really didn’t journal much until after my husband died, when I instinctively turned to writing to work my way through grief.

journalsIn fact, I couldn’t stop writing. I blogged, filled pages of my journal, wrote essays, letters to my friend Mary, and worked on several books, including what would become Refined By Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace

Knowing how much expressive writing had helped me, I began delving into the science behind it, reading books and articles by James W. Pennebaker, the man who was at the forefront of research on the connection between expressive writing and healing. I’ve written about Pennebaker many times, mentioning him in both my upcoming grief journal and my workshops, as well as previous blog postings.  While Marinella discusses his research in her book, she also frequently refers to her mentor, Christina Baldwin, author of Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives Through the Power and Practice of Storya book I immediately added to my Amazon cart. That’s what happens when I fall in the rabbit-hole of research; I invariably add to my to-read list. The topic of journaling doesn’t just apply to my workshops; I have a grief journal coming out in May, am including a chapter on expressive writing in my book on creativity, and will be utilizing journals for the GriefShare grief support group I facilitate at a local church and the Lifelong Learning creativity group I’m forming this fall at the library where I’m employed.

The writing prompts at the end of each chapter in The Story You Need to Tell are some of the best I’ve ever seen. I’ll be utilizing some of them in my monthly memoir group, where members often request a writing prompt assignment.

Sandra Marinella is an award-winning teacher and writer. After facing breast cancer in 2012, she turned her focus from teaching to writing as a way of healing, and began volunteering with veterans and cancer patients. Some patient’s stories, and their life transformations, are featured as examples in her book. Sandra founded the Story You Need to Tell Project at www.storyyoutell.com.

The author doesn’t shy away from telling her own stories, which makes this book all the more powerful. Can we really talk about expressive writing without sharing some of our own? One of the most touching chapters for me was the one on healing from loss. Marinella had some pretty intense conversations with her father while he was dying; discussing death, prayer, and faith. Since they shared a love of music, the author asked him to try and communicate with her through music after he died. He loved the idea.

“One day after we arrived home, my dad mouthed his last word to me, Mom. I promised to care for her. And she hobbled over to hold his hand. Two days after he made it home, my dad took his last breaths with his love, my mom, and his family gathered around him. In those moments he radiated serenity, a transcendent beauty. For long moments we stood in hushed awe around him. 

After he passed, we sang and prayed. My brother recited Psalm 23, and then we stood reverently by his side. And in that holy moment- Standing by my father and his soul- my head was filled with the joyful clanging of church bells.’Do you hear them?’ I asked my family.”

A Different Journaling Journey

daybooks

My foray into past journals is not nearly as pleasant as that of my friend and co-author of Mary & Me. Unlike the other Mary, I did not keep a journal through college, and the “daybooks” that span 20 years of my life could hardly be called journals, with little space for contemplation, rumination, or poetry, if I’d been so inclined to write any.

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The first daybook is dated 1992. I was a 32-year-old mother of four when I began filling daybooks with notes about the weather, my children, my super coupon shopping sprees and mailbox full of refunds and trades, a distinct lack of money and time, and notes on whatever I was working on in regards to the freelance writing I’d been doing since 1987. By March of that year, I’d picked up work as a correspondent for the Bulletin-Journal newspaper in Independence.

I was also ill, as is evidenced by repeated references to upset stomachs, headaches, joint pain, brain fog, and an extreme fatigue. By early 1992, I’d been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and prescribed a medication to treat one of the worst symptoms, the one that had relegated me to the bathroom for much of each day during 1990 and 1991.

I don’t have daybooks from the previous two years, but I do have doctor’s reports, hospital admissions papers, and a chronological list of symptoms I took with me to the doctor who I believed saved me. He was the first one (of many doctors) to listen to my litany of symptoms and not dismiss me as a hypochondriac. This doctor, who I am still loyal to some 25 years later, was willing to consider that I was suffering with an immune system disorder that there was no definitive medical test for, and suggested we begin treatment by targeting the worst symptom of an illness that ruled my days.  Up until that point, I had seen a number of specialists who’d zeroed in on only one of the many symptoms, ran tests, and then declared me perfectly healthy, their eyes narrowing at my continued distress. One ER doctor pulled my husband aside and told him to quit coddling me because there was nothing wrong with me. Another insinuated I was a bored housewife with nothing to do but complain. A doctor I had trusted up until that point had the audacity to look me in the eyes and ask, with some irritation, why I had to find out what was wrong with me, telling me I should just learn to live with it, whatever it was. He then prescribed tranquilizers and an anti-depressant. The next morning, I took one of the pills, set my children in front of the television with bowls of cereal, collapsed on the couch and apparently slept through a tornado siren, because I woke up to two children screaming, a darkened sky, and the front porch screen door slamming against the side of the house. I hustled my children to the basement, and never touched those bottles again.

That’s the thing about delving into old journals, or in my case, daybooks~ we resurrect less than pleasant memories. Both Mary and I unearthed our respective “journals” when we wrote our chapters on navigating young motherhood. At the time, I’d quickly returned the daybooks to the cupboard where I store them; it was too painful to look back on those years of zero time for myself, the constant struggle to make ends meet, and of course, the reminder that, despite his failings during many of those years, I’d had a partner to share in all of it, a partner that was no longer there.

I had to do the same thing last night. I nearly threw the daybook I was reading into the trash. I was actually surprised that my January 1992 goals had not only included “getting my health back, though I’m not sure I have any control over that,” but also “formulating a refund workshop for community colleges,” and “getting work with the local newspaper.” What possessed me to think it would be a good idea to find work when I was dealing with a chronic illness? And yet, later entries demonstrated how much that little extra income helped our family, and the fact that I could work my hours around both my illness and my husband’s hours, made it the perfect job at the time. If I guarded my daily activities and took an afternoon nap, evenings were my best time of day, at least early evening. As is evidenced by the previously referenced November 10, 1992 notes, a midnight meeting, and subsequent lack of sleep triggered a resurgence of symptoms the next day. And yet, I somehow met that newspaper deadline. While I wouldn’t meet either of my other two goals for 1992, a pregnancy in 1993 brought remission of my illness and reclaimed my health, and four children and nearly 20 years later, I’d reach the goal of teaching an extreme couponing workshop at a community college. Proving that sometimes, our dreams become our reality, though not always in the time frame we’d desire.

From my research into the health benefits of expressive writing and journaling, I can’t help but think that a real journal, one in which I could have filled several pages with rumination and contemplative thoughts, would have been beneficial to me during those next twenty years when I utilized a daybook. I didn’t begin actual journaling until the morning after my husband’s death, and since 2012, I’ve filled three journals, and am close to filling the fourth.

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Ironically, those journals, filled with anguish and the laments of a woman with a broken heart, are not at all difficult for me to look though. The difference is simple, and what I recommend in my classes on expressive writing.

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Without instruction, I instinctively did what was most healing; reflecting, and looking for meaning in my experience.

And I found it.

I often flip through the pages of those journals. Despite the messy, scrawled handwriting of a woman in deep emotional distress, I can easily see spiritual and emotional healing taking place. Because I was also jotting down Bible verses, and quotes and passages from authors who’d been down the same path of grief, I can read those verses and quotes today, experiencing the same feeling I did when I copied them; a lifting of the spirit, and a sense of being a part of something so much bigger than my own pain.

I filled several pages of the first journal with an itemized list of the unusual experiences that preceded David’s death; my teen daughter, Emily, joining a youth group, her incessant need to hug her Dad, the many workshops and a newspaper column I’d recently undertaken, the newfound friends I’d made at a Christian Writer’s conference, our newly acquired taste for the Christian radio station, the many conversations I’d shared with David in the previous three months about love, faith, and even remarriage, and how often I’d caught him gazing at me in apparent adoration. Then there was his life insurance policy being reinstated just 27 days before his death, and the last book he’d touched having been a Cecil Murphey book on getting to heaven. It became obvious to me that God had gone before us, preparing us for loss of husband and father.

Those journals tell a story as I wrote my way through grieving David, and then a few months later, facing the loss of a grandson. And while it is a heart-rending one, the story contains a clear message of hope. I wouldn’t mind future generations reading these journals after my death.

The daybooks? They tell a different story; a dismal rendering of the chronology of my day-to-day life without the benefit of any reflective or contemplative time spent in which to look for meaning in those days. While they remain stored in a cupboard for now, someday I’ll have to decide if there is any benefit to keeping them at all.