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Writing to heal: Journaling for writers

How journaling can lead to healthier lives and richer characters.

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We get a little grouchy when we can’t write. Out of sorts. Maybe even a bit nutty. Researchers and psychologists say writers – and creative people in general – tend to be a little nutty, anyway. Writing feels like it’s as essential to our well-being as food and shelter. Perhaps it is. Perhaps there’s more to it than the urge to fulfill our purpose in life, as if that isn’t reason enough to crank up the laptop.


Famous journaling writers

Plenty of writers have testified to this. When C.S. Lewis, mourning his wife’s death, tried to talk to his children about her, he lamented, “They look as if I were committing an indecency.” So he poured his grief out in his journal. “I must have some drug,” he observed, “and reading isn’t a strong enough drug now. By writing it down, I believe I get a little outside of it.”

In 1958, Sylvia Plath stormed in her journal, “Fury jams the gullet and spreads poison, but, as soon as I start to write, dissipates, flows out into the figure of the letters.” Then she queried: “Writing as therapy?” Ernest Hemingway was clearer on the topic: “Portable Corona number 3. That’s my analyst,” he declared, referencing his typewriter. Such declarations are commonplace among writers – and among many others who have no aspirations toward publication.


And with good reason: It turns out that science supports the voluminous anecdotal evidence of the power of journaling for writers.


Writing to heal

Several incidents contributed to social psychologist James W. Pennebaker’s interest in “healing writing.” But when his parents’ visit during college launched a bout of the asthma he thought he’d left behind in the dry Texas of his childhood, he realized climate wasn’t to blame; his emotions were. Once he recognized the connection, the asthma attacks stopped. Oftentimes, however, the connection between our ailments – physical or emotional – isn’t so clear. Because we have a tendency to inhibit troublesome thoughts and emotions, connections become clouded. Sometimes we don’t want to see them.

While people who are particularly troubled may enter counseling, others are resistant to sharing with either therapists or friends. Enter writers. By nature, writers tend to be a sensitive lot, given to dreaminess and more internal pondering, perhaps, than a steady stream of sharing our innermost thoughts and feelings. And that’s good news for us because it makes us exactly the sort of people most likely to benefit from healing writing. Others who do not readily share their thoughts and feelings may also get the release and understanding they need from writing. And while many of us do partake of the benefits of counseling, that occasional probing simply may not be enough. That’s why therapists often prescribe journaling to their clients.



Unburying our feelings

Pennebaker, whose findings are discussed at length in his 1990 book Opening Up, explored the idea that writing might lead to healing through multiple studies. The most telling, though, was when he and fellow researcher Janice Kiecolt-Glaser recruited 50 college students and asked half to write on trivial topics and the other half on “their deepest thoughts and feelings concerning a trauma.” The students wrote for four days at just 20 minutes per session, and the researchers also drew several blood samples from the subjects. Sure enough, those students who wrote their “deepest thoughts and feelings” about trauma had elevated immune systems. The impact of writing was not “all in their heads.” It was in their bloodstream, too, and it was helping them ward off the negative effects of stress, which is implicated in diseases from arthritis to zoster.

What’s more, 80 percent of the students from both this experience and an earlier similar study called the experience “beneficial,” citing gains in insight and self-understanding. This result may not have been as rapid as the boost to the immune system. Writing about depressing things is depressing, after all. But by the next day at the latest, the students not only were better, they felt better. Skeptical of Pennebaker’s findings, Dr. Edward J. Murray, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami, conducted his own investigation, concluding “writing seems to produce as much therapeutic benefit as sessions with a psychotherapist.” It seems that putting our thoughts and feelings into language helps us confront them, organize them, and wrest the meaning from them…but we writers knew that already, didn’t we?



Finding positivity in the darkness

In time, Pennebaker would discover that healing writing didn’t have to be trauma-focused. Happy experiences, thoughts, and feelings need to be explored, too, and writing about them is also associated with health benefits, as Laura A. King and Kathi N. Miner discovered in an experiment that asked subjects to write about the positive aspects of a traumatic experience. (If that sounds oxymoronic, think in terms of learning, growth, and what helped you get through the experience.) Other studies confirm this finding.

But, of course, any old sort of writing will not do. Pennebaker advises that we focus on what feels unresolved, those things that keep swirling about our minds. If we’re merely venting, we’re exercising on a gerbil wheel. We can re-traumatize ourselves when we rage on, never turning to inquiry and discovery. In fact, Pennebaker tells us that if we find ourselves feeling overwhelmed as we write, stop. Perhaps it is too soon for us to approach that topic. Or perhaps we simply need a break. Knowing when we are pushing ourselves to the limit of sanity is a personal decision. One college student wept her way through writing about her rape, but ultimately found that her writing was healing – and it led the way to finally sharing her story with a parent.



Journaling in practice

We need to find a quiet place and write our deepest thoughts and feelings, good and bad. Write using all the detail and realism we can recall, but also explore why it happened – avoiding “why me?,” which often leads us to self-blame. We need to ask how we think and feel about the experience now, what we learned, how we grew. Resist the urge to make it a polished piece, Pennebaker advises. Let thoughts flow freely; forget about proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation; forget about having an audience – this should be just for us.

We needn’t write in this self-inquiring way daily; there is risk in becoming self-absorbed. While most experiments seemed to involve writing 15 to 20 minutes per session, a fascinating recent study found benefits from just two minutes of writing over two days, using both positive and negative experiences as prompts. (It’s surmised that subjects continued to explore their thoughts and feelings in between sessions; the first session merely ignited the process.)



The benefits of journaling for writers

For writers, there is a double benefit. We not only reap the benefits others get: greater understanding of ourselves and reduced stress. We also gain greater understanding of ourselves, which can lead to an increased understanding of human beings, which can, in turn, help us create more complex, authentic fictional characters.

For many of us who already keep journals or diaries, making these adjustments to our process probably isn’t much of a stretch. But what of those who don’t keep them? And what of the benefits writers claim from their poems, short stories, and novels? Hemingway offered that it “took 20 years to face [his father’s suicide] and put it down and catharsize it;” he finally did so in a paragraph in For Whom the Bell Tolls. William Styron reveals he had been able to “discharge on paper many of [his] more vexing tensions and miseries” as he wrote his first novel, keeping himself on even emotional ground.

Pennebaker’s advice notwithstanding, it is possible to polish and publish emotionally challenging material and reap healthful benefits. Most of us have read such works and appreciated their emotional depth and authenticity. And many of us write works drawn from our lives, even if the final text alters them in significant ways. We draw on our own emotional lives to enrich our characters. We let fictional characters work out the existential questions that haunt us so that we might better understand. Perhaps the reason we are able to create and publish healing narratives is we know that in writing, we are revealing something of ourselves, always – we know that drawing from our own wells strengthens our work and touches our readers. We have dealt with fear of others’ judgement. (Or we are on our way to these understandings.)



Seeking balance and self-care

As we grapple with our subject matter, it is good practice to follow Louise DeSalvo’s advice for caring for ourselves in her wise book Writing as a Way of Healing. Balance in our lives is the key. We can’t let ourselves get swallowed by the task – let the wallow in swallow remind us of the danger therein. We must take breaks, involve ourselves in other engaging and pleasurable activities, keep our support systems alive and active. If, when taking our emotional and mental “temperature,” we find ourselves teetering on that razor’s edge, perhaps we should consider therapy.

In short, we must treat ourselves well. Whether or not we took up writing as Alice Walker did, “to save [her] life,” we can always make our characters richer and our lives healthier through practicing healing writing.




Gail Radley is the author of 24 books for young people and numerous articles for adults. Recently, she stepped away from teaching English full-time at Stetson University in order to devote more time to freelancing.


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