therapeutic writing

The amazing power of pen and paper

In Mental Health by Fiona

Hilary Wilce is a writer with a passion for helping people discover how a simple notebook can transform their lives. She is a former education writer for The Independent who has written books for parents, and is a romantic fiction novelist and short story writer. She has a creative writing MA from Birkbeck and teaches writing for wellbeing and is also a life coach. With personal experience of depression, and a long-standing meditation practice, she is fascinated by how the stories we tell ourselves shape our reality.

I’ve been a writer all my life, but only recently discovered the amazing power of writing to soothe, heal, restore and inspire us.

However I now know that when we have a pen and a notebook to hand, we are in the company of the wisest coach, and the most compassionate counsellor we could ever hope to meet.

Some years back I was asked to some teach creative writing in an arts space in Kent. I enjoyed teaching plot and character, but things really took off when we did writing exercises about ourselves.

Write for ten minutes about your favourite colour, I’d say. Or about a time when you had to be courageous. Don’t worry about grammar or punctuation, or even proper sentences. Splurge on the page, and see what comes out.

Gradually my workshops drew in not only would-be writers but anyone who wanted to explore their inner landscape. When we were all fiercely scribbling, the feeling in the room was electric. And when we shared our thoughts and writings afterwards, it was obvious that this was powerful therapy too.

I started to learn everything I could about teaching ‘writing for wellbeing’ and grew more and more sure that it was a powerful process that put people deeply in touch with themselves. The research proved it, too. Studies in the US show that therapeutic writing can alleviate pain and speed the recovery of cancer patients and others.

In my workshops these days we do all kinds of things. Sometimes we approach really difficult feelings — write about a time in your life when you didn’t cope – and sometimes we do things that are just plain silly. “This is your pebble. It is ancient and wise. Ask it a question that matters to you and write down what it has to say.”

Writing for wellbeing can stir up strong feelings and I’m grateful that my training as a coach and my longstanding meditation practice help me keep things positive and steady. Mostly though, there is lots of laughter, tons of shared support, and the happy chatter of people leaving with a spring in their step, and new insights into themselves and their lives.

It’s perfectly possible to do writing for wellbeing alone – but be aware that this is different from writing a diary.

At various points in my life I’ve struggled with depression and my diary entries from those times are all desperate descriptions of my dark state of mind. If depression is like trudging up and down a ditch, then those entries only dug that ditch deeper!

Now I wish I had known how other approaches might have helped. I could have sat quietly and asked myself questions. “Why is this happening now?” I could have asked the depression itself to talk to me. “What are you trying to tell me?” I might have written a list of my ten most comforting words, or shaped one tiny, manageable goal for the day.

These wouldn’t have ‘cured’ me, but they would have offered structure and insight, some sense of agency, and help in moving forward.

Because writing for wellbeing works on so many levels. It expands our minds, taps into our memories, and gives us sensory input that calms and relaxes us. It opens up long-closed boxes to new light and air. And it reaches into the deepest parts of ourselves to knit us back together in a way that helps us find sense in our stories and makes us stronger, more conscious, more integrated — more whole.

I am convinced it can work for everyone —students, hospital patients, managers, people in recovery, older people — and would love to introduce it to any group that could benefit.

And if I ever falter in this belief, I remember the eminent, uptight, immensely proper retired man who came on one of my courses protesting that he’d never done anything like this in his life, almost certainly ‘couldn’t do it’, and was only there because his wife had told him he had to try new things. “Write about a time when you felt utterly and completely yourselves,” I told the group. “Not happy, not sad, not anything in particular, just yourself.” He chewed on his pen for a long time then settled down to write what turned out to be the most glorious description of being a young boy running down to the sea in the early morning from his grandparents’ house with the wind blowing through his flapping Aertex shirt. And what was it about that memory I asked, that had made it come to mind. He thought for a moment, then his face broke into a radiant beam. “There were no rules,” he said. “I was free.”

“My grace is sufficient for thee; my strength is made perfect in weakness”

“My grace is sufficient for thee; my strength is made perfect in weakness”