Not Just Another Writing Workshop

When you think of a “writing workshop,” what do you envision?

A classroom, probably. Maybe a group of friends meeting to share their work over coffee. Poetry slams, perhaps. But a prison cell?

In this powerful essay from Salon, Kate Axelrod talks about her experience running a writer’s workshop for incarcerated women. She was warned not to turn the writing workshop into a group therapy session – but that’s more or less what it became. And this wasn’t a bad thing, she argues, because it was the first time she was able to come to terms with the sexual assault she experienced in a past relationship.

Image credit: Rory MacLeod

A recent article from the New York Times Magazine echoes this sentiment – that writing workshops aren’t “supposed” to be a form of therapy, but inevitably end up serving a therapeutic function for participants. In it, Steve Almond argues:

The official job of a workshop is to help a writer improve her prose, not her psyche. But this task almost always involves a direct engagement with her inner life, as well as a demand for greater empathy and disclosure. These goals are fundamentally therapeutic.

What’s more, the workshop is (or should be) only one small part of a larger creative process that involves reading, reflection and writing. It is this solitary work that marks the writer’s most sustained investigation of the self.

As much as we like to indulge in this fantasy, authors don’t create anything out of whole cloth. Like the patient on the analytic sofa, we fixate on particular stories and characters and themes because they speak to the fears and desires hidden within us. Our inventions inevitably take the form of veiled confessions.

If writing inevitably becomes a form of therapy – a way to grapple with the deep turmoil within ourselves and revisit past traumas – why is admitting this fact taboo? Why is writing directly about traumatic experiences (rather than couching them in metaphor and fictional allegory) so frowned upon?

Too Much Information?

Maybe it’s because we have a hard time thinking of confessional writing as a high art. It’s all well and good to write to confront our demons, but there’s a stigma against getting too personal and digging too deep. A few writers have managed to make their careers on writing about their traumas (Sylvia Plath comes to mind), but poets who dare broach difficult personal subjects are often subject to intense criticism – and contemporary publishers often shy away from their work.

Personal essays and memoir are genres which welcome personal explorations of the darker side of life, but usually with the understanding that the author has “moved on” or “learned a lesson” from a difficult experience. Exploring ongoing trauma or anxiety is a much more difficult sell…and if a writer is unable to relate their experience to a broader “universal theme?” Forget it.

The thing is, as much as publishers shy away from “self-indulgent” confessional writing, readers seem to love it. It’s relatable. It’s real. Confessional blogs are wildly popular as they are divisive.

The Rise of Journaling as Therapy

The thing is, this style of writing isn’t just easy for readers to relate to – it’s actually good for you, whether it’s shared with others or not. In much the way that talk therapy helps people process painful memories and events, reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression, or PTSD – expressing difficult feelings through writing can also relieve the associated physical, emotional, and psychological stress. That’s right – study after study has shown that writing about painful memories can actually improve physical health.

Image credit: Curt Fleenor

Of course, sharing such writing can also have profound and far-reaching effects. In Axelrod’s essay, she notes:

I read my piece aloud last, after a handful of other women share their stories. It feels at once remarkable and somehow unsurprising that many of us describe nearly identical feelings of being violated; the sorrow and emptiness that comes with being robbed of control, of having little to no say of what happens to your body – whether because of physical violence or emotional threats or that plain, guttural fear of what will happen if you try to fight it. Some of the women articulate feelings that I haven’t even realized I’ve had, use metaphors that resonate so totally, my eyes are glassy. I think most of us are in awe of our shared connection. Group therapy or not, writing the words and hearing the stories is, absolutely, a kind of healing.

In this way, writing workshops focused on personal experiences, personal traumas, personal pain show us that we’re not alone. That others have struggled with the same issues. That there are people out there who won’t judge us if they understand what we’ve been through and how we’ve chosen to cope.

Become Your Own Therapist: Write Without Judgment

So here’s my challenge to you: try sitting down to write without an end goal in mind. Don’t sit down with the outline of a story in your head. Don’t plot out your characters or commit to a rhyme scheme. Just pick something that’s been on your mind. Something that bothers you.

Then, silence your inner critic and just write. Write as much or as little as you need to. Write as long as you want. You don’t need to get everything out in one sitting – research shows that just 15-20 minutes of journaling a day is enough to boost your health and reduce stress levels. Explore the feeling however you like – and don’t worry if you get “off track.” You’re not writing this for anyone else. You’re writing this for you.

Don’t worry about what other people will think. Don’t worry about your use of language. Don’t worry about the structure of the piece. Get it out and get it finished. If you want to share it with the world eventually, the rest can come later.

For now, let this be enough.

So often, we forget the power of the written word. How therapeutic it can be to sit down with a pen and notebook and just let loose.

Do you keep a journal? Have you ever coped with a traumatic experience through writing? Share your experiences in the comments below – and don’t be afraid to let things get a little personal. :)