The Healing Power of Writing



By Gay Norton Edelman

Writing was always going to be part of my life. An avid independent reader since second grade, I created my first book around the same time, a collection of elephant jokes. (How can you tell there’s an elephant in your apple tree? By the red polish on her toenails.) That was just for fun.

When I hit adulthood, writing took on life-saving power for healing past traumas and navigating present trials. In my 30s, when the ugly bits from my childhood were screaming for attention, it was all about rip-out-your-guts poetry. The only place I shared it was at a small counseling center art show. It was so raw it carried a “Mature Eyes Only” warning. Beyond the show, I didn’t let others see it. I didn’t need to. I wrote it for me.

Within days, though, someone who’d attended the show appeared at one of my teaching events. At the end of the workshop, she approached. “Would you consider starting a writing group on a specific topic?” she asked. Thus began an incest survivors group, eight of us who met regularly for several years to check in, set goals, write—and heal. (It was a requirement that group members also be in psychotherapy for at least a year. I’m not a trained therapist; the group was an accessory to more formal treatment, not a substitute for it.)

The group was as intense as you might imagine—and we had far more fun than you’d expect. I wish I could tell you what the miracles were, but transformations aren’t always obvious. I can tell you that the bonds were warm and deep. I can tell you that one woman, encouraged to try non-verbal means of expression, evolved into a visual artist showing in juried art shows. Her sense of gathering power was palpable.

In my 40s, with still more mental, emotional, and spiritual work to be done (always!), I hunkered down on the morning pages (a three-page brain dump, as soon as possible after you wake) recommended by Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way book series. I mostly vented. A student in another of my monthly writing groups embraced this early-morning freewrite so fiercely that to this day she still gets up two hours early to make some tea, light a candle, and let the words rip. It’s her sanity.

In my 50s, as I developed an ever-stronger relationship with a higher power (inner source, universe, intuition, God, light within, Not-Ego, what have you) as part of recovery from food addiction, I embraced other types of writing to heal: continued self-examination work based on suggestions from the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous; gratitude lists; letters to God; inventories of things I’d done well and things I might have done differently; lists of ways to take care of myself (because when I most needed self-care was when I was most clueless what to do); and lists of ways I’d been of service to others and could continue to be.

And letters! Writing real letters is such a wonderful part of connecting with the needy, lovable, struggling outer world. I still do this (and most of the other writing I’ve mentioned, except for the elephant jokes). There’s incredible wealth in sharing my written thoughts whatever form I use—writing is so intimate and private for writer and reader alike, even as it connects them.

And now, in my 60s, poetry. Back to the poetry. Still a voracious reader, lately I’ve dug into Rumi, Mary Oliver, Kathleen Norris, John O’Donohue, and the like. They inspire me to go deep, deeper, deepest with my words. As the past heals and transforms, as I grow from hurt puppy to jolly dancing spirit, my own words continue to be a powerful source of strength.

Recently I re-read those early poems. I hadn’t looked at them in years. They’re incredibly potent, and far more insightful than I would have guessed. It’s deeply consoling to know that even as I thrashed in pain all those years ago, there was a force for healing, a power for good, moving in me, through me, propelling me into an ever-deeper awareness of my own light, my own preciousness, my own value. Every day, I thank the universe, the energies of creativity and expression, the light of my soul, for the gift of those words—and the ones yet to come.

Gay Norton Edelman is a writing instructor at Project Write Now.