From the rise of inspirational Instagram poets, such as New York Times number one bestseller Rupi Kaur, to UK-based organisation Lapidus International, which promotes the practice of ‘words for wellbeing’ and the benefits they can bring, we look at the growing trend to use writing as a healing tool.
Reading books to make you feel better isn’t a new thing; above the door at the entrance to one of the libraries of an ancient pharaoh was the motto ‘the house of healing for the soul’, and in 1272, the Koran was prescribed reading in the Al-Mansur Hospital in Cairo as medical treatment. The term ‘bibliotherapy’ wasn’t coined by Samuel Crothers until 1916.
In the USA, during World War I, the Library War Service stationed librarians in military hospitals, where they dispensed books to patients and developed the ideas of bibliotherapy with doctors there. When the war was over, they tried to implement these ideas in hospital libraries, bibliotherapy’s efficacy being noted particularly in Veteran’s Association hospitals.
The UK also began to use reading therapy in hospital libraries from the 1930s. Charles Hagberg-Wright, librarian of the London Library, speaking at the 1930 British Empire Red Cross Conference, spoke about its importance as part of curative medicine.
‘Bibliotherapy’ is based on the classical psychotherapy principles of identification, inspiration and insight, leading to motivation for positive change. This can help readers gain insight into themselves by connecting with characters and values appearing in poems, short stories and novels.
It’s not a huge leap then, from using reading to using creative writing to help people understand themselves better, and for healing.
Psychologist James W Pennebaker, a specialist in language and cognition, conducted research on the effectiveness of reading and writing with traumatised children and youth. He called his method ‘expressive emotions therapy’ (EET). According to Pennebaker, EET helps people to confront deep, personal issues, promoting mental health and subjective wellbeing. Using powerful and deeply personal ‘expressive’ writing, traumatic, or disturbing emotional experiences are translated into language.
Writing for wellbeing
Lapidus International is an organisation that’s been supporting words for wellbeing since 1996. They’re a community of writers and spoken word artists who come from a range of backgrounds including health, counselling, academia, and the arts, who believe in using writing and creativity for personal development, and to promote good mental health and wellbeing.
They have regional groups across the world where members can meet up, network and share knowledge. They also publish an online journal three times a year, filled with academic articles, creative writing and knowledge sharing for their members.
Richard Axtell is the Membership, Communication and Events Coordinator for Lapidus International. He explains the major benefits of creative writing for wellbeing; “There are significant benefits to writing creatively within the right environment. For example in one of its simplest forms: writing in a journal regularly can help reduce stress levels and support with anxiety.
One of the great things about writing creatively for wellbeing is that anyone can do it. It isn't about grammar, punctuation or structure and is more personal. You don't get judged on what you are writing; it's just there to help you. In the right environment, with a trained individual guiding them, words, both written and spoken, can be used to help support those who have experienced trauma, addiction, bereavement and more.”
Richard adds; “Pennebaker's studies into writing and its therapeutic effects are probably the most mentioned in the field – he proved that writing can not only have benefits emotionally, but physically as well.
“Many of our members are trained counsellors and therapists who work in a wide range of situations and environments, including prisons, hospitals and schools. They use writing, such as poetry, alongside their standard practices to help benefit their clients in a positive way.”
The coach: Lisa Rossetti, Chester
Chester-based Lisa Rossetti of Positive Lives Professional Coaching and Development has over 20 years’ experience in training, mentoring and coaching with a Masters in Applied Storytelling for Health and Social Care. She bases her interpersonal creative writing work on a bibliopoetry model and uses stories and poetry as springboards for inspiration to write, reflect, learn, play, express and be creative.
Lisa believes that there are many benefits of creative writing; “Storytelling is a powerful sense-making tool for both individuals and communities, helping people to embrace change and challenge emotionally and together. Listening to poetry and stories, and expressing our response can transform the quality of our thinking. The major benefits are that both poems and stories offer us a safe container to acknowledge, explore and accept emotions that we have disguised, denied or concealed from ourselves; this causes conflict and stress within us. Another benefit is the joy of discovering our own voice and our own story, which may have been suppressed or overlooked due to the multiple demands of responsibility in our adult lives.”
Lisa set up The Story Cafe (which can also be found on Facebook) to offer an informal and relaxed opportunity to listen to stories, specially chosen for a group, followed by a ‘story circle’ where attendees talk about the thoughts and insights sparked by the story.
“As a coach, I was building on the recognition that there is power in stories and metaphors, creating connections between people; I had observed how this was missing in modern life. The Story Cafe was a model that I devised based upon the 5 Ways to Health and Wellbeing using the wisdom of traditional folktales to engender conversations that could help with personal development. I wanted a more creative model for my work and I wanted to integrate creativity, play, and interpersonal dynamics into a more accessible model, within a more social context.”
But it’s not just about how writing can be of benefit to the individual; Lisa also gives examples of when she’s used story projects in unexpected settings; “I have worked on pilot story projects with Airbus’s leadership training programme the ‘Art of Leadership’ to encourage top-level managers to use storytelling to motivate their teams and lead with presence, and my Masters in Applied Storytelling for Health and Social Care examined two separate projects, one in adult mental health and one in adult social work, where I used storytelling for organisational service improvement.”
The writing group leader: Iain Rowan, Sunderland Festival of Creative Writing
Iain Rowan is a Sunderland, UK-based writer who is the Creative Director for the Sunderland Festival of Creative Writing, and also runs the creative writing group, Holmeside Writers.
“I’ve run a writers’ group for four years, and in that time people have joined us who have never shared their writing with anybody before. The supportive environment enables them to do so, which inspires and encourages them, and it’s been one of the best things in my life to see some of those people take that on further and submit work and get published. More than anything else, the group enables people to think: I *am* a writer.
“I’ve also run various workshops, on everything from building story to using creative writing to find new ways of reviewing contemporary art, or on building micro-fictions and smuggling them out into the world through guerrilla publishing, and I hope that those who have participated have gone away with some new inspirations and different ways of thinking about writing, and about getting their writing out into the world.”
Iain definitely agrees that writing creatively can have positive effects on wellbeing;
“Many of us have the creative impulse, and writing is one way of allowing ourselves to express it. That very act of free expression might be something we are not used to doing in life, and the liberation of creativity contributes directly to wellbeing: we can say what we want, in the voice that we want, and often in writing we can discover a lot about ourselves, even when we are writing about other people.”
The writer: Bill Lewis, Medway
Bill Lewis is a Medway-based writer and artist, who was one of the founders of the Medway Poets and the Stuckist movement. He has given readings of his work internationally, taught workshops and lectured at literary festivals, hospitals, prisons, schools and universities and was the first Writer-in-Residence at the Brighton Festival (1985).
“I think that writing is a way of getting one’s thoughts in order. I did a lot of workshops for The Survivors group in the 1980s and early ‘90s. These workshops were also on performance. I think the performance ones helped to give people confidence. I worked with both special needs and people with psychiatric disorders.”
Bill also ran workshops with prisoners at Maidstone Prison for four years.
“Writing is good for people. All stories have a spiritual side to them. Our brains are constructed to tell stories and to listen to them. We tell ourselves the story of our self each day. Stories tell us who we are as people and as a race; our myths live inside of us as biological functions; wordless functions that exist before language. As we learn language we clothe these myths, give them names.
“All of our arts and social sciences have their roots in magic and religion. The Shaman was the first poet/painter/storyteller. Poems and songs were spells and ritual and prayers. Now we split these ancient shamanic skills up into many forms: psychology/art/writing/therapy.”
But Bill does make a distinction between people writing for therapeutic reasons and the job of writer; “I think any creative activity is good for people, but I think writing as a profession is a different thing. For the professional writer there is a certain amount of stress involved. I think it is important to see these two paths as separate.”
How to start writing
Whether you want to set up a ‘words for wellbeing’ writing group, or just get into creative writing on your own, our writers have some great tips.
Richard Axtell, Lapidus; “We run events regularly across the UK, and are beginning to think more globally as well. At our events, you can meet like-minded people, get a good idea of what a ‘words for wellbeing’ workshop might look like and maybe even pick up some good tips along the way!
“On a more personal note, I'd say buy a nice notebook and pen (because who doesn't love to do that!) and begin a journal, either daily, or whenever you have time. Write down how you feel, about your day, but don't stress about spelling, sentences or structure, just let the words come out onto the page. You might be surprised by the result, about how much you can learn about yourself and how you are feeling through your journal. I know I was when I started!”
Iain Rowan, Sunderland Festival of Creative Writing adds; “Don’t worry if you have nothing to write about (you will) or what people will think (you don’t have to show it anyone) or if it’s any good (it doesn’t matter, and we all improve in the process of writing anyway) or if you don’t have a place to write, or time, or quiet, or a special pen... just start.
“Take ten minutes. Five even. And just write, anything. Let your brain run free, and see what happens. Write about what you can see, or hear, or how your day has gone, or what you’re worried about, or your favourite place. Interview yourself, or put your thoughts in the mouth of a character, or have a conversation with yourself... but start. It may sound like nonsense at first, but as the pen flows or the fingers tap... interesting things will happen. The creative part of your brain will start to work, and stories will start to shape themselves into being, and what you want to write about, deep down, will start to seep into the writing, whether you’re even aware of it or not.
“But start. Five minutes. Two minutes. Right now.”