Expressive Writing

Fill the paper with the breathings of your heart.” – William Wordsworth

My 6-year-old daughter, Miss O, brought home her journal from first grade because she’d filled the composition notebook. The teacher gives them a topic and they write a little bit every day.  Miss O sat me down to show me how in the beginning of the school year she wrote a couple of words and doodled. By her entries in March, she was writing a couple of paragraphs. She was incredibly proud of her work.

It reminded me of a recent reference I heard to the work of James Pennebaker, a professor of psychology (and formerly the chair of the department) at the University of Texas, Austin. In the late 90’s, he wrote a paper summarizing the findings of studies he’d done that showed that people who practiced expressive writing, writing about thoughts and feelings, tended to have positive health outcomes (less visits to the campus health center or evidenced by blood pressure and heart rate).

In a summary paper published in 2017, Dr. Pennebaker theorizes that expressive writing helps because keeping things secret causes stress. I’d say that many of us creative non-fiction bloggers, know the benefits of expressive writing anecdotally – in the community that we create and the support we get from others. Sharing our thoughts and feelings, even though unnecessary to reap the health benefits according to Dr. Pennebaker, makes them feel more normal.

It feels to me like words give our thoughts and feelings definite shape. It morphs them into things that can be actionable. There is a magic that comes from owning our stories.

This brings to mind the post I wrote about humorist Kevin Kling whose therapist was helping him through a bout of PTSD stemming from a motorcycle accident in which he lost his arm. He was angry and unable to sleep until his therapist had him tell his story about that day as if the accident didn’t happen and he reached his destination unharmed. It worked like a charm and Kevin’s takeaway was, “we need to rewrite our story sometimes just so we can get some sleep.”

Flipping through Miss O’s journal, I find this entry that I share with her permission:

“Wen I grow up I want to be caring. Because caring is nise [nice] and I’m areredey [already] nise. Caring is what you shod be!”

Miss O’s 1st Grade Journal