…and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard…
Audre Lorde, Litany for Survival

Poetry Therapy, Writing Therapy
A brief description of how writing can heal.

Writing provides a way to cope with physical and emotional pain, a method of connecting with others directly and indirectly, a container for experience and emotions that may feel unbearable in the moment.  Creativity of any kind is healing, I believe, because it links us spiritually and emotionally with ourselves and others.  Think about reading a poem or essay that moves you, maybe even runs a chill of beauty down your spine, or an “ah” of recognition, that means “Yes,  I have also felt this way and when I read this I know I am not alone.”  It could be that you are entering into a deep “relationship” with the author who, in speaking her voice,  helps you understand yourself.  When you write your own words or poems, you are connecting with yourself in this way, and when others hear or read your words, you are giving them the same opportunity to empathetically respond to you.

In writing therapy we write from our hearts.  There is no emphasis on craft or skill, this writing is the kind that springs from another place than the mind alone, and would not want to be stifled.  Poetry has been viewed as the carrier of a message from the unconscious to the conscious mind.  Sometimes what you write from your heart could contain an important surprise or a seed of great healing.  Even just one image can be a powerful soothing balm.  For a woman who had just put her cat to sleep, the last line of her friend’s poem was that kind of image (written to the cat about the owner): “her hand will always be upon your back.”

When you write something down, it moves from inside to a safe place contained on a page.  You create something that can feel just the way the poet Mary Oliver does when she says she was “hurrying through her soul”.
In another poem, The Buddha’s last instruction Mary Oliver says:… I feel myself turning/into something of inexplicable value…  In this excerpt from Rumi’s poem Where Everything is Music, the poet says:  Stop the words now./Open the window in the center of your chest,/and let the spirits fly in and out…translated by Coleman Barks.  In both excerpts the poets use an interesting and unusual way to express a universal truth about writing.  This can delight and invite a response that could have important meaning.

Here are a few of the  topics I have presented in the past:

  • Rumi and Hafiz: Doorways into the Self, a half-day workshop in Palo Alto.
  • Poetry & Meditation: Connecting the Mind, Body, and Spirit through reflection and creativity.  A one day workshop that was co-led by  Shaila Catherine, Founder of Insight Meditation South Bay.
  • Poetic Dialogue: The intimate Connections of Poetry Therapy–Presented at Northern California Group Therapy Association Summer Conference at Asilomar Conference Center.
  • Therapist Self-Care—Uniting Mind, Body, and Spirit through Poetry presented at SCV CAMFT therapist well-being retreat.
  • Isabella Inspiration: Art and Poetry at the Isabella Stuart Gardiner Museum in Boston, a daylong pre-conference workshop for the National Association for Poetry Therapy Annual conference.

Suggestions for getting started

If you would like to write but are having trouble getting started, think of a poem, story, or even a sentence you read that was important to you. Try to keep the ideas simple and basic. Allow yourself to choose a word, phrase, or idea from your quotation and write down whatever thoughts, feelings, and images come to mind for you. As an example, here is an excerpt from Perie Longo’s poem “What we live for”:

With your favorite pen in hand,
the smooth one whose ink flows gently across the flesh
of the page, words start to come..

Sometimes, questions about the images, sounds, or sensations of the poem can help stimulate writing. Using, Perie’ words, here are some questions you might ask: What does my favorite pen look like? Does my page feel like flesh or something else? How do the words start to come—in drips, floods, standing in lines, like soldiers, etc.

Another way to start is with a simple writing prompt such as: I don’t write because____________, or, my wild mind would say _____________. Imagine yourself as a small child playing with words, allowing whatever you want to say to transmit itself from your mind (or wherever it comes from) to the page.

The inner critic

Notice your inner critic as it jumps into the experience. If its voice is too strong, write something that addresses this, and then return to your own writing.  Remember that your inner critic is with you all the time and it might be helpful for you to get to know.  Most critics arise from fear and imitation of critics from the past.  Working with your critic while writing can help you understand and feel freer from many problems, like eating disorders, depression, or others.

Next steps

Once you have written something, read it to yourself silently and if you can, read it to yourself aloud. See how the words feel on your tongue. Do you hear music, rhythm; do you see images you can visualize? How does your writing make you feel?  What messages do you find that might be new or interesting to explore?

Something unique about poetry therapy is that we do not recommend editing or crafting.  Editing is a separate and valuable endeavor that can come later.  Sometimes it is hard to separate out the creation from the editing, especially if you are interested in the craft of writing. In poetry therapy groups like the one I lead in Palo Alto, we do not critique others’ writing when they share. The group is focused on appreciating what is positive and meaningful about the writing.  If you want to do crafting, that is for another group, or individual experience.

There are many ways to share your writing with others. You can use a blog, email, a website, or a simple piece of paper, stamp, and envelope.  The Internet provides a vast supermarket of choices to share. You might find or start a support group with others. You could bring your writing to individual therapy and talk about it with your therapist. The National Association for Poetry Therapy has a list of practitioners throughout the US and internationally who can assist you in using your writing for healing.