Writing, Healing, Peace

In an age that is seeing the rise of writing, more and more people are turning to writing to heal emotional and physical trauma, resulting in shelves of popular self-help literature on writing to heal. It appears they are on to something. Psychologists have shown that writing can help release emotional stress; medical researchers have documented the beneficial effects of writing on a range of physical conditions; and writing is a crucial aspect of efforts in restorative justice. But we understand relatively little about the conditions under which writing can achieve these effects.

How might we teach writing to heal the body? How might writing lead to personal and social empowerment? And under what conditions might writing lead to peace?

With funding from Fulbright Scholars Program, ICETEX, and the National Council of Teachers of English/College Composition and Communication Chair’s Research Initiative, and in collaboration with community educators in the US and Colombia, graduate student researchers, and scholars abroad, I am pursuing answers to these questions.

Photo by Kathleen Conklin

Street art in Cosme Velho, Rio de Janeiro—”Diminish the noise of the mind / Listen to the beats of the heart”

Street art in Cosme Velho, Rio de Janeiro—”Diminish the noise of the mind / Listen to the beats of the heart”

Under what conditions can writing heal?

To address this question, I have conducted a small scale, qualitative, design-based research study of a writing workshop led in conjunction with an immersive therapeutic physical education retreat for women healing from physical trauma. The writing workshop, which I have called “Writing from your Core,” is aimed at heightening awareness of the relationship between body and mind, and thus enhancing recovering women’s experiences of healing during the retreat. 

I find that writing's connection to narrative, metaphor and art amplify the effects of body-based therapies, leading women to report experiences of healing. Such results, however, do not mean writing is magic. They need to be understood in relation to the social context and inequitable power relations that infuse all writing events. Tying classroom composition practices to healing to their social context can help students, and indeed the larger public, experience the full benefits of writing, not just in educational settings, but also in their bodies and in their lives.

(Community Literacy Journal, forthcoming.)



Under what conditions does writing empower?

Empowerment has long been touted as an aim of critical literacy education, but precisely how literacy empowers remains unclear. In a moment when many young people in the U.S. feel newly marginalized, using literacy to empower students—to help them develop “the set of feelings, knowledge, and skills” to navigate their social worlds (Stromquist, 2009)—is crucial. But precisely which aspects of literacy promote empowerment and how might we teach them? This series of qualitative studies in communities and classrooms, being carried out in collaboration with talented graduate student researchers, addresses this question. We hone in on one aspect of young people’s marginalization—the body—and one aspect of critical literacy—writing. At a moment when the embodied characteristics of race, sex, ability, and class are making students newly aware of their social vulnerability—and newly determined to do something about it—understanding writing’s potential to empower is urgent.



Under what conditions can writing promote peace?

In the wake of the historic 2016 agreement to end 52 years of deadly conflict, Colombians are working to ensure peace is lasting. While these efforts include large-scale government programs, of equal importance are grassroots initiatives, particularly those involving youth and local artists. As a 2018-2019 Fulbright / ICETEX scholar, hosted by CINDE and the University of Manizales, I am involved in a collaborative ethnographic project to understand under what conditions writing might promote peace. Specifically, I’m conducting fieldwork with with three community groups: Sixth- and tenth-grade writers in a school in a high-conflict neighborhood (to whom I’m co-teaching writing workshops with gifted poets and educators); writing teachers working in high-conflict regions; and adult writers living in the shadow of war. Drawing on interdisciplinary studies of writing’s potential to heal, Chicana feminist theories of testimonio, and emic definitions of peace, I am tracking these writers’ individual experiences, collective composition and teaching practices, and the circulation of their publications. My early findings reveal how writing for personal healing and writing for social healing can interanimate each other in post-conflict societies, thereby expanding critical expressivist, embodied, and ideological theories of writing. I hope the results will resonate in other areas of conflict, as well, including in the U.S. For some very early analysis, click here.