Writing to Heal

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 how writing achieves these effects.

How might we teach writing to heal the body? How might writing lead to personal and social empowerment? Might writing lead to peace? 

With funding from the National Council of Teachers of English/College Composition and Communication Chair’s Research Initiative, and in collaboration with community educators, 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

Street art in Cosme Velho, Rio de Janeiro

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.  Tying classroom composition practices to healing 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.

(Article under consideration.)



Can 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 in Wisconsin, 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.



Can writing lead to 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. This project, in the planning stages with collaborators at the University of Manizales in Manizales, Colombia and the University of Antioquia in Medellin, examines how writing workshops can help youth develop the peace-building capacities necessary for a harmonious future.