Writing to Heal

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By James W. Pennebaker

New Harbinger Publications, 2004.

Available on Amazon.com


In this book James Pennebaker guides the reader through several journaling techniques that are designed to help the reader overcome traumatic and emotional events. While it does not specifically discuss using expressive writing to combat chronic illnesses it does primarily focus on investigating past traumatic events. The main technique used in this book is essay or free-writing, however there are a variety of prompts and variations used to help the reader address a wide variety of issues. Pennebaker uses scientific research to show the validity and the effectiveness of specific journaling techniques.

Part 1: The Essentials of Writing

The first part of the book seeks to explain the benefit that expressive writing or journaling can have on helping a person recover from a traumatic or emotional event. The section continues to give the reader the tools and knowledge to begin journal exercises.

Chapter 1: Why Write About Trauma or Emotional Upheaval

It is important to understand how journal exercises can be of benefit to people. In this chapter Pennebaker uses the latest research on journaling to show that the exercises laid out in the book have been proven to help individuals overcome traumatic experiences. Pennebaker goes into detail to explain the benefits that journaling can have on a person's physical and psychological health. He even gives evidence that shows how journaling can positively affect a person's behavior. The chapter ends with an overview of several concerns for people who are beginning to start journaling should keep in mind, primarily the necessity of privacy and possible affects on personal relationships.

Chapter 2: Getting Ready to Write

In this chapter the reader is given specific tools and tips to help them learn how to journal. It discusses when and where one should journal along with how often. There are also several interesting questions answered like how soon after a traumatic experience should one journal. Pennebaker also suggests that a person should not journal about a topic that is overwhelming for them. This chapter lays the ground work for the exercises throughout the book.

Chapter 3: The Basic Writing Technique

One of the most difficult aspects of journaling is knowing how to start out. This chapter guides the reader through the first four days of journaling. It gives a quick review of key tips, and then instructs the reader on how to begin to write expressively. After each of these beginning exercises the reader is asked to rate the effectiveness and the meaningfulness of what they wrote.

Chapter 4: Looking Back at Your Writing

The purpose of this chapter is to teacher the reader how to gain insight into the writings they did the first four days. This includes obvious methods like looking at how they rated each of the day's writings and searching for strong negative emotions in their writings. Pennebaker also asks the reader to examine their penmanship, and see if there is any difference between their handwriting day to day. This chapter gives the reader more tips and suggestions on how to journal.

Part 2: Experimenting With Writing

The second part of the book offers more insights into expressive writing, and gives the reader more techniques and prompts to guide them as they journal.

Chapter 5: Breaking Mental Blocks: Stream of Consciousness and Semiautomatic Writing

This chapter explains two methods of expressive writing: streams of consciousness and semiautomatic writing. Both are designed to help the user uncover thought patterns that they normally repress and keep quiet. The chapter allows for the reader to journal in the book, and provides plenty of room to complete the exercises.

Chapter 6: Appreciating the Good in a Sometimes Bad World

One of the more difficult things to do is to find positives in traumatic or negative situations. In this chapter Pennebaker outlines several journaling methods that are designed to help the user uncover some positives that arose from negative traumatic events in their past. These techniques help people gain a new way to look at events in their past.

Chapter 7: Constructing and Editing Your Story

Sometimes the best way to overcome a situation and gain understanding of events is to write it out as a story. Creating a narrative can be helpful in uncovering repressed emotions and moving past traumatic events. The methods used in this chapter are designed to help a person take a regular journal entry about a traumatic event and turn it into a personal narrative about the event that is designed to help them overcome the experience.

Chapter 8: Changing Perspectives

The exercises described in this chapter seek to teach the reader how to journal about a traumatic experience from a different perspective. Primarily this means to write from a different person's point of view. Pennebaker suggests that writing from a different perspective may help someone step back from a traumatic experience and eventually gain understanding and healing. The primary method laid out in this chapter is to write in the third person, however there are several other tips and guidelines that are discussed on how to change the perspective of the story.

Chapter 9: Experimenting With Context

The place where a person is at any given time can affect their mood and outlook. This chapter suggests that by changing the place where you journal you can overcome traumas and journal more effectively. Pennebaker gives many suggestions including writing in front of a mirror or in a safe and secure place. This chapter outlines exactly how a different location can benefit a person in their journaling.

Chapter 10: Writing Creatively: The Power of Fiction, Poetry, Dance, and Art

This chapter offers several other suggestions on activities that a person can do to help overcome traumatic experiences. This includes writing a fiction story about a character who experiences a traumatic event and writing poetry. Lastly, Pennebaker gives several ideas on how to engage in nonverbal expressions such as dancing and art. All of these exercises have the same purpose as journaling; to help a person develop understanding and overcome trauma.

TMS Wiki member ForestforTrees read this book and wrote the following in a forum post:

I recently read the book Writing to Heal, by James Pennebaker, and thought it was one of the best books on therapeutic writing I have read. Pennebaker is one of the leading researchers on therapeutic writing, and he brings his expertise to design a great journaling program for individuals who are seeking to overcome traumatic experiences. The only technique used in the book is essays; however they are prompted in several different ways that make each session effective.

While Pennebaker never mentions TMS, he does identify that people who go through serious traumas may be affected by chronic pain. He also recognizes that people can be healed by chronic pain through journaling.

I do not think this book can replace ones about TMS, mainly because TMS education is very important. However this book would be a great companion alongside a TMS book (specifically MBP or HBP) because it effectively teaches the reader how to journal. I recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more about how to journal.

Amazon.com Customer Reviews

An Amazon Customer said:

I found the exercises in this book easy to do. I also found it interesting that you were asked to limit the number of days you wrote. I guess I have a tendancy to want to dwell on things. Writing as I did, did seem to help me deal with the issue on which I focused. Pennebaker is a credible researcher and this approach is based on empirical study. I recommend it to others.

About the Author

James W. Pennebaker is a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. Currently he is "exploring the links between emotional experiences, natural language, and physical and mental health. His most recent research focuses on how everyday language reflects basic social and personality processes." Pennebaker is the author of 8 books and over 200 articles. He is also organizing an online study that analyzes a person's twitter or facebook posts and determines their personality. (Source)

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