In Tara Parker-Pope’s recent NYT Well Blog post, “Writing Your Way to Happiness,” she explains the well-known benefits of expressive writing and explores new research, which seems to suggest that the “power of writing—and then rewriting—your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness.”
The “concept,” Parker-Pope explains, “is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves.” The problem, however, is that our “inner voice” does not always get these narratives right; sometimes our perceptions of ourselves are inaccurate and overly negative. But, she suggests “some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves.”
Paker-Pope summarizes an early study conducted by Duke University in which academically struggling freshman who worried about their grades and questioned whether they were as fit for the demands of college life as their colleagues were divided into intervention and control groups. The students in the intervention group were asked to watch videos of upperclassmen explaining that they struggled during their first years of college, but that they eventually learned the skills they needed to succeed.
The hope of the study was that these students would learn from the videos of the upperclassmen and edit or revise their own stories; instead of thinking that they were not cut out for college, the researchers hoped that the struggling students would see themselves as students still developing their academic skills. As it turns out, the writing intervention helped and the students in the intervention group who had “undergone the story-changing intervention” by rewriting their personal narratives improved their grade point averages and became less likely to drop out of school (Parker-Pope).
Parker-Pope also cites Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia who suggests that, “these writing interventions can really nudge people from a self-defeating way of thinking into a more optimistic cycle that reinforces itself.” His book, “Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By” was released in paperback this month, January 2015.
James Pennebaker, who Parker-Pope points out is a leader in the work on the psychological benefits of expressive writing, has even more faith in the power of expressive writing. Pennebaker thinks of expressive writing as “a life course correction,” a medium that can help people change the direction of their lives. For example, one of Pennebaker’s studies suggests that students who write for 15 minutes a day about important personal issues report “fewer illnesses and visits to the student health center” (Parker-Pope).
Parker-Pope’s piece, and Pennebaker’s study in particular, reminds me of the importance of expressive writing for artists and writers. Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” has been helping artists and writers overcome their inner critics and tap into their creative promise for decades. One of the core practices of Cameron’s course is to write what she calls, “morning pages”–three pages of text–every morning without fail. By writing “morning pages” Cameron believes that artists and writers can tap into the most creative parts of their minds before their censors wake up for the day and tell them to stop believing in themselves and their projects.
Cameron’s “morning pages” are a structured version of Elbow’s “free-writing” exercises. Elbow asks students to write for ten minutes without stopping if they are stuck in a challenging place in their written work, for example. Both practices use the powers of expressive writing to help people move past their inner voices and limited beliefs about themselves and their work.
Perhaps we can add Wilson’s concept of “writing interventions” and Pennebaker’s “course correction” to think more about the power of expressive writing. Science is beginning to tell us that these writing practices are powerful, that they not only help us overcome obstacles created by our critical inner voices and produce more work, but also help us change our stories, reimagining who we are, and who we might become. Powerful.
Thank you to Tara Parker-Pope for returning expressive writing to the center of the conversation.