The “Write” Way to Heal
by Pamela Post-Ferrante, MED, MFA, CAGS
When I experienced one diagnosis of cancer after another over the span of five years, my life looked like a disaster, especially with a divorce and lost home thrown into the mix. I might have gone under. Instead, writing saved me. It put the pieces of my life back together. It slowed me down and let me feel the joy of creating. Writing had always been at the helm, but this time it was healing me.
In my work, I used writing as a therapeutic tool to help children with special challenges. After cancer, I used the same tools for myself. Using my own words previously spoken to the children I worked with, I wrote from a magazine picture pasted onto a card: “Pretend you are a reporter and this is the picture that goes with your story. Now write the story.” I prompted myself, “Pick up an orange. Hold it and look at it for five minutes. Use your senses. Then write as if you are the orange.”
Writing heals by taking something inside of you - a feeling or idea - and getting it onto paper so you can see it, read it, reread it, share it, and save it.
This experience with writing during cancer redirected my career path from using writing as healing with children to using it with other cancer survivors. Eventually, I created and led writing and healing support groups for cancer survivors. After a decade, I had developed a book of 12 writing sessions and a meditation CD so that others beyond my groups could also experience the healing power of writing.
Writing heals by taking something inside of you – a feeling or idea – and getting it onto paper so you can see it, read it, reread it, share it, and save it, instead of having it drift off into the air. Putting feelings – especially the difficult ones – into words may also cause you to experience them differently. By writing them down, your brain reorganizes the information. You may find that those feelings might not have been as bad as you thought.
In my cancer support groups, I offer pinecones, or seashells, or the sweet smell of fragrant soap to those in attendance. Sometimes I have acorns and furled autumn leaves. I ask everyone to write as if they are that seashell or that acorn, and the feelings expressed through the seashell or acorn might be more about them than if I had just asked, “How are you feeling?”
Then they share. The power of reading their words aloud is healing. The power of learning to listen is healing. Sometimes when you listen to what someone else has written, you realize that their words are also true for you; you just hadn’t known until you heard it.
If you want to try this today, go to an odds-and-ends drawer. (It’s usually the drawer in the kitchen or office that houses string, glue sticks, markers, sticky notes, a forgotten postcard, a screwdriver, a handful of nails, and other miscellaneous objects.) Pull something out. If you don’t have a drawer like this, you can pick up a magazine and find a picture to give a backstory.
Begin your writing session with mindful meditation to help you slow down and become aware of your breathing. Sit for a few minutes and simply follow your breath. Get settled into yourself. Then look at the chosen object or picture carefully. What might it sound like or feel like? If it’s a picture, what do you see? What feeling does it evoke in you? Let’s say you picked a plastic turtle out of the drawer, begin your five-minute writing with “I am a small plastic turtle,” or “I’m Terry, a turtle, and …” – or however else you might want to begin. Then just keep writing. You can even find a writing buddy to share your story with.
As for me, I continue to write through prompts and share my writing for my own health – for fun, for release, for me.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Pamela Post-Ferrante is a writer, teacher, workshop leader, and four-time cancer survivor. She created writing and healing workshops for cancer survivors and health professionals, which she has been leading in Boston area hospitals and privately since 2001. In her new book, Writing & Healing: A Mindful Guide for Cancer Survivors (Hatherleigh/Random House, 2012), Pamela provides a step-by-step guide for readers to become active participants in their own healing through expressive writing and mindfulness. For more information, visit WritingAndHealing.com. Follow Pamela on Twitter at twitter.com/WritingHealing.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2013.