A Cancer Survivor’s Guide to Expressive Writing
by Judith Kelman
Cancer can seem all-consuming. But your story is far more complex. You’re a unique individual with a wealth of interests and ideas. Other people have touched and inspired you. Life has steered you to places you never expected to go.
Writing offers a powerful way to tell your story and explore what’s on your mind. Getting things down can help you to tame jumbled thoughts and find greater clarity. As the great British writer E.M. Forster put it, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”
Countless studies have tested the value of writing for people grappling with tough situations, including illness. People who wrote about challenging experiences felt less anxious, experienced greater well-being, and felt more in control.
How Writing Can Help You
In addition to the emotional benefits, writing offers several practical benefits.
• Contact Keeping people informed one by one can be tiring. Instead, consider sending out a blast email or posting updates on social media. Starting a blog is another option. Popular sites like Blogger or WordPress will walk you through the process of setting up your own online journal. There are even blogging sites, like CaringBridge.org and MyLifeLine.org, that cater specifically to people facing health challenges like cancer.
• Community You are not alone. Across the country and around the globe, others are confronting challenges like yours. Search for online groups in your areas of interest. Many offer a place for you to add your views. Sharing experiences can be comforting and empowering. You may help yourself and others by trading strategies that have served you well.
• Accomplishment Always dreamed of penning a novel? Write the opening scene. Eager to unleash your inner poet? Write a story using three-word sentences. Enjoy storytelling but finding it physically difficult or exhausting to type things out? Current technology makes dictation simple. Options range from digital recorders to voice recognition software and digital personal assistants, like Apple’s Siri, that instantly show onscreen what you say aloud.
How to Get Started
People have been swapping tales since the dawn of humanity, from early childhood on. Still, facing down a blank page or screen can be intimidating. Here are some tips and tricks to ease your way:
• Practice. Establish a routine. Write at the same time in the same place every day. Gather what you need to feel relaxed and comfortable. Maybe it’s a cozy chair, your beloved pet, or a favorite sweater. Shut down distractions like email and your phone.
• Warm up. If you’re drawing a blank, try these exercises:
- Set a timer for five minutes. At the top of a blank page, write the first thing that pops into your mind. And keep writing. Don’t worry about grammar, and don’t stop. If nothing comes, you can write something like “I’ll think of something” again and again until you do.
- Use a prompt. A prompt is anything that gets you writing. An online search for “writing prompts” yields endless possibilities. Choose one that speaks to you and spend a few minutes writing your response.
• Choose your own direction. You’re in the driver’s seat. Follow your instincts. If a fresh idea strikes you, go with it. The most interesting writing often follows a flash of inspiration. Don’t hesitate to back up, change course, or take a tempting detour along the way.
• Be alert. What you observe can be a rich source of material. So can things you hear about or read. Your imagination can transport you to any time and place (real or invented). Keep a notepad or smartphone app handy to jot things down.
• Enjoy the journey. The same approach holds true for every writing project. Start with a single thought. Add another and another. You can always revise and rethink later. Be proud of what you accomplish. You’re flexing your creativity and finding your voice. You’re doing the “write” thing!
Judith Kelman is the author of 20 books. She’s the founder and executive director of Visible Ink, a writing program for people with cancer. For more information, visit MSKCC.org/visibleink.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2018.