Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

The Intersection of Writing and Therapy: Joining Hand and Heart

May 26, 2018

By Colorado Review Assistant Managing Editor Sarah Green

When I informed my clients and peers that I’d be leaving my job as a therapist to attend an MFA program in creative writing, I received many quizzical expressions and remarks about what a contrast this path seemed from my current position. I, however, had always seen both these interests as intimately related, but the reactions I encountered prompted me to reflect on some of the aspects I find so similar and compatible about these fields.

The Process is Personal

Both writing and therapy are process oriented. Rather than resulting in a tangible product, or simply being a means to an end, the primary reward of both is the experience itself, the personal change that occurs through participating in the process. Though some therapies are more solution focused, and intended to problem solve around particular issues, it is only through engaging in the process of examining our thoughts, emotions and experiences that we arrive at solutions. Sure, writing may result in a poem or book, and therapy may result in external changes in behavior. But when we leave our therapy sessions, or put the book or pen down and walk away, we take with us only the impression that remains—we ourselves are what has been changed.

Though therapists can help us learn skills, recognize and articulate our thoughts, make connections and arrive at answers, ultimately the knowledge and answers generated come from within. Therapy and writing work by showing up, to the session or the page, and seeing what unfolds. Though we may approach either with particular goals, the most rewarding therapy and writing sessions always seem to be those with a more open-ended agenda, which allow for unpredictable and surprising connections and revelations to be made. In the same way that when we sit down to write, we often don’t know what exactly we’re going to say until we begin writing, the very act of writing and talking things through facilitates our ability to discover and articulate things we sometimes didn’t even know we knew, arrive at answers we didn’t know we had.

Creating Space

A therapist’s role is sometimes described as that of “holding space” for clients. Space requires dimension, exists between two or more things, whether that be people, the person and the page, or words themselves. The relationship between a client and therapist establishes a space which facilitates what is created in-between. Therapy is never simply didactic—it’s a dynamic in which each person participates to produce, or in other words, author and co-edit something in that space. In writing, the page becomes that space in which things can unfold. Words are put in conversation with one another, and we’re brought into dialogue with ourselves. Externalizing our thoughts verbally, or visually on the page, grounds what can otherwise be an isolating and abstract internal process, enabling us to become legible to ourselves. 

The Power of Language

In discourse, whether it be talking or writing, more is occurring than mere description. The narratives we create, by which we live our lives, consist of language. We simultaneously read our lives, and come to understand them in the process of writing them. Narrative therapy is based on the premise that though we may never completely erase the past, we can speak, write, and live our way into revision—our lives palimpsests—the same text made up of multiple, overlapping layers. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) also relies on the premise that the language and internal narratives we use to describe ourselves and the world around us profoundly affect our perceptions. CBT can be used to recognize and examine the language we use and often identify with, so that we can come to understand and challenge the often unconscious beliefs operating in our lives which significantly inform our interpretations and affect how we act and feel. By reclaiming control and a sense of agency over the discourse of our lives, we can challenge dominant narratives that may be detrimental, which we may have prior accepted as mere fact. Language poetry similarly focuses on deconstructing language so that by breaking it into its constituent parts we can recognize the operation of language through syntax and discover the meaning at words’ roots. This can be personally and politically empowering by making us more conscious of the narratives we both receive and construct, and enabling us to reconfigure them to create new juxtapositions and meaning.

As the therapeutic benefits of the arts become recognized, they are being combined more and more with traditional therapeutic practice. Art therapies now range from music therapy, to dance therapy, to therapies which incorporate various aspects of writing, such as narrative therapy, bibliotherapy, and poetry therapy. In my book, writing and therapy are compliments, not contrasts.

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