Expressive and Perspective Writing

I am not a Buddhist, but much of Buddhist philosophy appeals to me. Our Western culture has somehow warped Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”, into a very stifling belief that “I am what I think.”

Writing with the intention of exploring perspectives is one way of breaking through the illusion of an established, or static “I”. The fact is, like Walt Whitman, we are large.  We also contain multitudes.  And we can change with just a shift of perspective.

The world as we know it is a set of stories that must be chosen among in order for us to live life in a process of continual re-creation.

– Walter R. Fisher, the author of Human Communication As Narration.

Drama, and Acting with The Backstory

In July of 2015, Kent State hosted an International Conference: Why the Humanities? Answers from the Cognitive and Neurosciences. The website states:

Recent studies in the cognitive and neurosciences indicate how humanities education can develop the following key cognitive and emotional capabilities that are essential not only for personal well being but also for responsible citizenship and social justice.

DSC_0065I have a feeling humanities teachers around the globe were thinking, “No kidding.”

I’ve been teaching writing and theater arts for over twenty years. I’m certainly not saying my students are more empathic or have more self-knowledge than other students, but I have seen how their dedication to the subject at hand opens them to personal growth and development.

My interest in what I have come to call Perspective Writing began early in my teaching career, when I was asked to take on a special needs student one-on-one for a semester of Theater Production. The student didn’t have an official diagnosis, but there were concerns about her ability to empathise with others. She was bright, but a continually disruptive element in the class. I agreed, but made it clear to the administration and to the school psychologist that I would concentrate on the subjects I was qualified to teach: writing and acting. I would not play psychologist. With that understanding, J. and I set to work on a one-woman show.

We began with a monolog. Then dialogue, and conflict.

Then we fleshed out backstories for the two radically different characters, and worked through their motivations and goals, before moving on to compassionate observation of strangers for movement work. Three months in, J. came to me one morning, very excited. She had fought with a classmate early that morning and told me that she’d stopped herself mid-shout. J. had suddenly thought about the “scene” she was acting out in the hallway with her classmate in the same way she’d been thinking about the scenes she was writing for class. “I stood in her shoes. No wonder she was mad at me.”

We both had an epiphany.

It wasn’t a quick fix for J.’s empathy issues, but it was a start.

In the years since then I have gently pushed students of all ages and backgrounds to explore perspectives in their writing. I’ve watched them teach themselves: working through grief, overcoming internal and external conflicts of all sorts: realising their stories are worth telling and exploring.

It Starts with Expressive Writing and Distancing Techniques

While mentoring young students in after-school arts programs, I began reading about Dr. James Pennebaker’s Expressive Writing. One of the aspects of this kind of writing is the disregard for grammar, spelling or sentence structure: Just write. I’ve had several students who had been discouraged because of language and reading disabilities. Expressive writing sessions helped them discover their natural talent for storytelling. It was wonderful to see the nearly instant effect it had on their self-esteem!

Another aspect of expressive writing is that it creates a distance between the experience and the conscious self. Years before I had even heard of expressive writing, I’d met students through my creative writing workshops who, without prompting, chose a foreign language when writing on topics they knew would upset them. More than one of these students told me they had always kept a private diary in their second language. It is fascinating to note that they instinctively distanced themselves from the experience.

I have great faith in the benefits of expressive writing.

Perspective Writing

However, while there is a lot of research to support the use of expressive writing as a tool for coping with trauma, there is also research that documents the risks involved when writing about one’s own life. Some writers fetishise their own pain. Rather than creating distance, they may find themselves in a self-perpetuating myth of martyrdom. They may reinforce thoughts of revenge, or unintentionally increase their general dissatisfaction with life.

This is why, in addition to expressive writing, many writers benefit from the simultaneous use of process journals, and other tools, to assure a distancing.

“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”
― William WordsworthLyrical Ballads

Technique matters. Not just in terms of art, but in terms of emotional health.

The writing process can be a way to explore perspectives. We can reject our family’s narratives and their resulting false truths. We can challenge our culture’s meta-narrative prophecies like “damaged for life”, “people can’t change”, or “no one gets over that”. Like a photographer, move around the space of your life, change your angle, change your point of view through Perspective Writing.  We can discover new possibilities for meaning and identity […] We can choose to live deliberately.

If you are interested in exploring the new perspective and narrative choices for yourself, please contact me regarding mentoring.

An Important Caveat

While working on my masters degree, I focused on my verse memoir, and again with my PhD I looked into the role that life writing can have on mental health. However, I am not a therapist, and I do not do any kind of psychoanalysis or therapeutic counselling*.

I am a guidance counselor and a writing instructor.  I can help students and writers by continually pushing them to explore new perspectives through writing exercises. I can help them to distance themselves from the old narrative, and seek out possibilities for themselves and their personal story.

You can read more about my philosophy regarding how writing can be a tool to improve our lives: Poetics and the Good Life.

*If you have come here looking for help, but are in the middle of a crisis, please contact a professional psychologist. Reach out. There is help.