Research in the emergent field of expressive writing shows that writing our stories helps us to make sense of our lives. As we write, the brain’s neuroplasticity and circuitry change. As I have witnessed consistently in my Women’s Writing Circles, sharing our personal narratives with others in a safe circle, creates both individual healing, but also solidarity. Not only do we strengthen our individual voices, we feel a greater sense of connectedness with those around us. This paper examines current research in the fields of expressive writing, sacred circles, and community cultural development, examining them in the context of our modern, technologically mediated world and the use of Women’s Writing Circles as a counterpoise to some of today’s greatest challenges.
“Sharing stories,” says David Isay, the founder of StoryCorps “is a way that we prove that every single life matters.” Listening to people’s stories, he believes, is an act of love.
For the past 30 years, Research Psychologist James W. Pennebaker has been at the forefront of expressive writing—also called emotional writing—conducting hundreds of studies illustrating its effects on physical and mental well-being (Pennebaker & Evans, 2014; Pennebaker, 2004, 1999, 1997). Expressive writing is the process of writing about personal and emotional events without regard to form, structure, spelling, grammar, or punctuation. Essentially, it is free-writing, often from a prompt, poem or piece of literature, and as Natalie Goldberg describes in Writing Down the Bones, it’s the act of keeping the pen moving without judgment or editing, writing until we get to the subconscious parts of ourselves. The beauty of expressive writing is that it’s accessible to anyone, anywhere, at any time and its many personal and collective benefits are profound (Adams, 2014; Goldberg, 2010; Lepore & Smyth, 2002; Pennebaker, 1999).
Today, more than 300 studies by Pennebaker and others demonstrate the positive health benefits expressive writing has on everything from enhanced immune system, better sleep habits, increased work efficiency, and less trips to the doctor, to better memory, more meaningful connections, and improved symptoms of asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and irritable bowel syndrome (Colino, 2016; Parker-Pope, 2015; Pennebaker & Evans, 2014; Smyth & Pennebaker, 2008; Frattaroli, 2006). In fact, reviews of the research suggest that expressive writing is a “major medical advance” (Stockdale, 2011), improving the state of mind of people with cancer, Parkinson’s disease, childhood sexual abuse, postpartum depression, and PTSD among war veterans (Colino, 2016).
Pennebaker’s groundbreaking studies are based on the principle that writing about traumatic events for as little as 20 minutes per day for three to four days in a row can produce the measurable health benefits described above (Pennebaker & Evans, 2014). What’s even more exciting are his more recent studies that indicate marked improvements in health after writing about emotions after just one time (Chung & Pennebaker, 2008). Moreover, expressive writing directly accelerates positive neurological changes in the brain through its method of self-directed neuroplasticity (Ross & Adams, 2016). Simply put, writing changes the brain!
I have personally seen women’s emotional states improve many times in the Women’s Writing Circles (WWCs) I design and facilitate. Employing a technique designed by Kathleen Adams, Founder of the Therapeutic Writing Institute and author of 14 books on expressive writing, I ask women to write down three feeling words describing their mood at the beginning and end of our writing sessions (Adams, 2014). Corroborating Ms. Adams’ discoveries, women use words such as “anxious, tired, worried, and weak” before WWCs and words such as “inspired, heard, happy, and strong”afterward. This is after only one two-hour writing circle and has held true for women I have worked with from aged 14 to 76!
Women’s circles, in general, are sprouting up everywhere, because they are necessary safe havens for women who long for a supportive community in which to share their stories and truths. An ancient form, gathering in circle is essential for communicating, storytelling, listening, recovering, and healing to take place (Colburn, 2016; Chen, 2011; Baldwin, 1998). Sacred circles are also a place to practice mindful communications skills, share our diverse voices, and build trust (Garfield, Spring & Cahill, 1998.) They are a “revolutionary-evolutionary movement that is hidden in plain sight” (Bolen, 1999) and they are absolutely vital, because they not only change us individually, they provide a mechanism for creating supportive communities as a counterbalance to a technologically driven world that is making us less compassionate.
Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and leading expert on the effects of digital technology on society concurs. She writes, “Developmental psychology has long made the case for the importance of solitude. And now so does neuroscience. It is only when we are alone with our thoughts—not reacting to external stimuli—that we engage that part of the brain’s basic infrastructure devoted to building up a sense of our stable autobiographical past.” Likewise, as those in the field of psychology know, not talking about important and emotional events can pose serious health risks (Pennebaker & Susman, 1988).
In addition, stories help us to make sense of our world (Goldberg, 2010; Gardner & Poole, 2009; Pennebaker & Seagal, 1999) and build connections to others (Smyth & Pennebaker, 2008). Our stories are the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves and others. Natalie Goldberg writes, “I don’t think everyone wants to create the great American novel, but we all have a dream of telling our stories—of realizing what we think, feel, and see before we die. Writing is a path to meet ourselves and become intimate.”
Indeed, when we express our thoughts fully through writing, our narrative shifts and negative self-talk transforms into a more positive mindset (Seligman, 2011). Through writing, we embody our true selves. When we share our stories, we break down barriers and change how we perceive others. The beauty of expressive writing, to me, is not only in its power to heal past trauma in ourselves, but also in improving what Arlene Goldbard calls “community cultural development,” a decades-old field whereby communities convene through shared concerns, aspirations, themes, and expressed identities in response to social issues. Sharing our stories has the capacity to shape and bind our communities and it makes us more empathetic towards others (Elliott, 2011; Senehi, 2011; Pranis, 2000; Atkinson, 1998).
Rachel Naomi Remen also finds this to be true. She writes in Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal, “When I was a child, people sat around kitchen tables and told their stories. We don’t do that so much anymore. Sitting around the table telling stories is not just a way of passing time. It is the way that wisdom gets passed along. Despite the awesome powers of technology, many of us still do not live very well. We may need to listen to each other’s stories once again” (2006).
Sherry Turkle’s studies support Remen’s position, as well. Turkle has expressed deep concerns about the effects an increasingly technologically mediated life is having on our capacity for empathy. Because we spend less and less time conversing face to face—the very place where empathy is born—compassion towards others is diminishing (Turkle, 2015). Indeed, the art of listening in our fast-paced, media-driven world is being replaced with hasty responses that come in the form of 280 cleverly constructed keystrokes or the click of a “like” button. When face-to-face, people now “phub” each other, meaning “maintaining eye contact while texting.” Rarely do people set aside time to be fully present with one another anymore. I believe this is a colossal crisis.
In Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett agrees. She writes, “Listening is an everyday social art, but it’s an art we have neglected and must learn anew. Listening is more than being quiet while the other person speaks until you can say what you have to say. Generous listening is powered by curiosity, a virtue we can invite and nurture in ourselves to render it instinctive. It involves a kind of vulnerability—a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity. The listener wants to understand the humanity behind the words of the other and patiently summons one’s own best self and one’s own best words and questions” (2016).
Social Psychologist Brené Brown concurs. She believes vulnerability and empathy manifest when we hold spaces for emotional connection and deep listening, conveying to others that we are not judging them, and letting them know that they’re not alone (Brown, 2007). This is why I feel using expressive writing in sacred circle, particularly with women, is such a powerful tool to help offset some of today’s greatest challenges, personally and as a society.
Building on these principles, I founded the Women’s Writing Circle (WWC) in 2012 in order to:
- Use expressive writing in sacred circle as a way for women to deepen their understanding of themselves and others;
- Provide a safe and nurturing place for discussing truths, sharing vulnerabilities, and bearing witness with compassion and gratitude;
- Share written stories that honor and support the diverse voices of all women; and
- Encourage women to embrace their authenticity and become global organizers of change and peace through personal and social transformation, community, and escaping the oppression of silence through our words.
Since conducting my very first Women’s Writing Circle, I have facilitated dozens of writing circles with women, college students, teenagers, and senior citizens in multiple settings, including TLA’s 2017 Power of Worlds Conference. The response has been overwhelming. In fact, there was a waiting list after the very first circle. Today, you can join Women’s Writing Circles at the Writer’s Center of White River Junction, VT and at the Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights at Suffolk University in Boston, MA. Participants continue to report how deeply seen and heard they feel, often for the very first time in their lives. Women feel supported. And some participants have even said that they feel loved.
David Isay understood these basic human needs when he developed StoryCorps in 2003. I have been witnessing the powerful effects of expressively writing in sacred circle since 2012. Much like counseling work, Author and Minister David Augsburger sum it up perfectly when he says, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”
Jennifer A. Minotti is the Community and Development Manager at Write the World and a Visiting Artist at the Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights at Suffolk University. For 17 years, Jennifer worked at Education Development Center (EDC)—a global non-profit working to improve education, health, and economic opportunities worldwide. In 2012, Jennifer founded the Women’s Writing Circle (WWC) as a means to merge her passions for expressive writing, positive psychology, community organizing, women’s health, and social activism. Jennifer is the Co-Creator of The World’s Very First Gratitude Parade and helped establish Gratitude Day in the City of Cambridge, MA. She also founded the Gratitude Jar as a way to help to transform the world! Jennifer is a graduate of Boston University (B.S.) and Columbia University (M.A., M.Ed.) and holds certificates in Wholebeing Positive Psychology, Distance Education, and Herbal Studies. Currently, she is studying towards Certification in Transformative Language Arts Foundations from Goddard College.
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