Why Talk Therapy is on the Wane and Writing Workshops Are on the Rise: This question was posed in an article by Steve Almond, in the New York Times Magazine last Sunday. Being both a therapist who takes a Narrative approach, and a writing Coach who has spent decades helping people to find the words and the courage to give language to their experience — to weave a coherent portrayal of their dreams, and their nightmares — I might be in a unique position to ponder this!
As a clinician, I am a firm believer that the ability to make meaning of our experience is crucial to our mental health. Equally important, is the ability to share and revise our self-story — to have it witnessed and affirmed by others. For the past few decades I have run Find Your Voice (FYV) Workshops that led participants through the process of writing short plays, as a means of giving voice to their stories, and learning to do so in an authentic and coherent manner.
Initially developed at NYU as a way to lead reluctant freshmen toward a love of writing, my goal with this FYV method was always meaning and voice-making, rather than art-making — thought the results were almost always artful. We began the process with a picture, a sort of Rorschach inkblot stimulus intended to open the imagination and override the editors that had been installed by years of training to spit back the answer that the teacher sought. Students were asked to write freely, briefly, about what had happened — or was about to happen — in this image. I always chose pictures that were free of figures, inviting the viewer to populate this pictorial stage with their own. Almost universally, respondents wrote about whatever was most pressing in their hearts and on their minds: if someone in their family had recently been mugged, an image of a park bench would elicit a moment of violence. If someone had recently been diagnosed with cancer, the same bench was the scene where this news would be divulged. In other words, they picture was merely a can-opener, they wrote about that which they most needed to make sense of. These free writes were then shaped into treatments for plays, as we co-constructed scenarios in which their two characters would grapple with one conflict, and then resolve it…not necessarily happily. And these characters were given fictional names, and they enacted dramas and spoke truths that their creators had never dared to. And across many rewrites, as we in the room asked hard questions about: the logic of the plot; the redeeming motivations of the characters; and the back-story that preceded the moment of crisis around which the play revolved; the writer made sense of their own experience, safely, under the (dis)guise of their artistic creation. And along the way Workshop members learned to love one another’s stories; to empathize with one another’s struggles in articulating them; and to celebrate one another’s [literary] breakthroughs. And when the plays were ultimately presented to an invited audience, the participants saw in the faces of both the strangers and the familiars in the room — the glowing light of recognition. And in the Q&A that followed, they spoke not about their autobiographies, but their process of creation. And they were healed as much by the affirmation that others had identified with the story they’d heard, as the applause for their craft.
Since leaving academia, I have worked with hundreds of people of all ages in this manner, and have used elements of it in private practice. While FYV Workshop members would not have deemed their experience as ‘therapy’, they would certainly credit it as therapeutic — as transformative. Without ever discussing a symptom, or verifying a ‘truth’, members of these groups were relieved of blockages far greater than the inability to write or share their writing. They were relieved of their silence, their frozen positions, and their isolation. The writing cure is indeed and underutilized resource.