Write Brain

It’s poetic! On January 31st I gave a talk on Healing Trauma through Narrative Reconstruction at the National Institute for the Psychotherapies, where analysts are deeply engaged in learning new ways of effectively healing trauma. In my talk, I outlined 30 years of my field data on the power of healing and transforming lives through writing exercises that I developed for an emotional literacy intervention, and later integrated into clinical practice. The key thesis of the talk was that when we write, we enter an altered state. This state is akin to that which was once achieved through hypnosis, and now through EMDR. And that in this state, and from this writing brain, we can also retrieve memories long forgotten or repressed and, with proper guidance, make coherent sense of them andweave them into a newly strengthened and more coherent self-narrative. Two days later the Education section of the Sunday’s Times featured an article on a new initiative that works to heal Veteran trauma through writing! In it, Veteran testimonials attest to the findings that I shared. The Editor of The Journal of Military Experience stated that: “Traumatic memories are fragmented...not always in order...if you can put those emotions and the traumatic events in a narrative that makes sense to you...it makes the trauma tangible. If it’s tangible, it’s malleable. And if it is malleable, you can do something with it.” How uncannily it echoes the closing quote of my talk from psychologist and linguist, Ken Wilbur: 

We need to give careful attention to the text we call the self, before it can become transparent. In therapy, or any work that engages closely with text, we need to work toward the knowing that our personal history…is mutable.

Martin goes on to say: “We write to bear witness.” This mirrors a quote with which I opened my talk: “We write to discover what we know.” This was a quote from a playwriting teacher I’d had years ago, as I was beginning to develop ‘healing dialogues’ with people across the lifespan, inviting them to view a photographic trigger and then do a free-write in response. This writing was then shaped into an outline for a two character play, through which the writer could work out unresolved conflicts and discover forgotten meanings and events.


One member of the Veteran’s Project highlights the benefits of this approach, asserting that it was indeed healing to: “Step away from the war experiences and observe the details in new ways. To talk about character development, narrative structure and point of view.” Another said he’d had trouble ‘talking about his experience, but had no trouble writing about it’. This is not news to me! I have been helping people of all ages reconstruct their narratives for decades, through my non-profit, Find Your Voice. The results were so powerful, and so consistently transformative, that I now use writing in every individual therapy session that I conduct as well. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword! And, like all potent tools, it needs to be handled with care. People with particularly traumatic narratives need accompaniment and guidance and containment in their voicing, well beyond that which a writing teacher alone could offer. Once they have articulated, reframed and shared their core trauma story, they can continue the writing practice safely on their own. Also, untrained workshop leaders can become traumatized by upsetting material themselves, and may not be able to endure or contain the transmission of content and feelings involved in the sharing. For these very reasons, in my own new project...The Voicing Project, I plan to bring my combined dramaturgical and clinical training to the enterprise of helping people voice toward healing, while also training other clinicians and coaches to do so as well. It seems to be the write time to launch it!

Why Talk Therapy is on the Wane and Writing Workshops Are on the Rise

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.