During the early 2000s, I taught a course called “Writing Your Life” at a few senior citizen centers in Riverside County, California. I was an English Composition instructor at the local community college when the call for a teacher came up through the community education division. I was happy to embark on something unknown–teaching folks much older than I how to write their life stories.
After a few rough starts, including a crabby ex-English teacher rolling her eyes at me, I got into the rhythm of helping my students tell their stories, rich in textures from worlds I imagined only through history texts, like hopping a train or tears for receiving a sandwich from a stranger during the Great Depression. There were some talented writers among the group, but most were there to listen and write to share their joys and sorrows–to be heard and seen. It was therapy.
Freud and those that came before him knew that talking about one’s life is therapeutic healing. Narrating the self gives the speaker the opportunity to frame her life with a beginning, middle and end for others to understand the point of the story, the meaning of one’s life in specific scenes or on the whole.
Writing has the same therapeutic qualities according to an article in The New York Times entitled Writing Your Way to Happiness. The article examines a study documenting the effects of students who wrote and re-wrote versions of themselves with respect to school performance and other aspects of their lives. The results were interesting, reflecting the importance of controlling perceptions–of others and of self. Students who re-framed their stories improved their performance in school.
“The idea here is getting people to come to terms with who they are, where they want to go,” said Dr. Pennebaker. “I think of expressive writing as a life course correction.”
I agree. The creative urge is the same in writing and living–insight and projection.