Write To Heal

Write To Heal

 In workshops and one-on-one sessions, I offer a series of writing exercises designed to help people address a particular trauma or challenge, boost overall health, or simply re-awaken a sense of delight. No previous writing experience is necessary. Please contact me at apdewit@gmail.com for more information.

How I came to this work:

I’m tone deaf, which mattered in high school when I studied theater and had to sing on stage. Because I was a good actor but a terrible singer, some directors simply cut my songs, but I had one teacher who believed that everyone could sing. She worked with me for hours outside of rehearsals, never betraying any frustration, and teaching me to sing with my heart—with my whole body—so that, even when I missed a note, I could still express the music.

I think of that teacher whenever I feel self-conscious about my writing, or when I witness my students’ anxieties. Writing is so much like singing—an articulation of the deepest parts of ourselves that can be exhilarating or mortifying, depending on whether or not we feel we’ve gotten it “right.”

I taught writing at various universities for thirty years, and the majority of my students started the semester thinking they weren’t very good. Because of my experience with singing, I refused to believe in hopeless cases, so I gave my students exercises to help them access their deepest, most authentic material. Without exception, they wrote drafts containing moments of real beauty. It was often a cathartic experience for them, but then we’d have to tackle the business of shaping and polishing their work, and in the end, I’d grade them on their mastery of certain skills. There’s nothing wrong with that—I’m very interested in the process of revising and editing, and a grade can be a useful measure of progress—but the part of teaching I’ve always loved is helping students find their own voices.

I also love the teacher-student relationship because it requires me to stay open and listen. Students need to feel believed in and accepted before they can write about the things that matter to them, and I can only encourage people to write if I open my heart to what they have to say.

Witnessing my students’ growth not just as writers, but as people, led me to study the work of health practitioners who use writing as a therapeutic technique. This is writing that does not seek to please an audience, but simply to help the writer make sense of life. It seemed natural that psychotherapists would sometimes give their clients writing exercises, and that these exercises would not only lead to emotional breakthroughs, but also, perhaps, to lowered blood pressure and greater overall health; but I was fascinated to learn that writing could actually help people recover more quickly from surgery. Even more fascinating was the overlap I saw between the kinds of writing exercises that proved most healing, and the kinds that prompted the strongest writing. For decades, I’d been urging my students to focus on sensory detail to make their stories more believable; focusing on sensory detail, it turns out, is central to writing as healing.

Keeping a journal has sustained and consoled me through every challenge I’ve faced, but writing as healing is much more than journaling. It’s a process of specific exercises that can be used to address a variety of emotional, psychological, and physical concerns, and it’s also a way of developing greater insight. It’s a powerful practice for anyone, regardless of writing ability, and though I often still teach in a traditional classroom, the work that calls to me most now is healing.