Writing as a Path to Healing

Can writing be a path to healing? That’s what I discovered when I went to my first Creative Mornings meetup not too long ago. Creative Mornings are monthly opportunities for learning and sharing – a morning seminar I found very stimulating, plus a chance to meet other people working in a creative field.

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photo from the DC Creative Mornings site

Creative Mornings are the brainchild of Tina Roth Eisenberg, a designer/entrepreneur who likes to call herself Swiss Miss. In a previous VisionThing post I wrote about how her Creative Mornings concept started in New York and then inspired similar monthly morning meetings all around the globe. Talk about the power of ideas.

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photo by Tom Lee from the DC Creative Mornings site

Each Creative Morning has a theme and the one I attended here in DC was about bravery. As part of the presentation I listened to Ron Capps, the founder of the Veterans Writing Project, read some of his poetry. Ron, who served tours of duty in five wars, found creative expression was a way to understand and deal with his wartime experiences. Not only did he feel a deep need to write as a way of expressing himself, he also saw writing as a healing process.

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mask photo from NICoE Healing Arts Program workshop

As he thought about his own experience and how much writing helped him deal with his PTSD, he felt that other veterans could benefit too – and he wanted to share what he’d learned from his graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins. That was the impetus for creating the Veterans Writers Project (VWP), as Ron describes in JWMM, a quarterly literary journal:

Jacqueline M. Hames, Soldiers Magazine

Ron Capps photo by Jacqueline M. Hames, Soldiers Magazine

“The VWP is a nonprofit organization that we set up to provide no-cost writing workshops and seminars for veterans… Less formally, I think of it as a team of writers who were all veterans or veteran’s family members, those of us who are working writers, who give away what we’ve learned in our work or in our graduate writing programs to people who are just getting started at writing.”

An overwhelming experience, something that might trigger PTSD, can leave you trapped in an emotional maelstrom. Finding the words to externalize that experience, so you can examine and share it, can help calm that internal storm. That was Ron’s personal experience, as he explained in the NEA Arts Magazine:

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from the Pages and Places website, photo by Karen Blixen

“Writing helps to create a little bit of distance. The way that I think of it is as if you have this traumatic memory and it’s hot or radioactive. You pick it up with your bare hand — your bare brain so to speak — you can’t manage it, it’s unmanageable. But by putting art or music or writing in between, you have a filter — it’s like putting on a pair of gloves. You can reach out and pick it up.”

There is some scientific evidence that the art of writing can also be a healing art. The National Intrepid Center of Excellence, devoted to understanding and educating about traumatic brain injury, is planning further research to explore the arts as a way of helping heal PTSD. You can find out more about that in the same NEA Arts Magazine.

Jacqueline Hames, Soldiers Magazine

photo by Jacqueline Hames, Soldiers Magazine

As Ron likes to say, “either you control the memory or the memory controls you.” This perceptive NYT article takes the thought further:

For a generation weaned in a multimedia confessional society, and at ease with blogging and Facebook, it makes sense that sharing war experiences and fears would be an effective, or at least familiar, way to examine and overcome what Mr. Capps describes as the “powerful sense of isolation” that greets most veterans once home. They leave behind a culture built on teamwork for one that doesn’t seem to value community, doesn’t appear to be at war and doesn’t understand them.

The military is looking to writing and other art forms, like painting and music, to help rewire the brain after trauma. At Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Ron Capps leads weekly workshops for service members recovering from PTSD and traumatic brain injury. He starts them off with two fundamental questions: What is different about the military experience, and why do we bother writing things down?

“We write,” he explains, “to bear witness.”

Ron asks participants to step away from their war experiences and observe the details in new ways. To become better writers, they talk about character development, narrative structure and point of view.

As a writer I understand how writing can be cathartic and healing. Of course, you have to communicate too, otherwise you’re just doing it for an audience of one. But more than that, the VWP is a way for people to share their experiences – and for those of us who weren’t there to gain some insight into what they went through.

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Cover art is “Under the Mulberry Trees” by retired Marine CWO2 Mike Fay

You can read the work that comes from the VWP on their website 0-Dark-Thirty.  They print a quarterly literary magazine The Review which you can read online here or subscribe and they’ll send you a copy. They also publish work more frequently online in The Report, which you can access here.

You can also donate and send The Review directly to veterans, as 0-Dark-Thirty explains:

“We’re already providing copies for every patient at the Defense Center of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, and to the Warrior Writers’ Program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Our targets include VA hospitals and clinics, units with a high deployment OPTEMPO, and VSOs.”

David Vergun, Soldiers Magazine

photo by David Vergun, Soldiers Magazine

It used to be fairly common that when people returned from war they would be reluctant to talk about it. Having those experiences locked inside created an emotional wall that was hard to breech… for many, that silence held them apart from the stream of daily life.

More importantly, serving in the military is a time of community – people share similar experiences and grow to trust and depend on each other for their very survival. Coming home from that shared existence – and the sense that someone has your back – to civilian life is challenging at best.

Drew Angerer:The New York Times

photo by Drew Angerer:The New York Times

Kudos to Ron Capps and his fellow veterans for creating these writing programs. They’re helping their fellow veterans find a path to understanding and a means for sharing those terrifying moments when death and destruction are a routine expectation. Trauma brutalizes the psyche – it takes a deep personal trust and faith going forward to bring words to a stilled voice and succor to a troubled heart.

You can read Ron Capps’s essay “Writing My Way Home” here.

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About Dan Bailes

As a writer and storyteller I explore the creative process and how we understand ourselves and our place in the world. For my blog, The Vision Thing, I write on creativity, innovation and vision – with a focus on pathfinders and the inspirational moment. I also consult and write for clients, play drums in a blues band, practice yoga and enjoy photography.
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