There’s evidence, from the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, to suggest writing can alleviate both emotional and physical symptoms. In a now-famous 1986 study conducted by the social psychologist James Pennebaker on the effects of writing about a past trauma, the participants who wrote about trauma were found to require fewer psychiatric visits in the follow-up period of one year than those who’d been asked to write about a neutral subject. The participants were forty-six undergraduate students of introductory psychology who wrote for fifteen minutes every day for four consecutive days. Though some were upset by the exercise, the study found that each participant found the experience meaningful in some way.
The idea that writing about difficult events and themes from one’s life is cathartic has remained a popular one. Prescriptions for and discussions around the idea have however failed to fully acknowledge the role of mental readiness in the person undertaking the writing, the volatility of audience responses (personal or public), the relative stability some require in order to write, the on-going and repetitive nature of self-work, and perhaps, most crucially, the emotional and (sometimes) physical costs of revisiting traumatic episodes.
In response to the second wave of the #MeToo movement in India, a Gather Around Sisters workshop was organised in November 2018 by Tithiya Sharma, a co-founder of the organisation, where the journalist and novelist Nilanjana Roy shared writing prompts and journaling practices for survivors of harassment and abuse.
The three-hour workshop was a combination of writing time, breathing and meditation exercises, sharing useful journaling tools as part of a long-term creative practice or to process difficult emotions, and group discussions. For Roy, it was important to establish trust before anything else. She did this by asking the women to respect each other’s privacy, and not to share the stories in a public forum. She opened up about her own life so that the women knew that it was safe to share. “But mostly [I tried] to make sure that every person who attends feels welcomed and heard with the same kindness and care we’d give to close friends,” she said.
The workshop was a one-time event, and Roy felt that she had much to learn about what works and what doesn’t in such a space. She said that groups like these would also build trust over time, if they chose to meet on their own, as a reading or writing group, with or without a guide or moderator. Just as the poet Aditi Rao emphasizes that writing is only “one of the many tools” in her toolkit, Roy adds that, “The writing workshop cannot and should not replace advice from trained therapists and medical practitioners.”
In the course of writing essays about my own mental illness for a forthcoming book, I found myself physically exhausted, embroiled in painful arguments with loved ones about the accuracy of the memories I was recounting, and overwhelmed by how challenging “honest self-appraisal” can be. After half a day of writing, I would often feel like I had run a marathon. It wasn’t just me.
When can you revisit trauma?
A year after Erin Vincent started writing a memoir about the death of her parents in an accident during her childhood, she wondered why she was “tired all the time; why after writing for an hour or two all I would want to do is sleep”. She listened to music from her childhood in an effort to remember more, but found herself breaking out in hives, and experiencing stomach pain, weakness, and eventually – suicidal ideation.
While the idea that writing about a traumatic event or difficult circumstance proves cathartic holds true for some, others like Vincent find that the act of revisiting, reliving, and documenting those memories and emotions re-traumatises them. It’s a danger the psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk warned of in his seminal work on trauma, The Body Keeps The Score, where he said one of the challenges in treating patients with post-traumatic stress disorder is that flashbacks and “reliving” can further destabilise patients, exacerbating the trauma rather than relieving it.
Aditi Rao, a poet and an educator, who has led several workshops and facilitated writing exercises that offer participants the opportunity to process trauma, thinks people can benefit enormously from it but only when they’re ready. “One can re-traumatise someone by pushing them to revisit experiences they are not yet ready to look at,” she said. Before engaging in an emotionally challenging exercise for her groups, Rao said she does the work of “building a safe, trusting, supportive group” before inviting participants to write about a “potentially difficult subject matter”.
She emphasises that a writing workshop in a group setting is different from a therapy session. She underlines this for participants through ground rules for sharing and responding to stories – one of the most important ones is borrowed from the Amherst Writers and Artists method: “treat everything as fiction rather than autobiography”.
Participants who write about traumatic experiences can feel too vulnerable, Rao said, if the group’s responses begin with something like “your father shouldn’t have done that...” but it’s much easier to work with something like “the narrator’s relationship to the father is terrifying”. Locating the narrative outside the author, she said, makes people feel a bit less vulnerable, while also still allowing for them to feel deeply heard. “I think so much about healing from violence is about feeling seen, heard, validated,” she added.
An ongoing process
Poet and activist Jhilmil Breckenridge, whose collection, Reclamation Song, touches upon themes of domestic and sexual violence, used to blog about her then difficult marriage. It helped, she said. “Whenever I would get very angry or upset,” she said, “I would come to my blog and write about my situation in a creative way – I would always get up, feeling a sense of catharsis.”
Vijeta Kumar, a teacher and a writer who was shortlisted for the Toto Funds the Arts Award for Creative Writing, found that writing about a hurtful event with humour allowed her to move past it, and allowed her to stop worrying about adverse reactions.
She runs a public blog whose readers include her students. In 2015, she discovered a group of upper-caste students and teachers were playing a drinking game while reading her blog – they had a shot every time she had made a spelling mistake or written something they judged to be “stupid”.
It took Vijeta a long time to get back to blogging and teaching – both necessarily public tasks – after she found out. “I wanted to write about what I’d heard and how it was affecting me,” she said. “I wrote about it several times in various ways – I tried anger, grief, sorrow. When I found laughter, I didn’t look back – it just came out in one burst. I laughed at all of them on my blog and moved on. Writing that post helped me like nothing else could have. I didn’t bother about spelling mistakes ever after.”
Other writers like Porochista Khakpour, who wrote Sick, a memoir about living with chronic illness, find themselves “humbled” by the writing. In an interview with The New York Times, she said that she set out to write “influenced by a desire to have a happy ending” but when she actually wrote the book, that wasn’t the experience she had. The book she wrote ended up being “more spiraling and confusing...more raw”.
Gayathri Prabhu, who wrote a memoir titled If I Had To Tell It Again, about an alcoholic parent and her experience of being sexually abused as a child by a relative, also resists the idea of catharsis or closure when it comes to any narrative of power and injustice. “It’s too tidy and reductive,” she said, pointing out that all narratives occupy “a specific moment in time and space while remaining a part of an ongoing process.” For her, writing comes with several powerful experiences – “some in the moment, and others emerge as we continue to negotiate complex personal and social resonances.”
Rao’s forthcoming collection of poems, A Kind of Freedom Song, deals with stories and experiences of gendered and sexual violence. She similarly found that writing played different roles at various stages of the healing process – “as catharsis in the moment of feeling totally overwhelmed, as a quiet space to sort through feelings and experiences once I’ve gained a bit of distance, and, perhaps most importantly, as testimony”.
It helps Rao to return to the poems when she finds herself doubting her own experiences or being overwhelmed by other people’s versions of her story. Her therapist, she mentioned, once iterated to her how important it is for people to have a stage to speak their truths about the violence they’ve experienced. “Writing has been that stage,” she said.
Who gets to write?
The catharsis that writing and sharing that writing offers to many is complicated by the fact that a writing platform can be unevenly available across lines of privilege. Christina Thomas Dhanraj, a writer and a consultant for DalitWomenFight, said that writing about “caste experiences – some of them very hurtful” has been “cathartic to some extent but also challenging”. What she writes about isn’t always common, she said and not many want to talk about it. On numerous occasions, she has chosen not to write about certain subjects: “Particularly experiences that keep reiterating that I’m a Dalit woman and therefore don’t deserve the best of what life has to offer.”
“Perhaps, if there were more opportunities for Dalit voices, if the space wasn’t so occupied by savarna voices, writers like me would feel a little less alone and a lot more inspired to write our stories – of violence and celebration,” Dhanraj added.
The ability to write about an experience is also determined for some by the degree of health and financial security they enjoy at a particular moment. In an interview, Khakpour pointed out that being severely ill during the writing process added a further layer of difficulty. “It’s hard enough to write about yourself in this context, but it’s hard to pick up the pieces of your life and write them into a narrative when you’re also somewhat in pieces yourself,” she said.
Some years after she began blogging, in the aftermath of the end of her marriage, Jhilmil Breckenridge lived in poverty in Delhi. She stopped writing because survival was her foremost priority. “I got angry and chose not to write or claim my story,” she explained. “I was often so poor, I would not have money for food, even picking up food from the streets, or picking up scrap metal to sell.” Writing as a therapeutic platform just wasn’t available to her.
She eventually returned to writing when she set up her charity, Bhor Foundation, because she realised, she could be an activist with lived experience who championed her own story. “I showed people how I could walk with my head held high despite all that happened to me, that happiness was possible after domestic and gendered violence.”
What about the readers?
Gayathri Prabhu says one of the key challenges around sharing our stories is “ethical listening”. In a recent essay in Economic and Political Weekly, she explained how “the telling, more than the rape, is the breach and betrayal we are collectively afraid of”.
When Prabhu decided, as an adult, to share the story of her abuse with her family and with readers, the traumatic past was seen as “regrettable – ‘what can we do now’ and the real point of stress and pain was the present telling – ‘why publish and shame us all?’” People are truly ready to share their stories, she believes, when the telling matters more to them than the responses to the telling.
“More thought needs to be given to how to honour the stories that come our way, how not to talk too much too quickly, how not to flood it with advice or opinion, but to wait and listen so that we can create spaces for swallowed or muffled stories to emerge,” she said.