Healing the Wounded Writer: 3 Common Client Concerns & How to Remedy Them
Clients come to us in pain. They want the pain to stop. We offer writing as a balm, believing in its power for healing, growth and change. But many clients are carrying silent writing wounds–pockets of shame, intimidation or humiliation associated with the act of writing.
Examples of Common Writing Wounds
- Clients might have internalized messages from school assignments awash in red ink, corrections of misplaced commas, misspelled words and other writing errors.
- Maybe they experienced ridicule for what they said, how they said it, or how it looked on the page.
- It’s possible they grew up in families where reading and writing were not prized.
- They may struggle with writing and be shame-based in their inability to master it.
- Perhaps their privacy was invaded, and journals or diaries were read without permission.
- Some (more men than women are in this category) have handwriting that has been criticized as illegible or unreadable.
- They might have been emotionally or physically punished for writing their personal thoughts and feelings, particularly those that go beyond rigid boundaries.
- Perhaps they were betrayed by information in their journals.
These are just some of the many ways in which “writing wounds” can be inflicted.
Because the journal is so directly a self-object–it is the self on the page–I find that intrusions on the writing relationship are often internalized as assaults on the core self. Therefore, as I am introducing a client to journal therapy, I am also assessing whether such wounds might exist, and if so, how to tend them and make space for healing.
The novelist and essayist E.M. Forster wrote, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” The act of writing a journal allows us to take something that was once internal and ephemeral—a thought, a feeling, an idea—and make it material and observable as ink on paper or, more elusively, pixels on screen. In this way we can read our own minds—as well as have documentation of the therapeutic process.
Looking for a journaling workshop to get 9 CE hours? Check out our on-demand course Journal Therapy: Writing for Healing & Change. Learn the theories, practices, and techniques to transform the everyday journal into a powerful tool in the therapeutic process!
1. School-sourced writing wounds.
Probably the most common writing wound comes from the middle-school years, when technical skills such as grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and rules of composition are taught. This woundedness is usually sourced in the student’s challenge to easily assimilate the mechanics of written language. Doing poorly in language arts classes can lead to the internalized message that “writing is hard, and I’m not good at it.”
The remedy can be as simple as assuring the client that with journals, anything goes–the Grammar Police and Mrs. MacGillicutty who made you diagram sentences on the blackboard aren’t reading your journal. And at this point in life–and particularly in the journal–they have no power anyway.
It’s also useful to point out to the client that writing and editing are separate functions, and we’re focused on writing. Editing is unnecessary. In the journal there’s no wrong, just write.
2. Learning disability, literacy wounds or impaired cognition.
Clients who struggled with dyslexia or dysgraphia in formative years may have had difficulties in reading, handwriting or spelling. These challenges can lead to an aversion to written language which is sometimes expressed as anxiety, resistance, negative attitude, or a combination. As adults, these clients may still struggle, albeit at a higher level of functioning. Clients may also have literacy difficulties or impaired cognition that are more intractable and may not be resolved.
Any of these conditions may bring with them a pervasive shame. The remedy is creative improvisation, continual affirmation and lavish use of the lower rungs of the ladder. Structured writing processes, story templates, clusters of random or associated thoughts spinning off a central word or phrase–none of these require classic grammatical mastery.
Clients can be encouraged and supported in adapting for whatever best fits their learning and processing style: bullet lists, poetry, keyboarding, worksheets. This is where you and your client throw lots of spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Journaling apps, voice memos, voice recognition software that converts words to text, artistic expression, visual journals, using a scribe (one who writes verbatim spoken word entries)–any of these, and many more, are available as adaptations.
3. Invasion of privacy writing wounds.
I have heard hundreds of invasion-of-privacy stories, ranging from the relative innocence of a well-meaning parent worried about a child’s after-school activities to those who, as children or teens, experienced parents or caregivers flying into rages at the telling of secrets in the privacy of a notebook. I’ve worked with clients whose partners intentionally snooped and then had journals subpoenaed for child custody or spousal support cases. I’ve done emergency couples counseling with a spouse who “stupidly” (as self-described in about 90% of cases) did a one-time read of a journal and was instantly remorseful–but not before the betrayed party internalized a violation of sacred trust. I’ve borne witness to stories of truly horrific punishments that could credibly be described as catastrophic trauma.
First, acknowledge the courage it takes to even consider healing a deep wound through getting back on the horse. Next, be mindful. Go slowly. I typically suggest we start with a “nothing” journal–like the ’90s TV show Seinfeld, all about things that don’t matter. Suggest the client go to Starbucks and write down overheard conversations. Or suggest a focus on beauty and joy. Suggest a list of three gratitudes, or amazing things that happened that day, before bedtime. Invite a 5-minute daily write on the topic of “What’s going on?” Cross-pollinate this work with other empowerment- and resilience-building work, remembering that the healthy relationship with the journal is a reliable predictor of the capacity of healthy relationship with self.
A Summary of What to Do:
Start small. Build up. Praise often.
A good rule of thumb for the healing of any writing wound comes from my journal therapy colleague Chistina Baldwin: Move at the pace of guidance.
What’s next in my journal writing journey?
Depending on where you are at in your journey, we have a few next steps for you to consider.
Experienced Journal Writers, Coaches, and Therapists:
Journalversity Courses: We offer a variety of courses on expressive and therapeutic writing, Some are self-paced and some are instructor-taught on a week-by-week basis. You can even earn CE hours through some of the classes!
Journal to the Self Card Deck:* These beautiful cards can be used in writing classes or 1:1 client sessions. With a card deck so vibrant and so accessible, any reluctant writer can discover the journal as an instant friend and any seasoned writer can find fresh, fun revitalization. For clients, curate the cards ahead of time and find just the right prompts to help achieve their goals.
*Currently sold out! New inventory arrives in April 2023
Journal to the Self Instructor Training: Check out our Journal to the Self instructor certification training—available by home study with instructor Kay Adams, founder of the method. You’ll learn how to confidently and competently offer this fun, effective, time-tested workshop in your own community—and make money doing what you love!
New to Journal Writing:
We’ve got some great resources that will give you lots and lots of ways to deepen your writing practice and experience writing groups. Here’s a couple starting points:
J is for Journal Course (Register for this FREE 7 day course with 68 journaling prompts!)
Journal to the Self Book (Award winning author Kathleen Adams’ classic work provides a powerful tool for personal growth)