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Can you write yourself happy?

Even for those not born with a silver pen in their hand, expressing emotions through the written word can have a powerful healing effect, says Louisa Wilkins

Image Credit: Corbis
"In its very essence, journal therapy is a bridge into, first, our own humanity and, then, our own spirituality. The road stretches out before us and our ultimate task is the journey."

In the general bemoaning of the state of humanity, people like to say that we technology-users simply don't write any more, but I disagree. We may not sit down once a month with a sheet of blue Par Avion and our beloved fountain pen, cursively expressing our woes and triumphs to loved ones across the seas, but we text. We text a lot. And we email. And we update statuses. It's all writing, isn't it? "It's not the same," you say. I hear you, I really do. But when you're having a bad day, don't you feel better when you text your friend about it? Or, if you send your sister a long email about something that's been bugging you, doesn't it make the situation easier to bear? It may not be pen to paper, but it is emotions to words. And if it makes you feel better - even just for a few moments - it's a form of therapeutic writing that is working for you. What's interesting is that, with a little effort and guidance, you can take this daily act of communication and turn it into a self-help therapy that is free, convenient and accessible 24/7.

Writing for the inside

Frank Dullaghan is a Dubai-based poet well known in poetry circles, both here and in the UK. His first book, On the Back of the Wind (Cinnamon Press) was published in 2008. His second, Enough Light to See the Dark (Cinnamon Press), is due out this month. Although his passion lies in writing poetry, Frank believes that many different types of writing can be seen as forms of therapy.

He says, "In my mind there are two types of writing: the private and the public. In private writing, such as journals and diaries, when people are doing it just for themselves to read, it seems to have a therapeutic effect. Also, on a daily basis, we write plans, lists, goals of things to do that day... these are all ways of dealing with stress - we are writing things down as a way of alleviating the pressure we feel."

It's an interesting way of looking at it. As someone who has been known to write lists of the lists I need to make, I can vouch for the steam-siphoning capability of a good list. Journals and diaries, though, are a different matter. Perhaps it's the exposable vulnerability of keeping a written account of my emotions that has thwarted any intimate relationship between myself and Dear Diary, but it's not a place I've ever felt comfortable laying my thoughts.

A quick office poll reveals I'm not alone. It seems that while quite a few people kept diaries during their troubled teens, very few of those still do today. One colleague said, "At the time, it was a way of expressing and dealing with strong emotions I was having that were personal to me. Seeing it written down made those thoughts real. When I look back at them now, they make me cringe, but at the time, I used to read what I had written over and over again. I found comfort in it."

That's not to say that journals and diaries are under the sole jurisdiction of adolescents. There are centres, workshops and books devoted entirely to the habit of journaling, and the devotees are enthused about how their hobby helps bring subconscious thoughts into the conscious side of the brain, where they can hold them up to the light and get a good look at them.

Their beliefs are backed up by a number of studies - many of which have been compiled into one report published in the journal Advances in Psychiatric Treatment - which documented proof that expressive writing about emotions and traumatic events was linked with improved emotional, mental and physical health, as well as better social behaviour, in both the short and long term. The study authors point out that if a drug was created that was found to have the same positive effects as writing therapy, it would be regarded a "major medical advance".

The joy of journaling

In her book Journal to the Self (Grand Central Publishing), psychologist and journaling enthusiast Kathleen Adams says, "Perhaps the most rewarding and fascinating part of journal therapy is this: it spreads out before you in black and white the contents of the heart, mind and soul. You simply cannot appreciate how healing and powerful this is until you have experienced it." For those who journal, it is not something that is dipped in and out of, it's something you do for life, learning more and more about yourself with each entry.

Kathleen says, "In its very essence, journal therapy is a bridge into, first, our own humanity and, then, our own spirituality. The road stretches out before us and our ultimate task is the journey."

Whether we've kept a journal, or not, many of us have tried our hand at journal therapy, albeit unknowingly. Who hasn't stayed up late scribbling out a heart-felt missive of epic proportions, only to realise in the cold thoughts of the following day that it's a letter best left unsent? Or blasted out an angry email, which you then (wisely) left to think about before sending? This is, in a way, journaling, but without the intention to keep it. The point, and the experience, is the same: to outpour emotions in a fluid, unedited fashion.

Femida Hirji, psychiatric occupational therapist at the Human Relations Institute, regularly uses therapeutic writing in one-on-one and group sessions. She says that it is exactly this free-flowing nature of journaling, or therapeutic writing, that makes it so effective. She says, "It's not an essay that will be critiqued. You don't have to share it with anyone, unless you want to. There's no right or wrong way of doing it, and there are no rules, as such. Occasionally, this can make people feel unsettled. They may start asking questions, trying to define what they should write, to find boundaries or guidelines. When I don't give them any, they can feel slightly anxious... but this can be a good state to get into, because that's where they'll find the ability to open up and be honest."

Intrigued by Femida's philosophy,I asked her to set me some homework. My task was to write a letter home - the word ‘home' was meant in the most abstract way and I had to write freely. I didn't know where it was going when I started, but I soon realised that my mind was a slideshow of images and sounds of my family members getting ready for the day ahead, all in their respective homes. It was an insight into my notions of ‘home' that I wasn't aware of before. I realised that, for me, the love of my family is my home, and that thinking of that love can make me feel like I'm home. Such a positive learning experience from such a simple exercise. Femida says, "The power is not in what you write, but in the accessing of thoughts that aren't easily verbalised. It's the process that's important, not necessarily the end piece. It's a way of bringing emotions, thoughts, values and beliefs out into the open and helping you understand yourself better. It can reveal things about yourself that you may not even know - and the beauty of it is that any of the exercises can be adapted to anyone of any age, any writing experience and any mental state."

Writing for the outside

While there is undoubtedly power in writing privately, for some people the healing effects of writing come from being creative and from sharing that creation with others. Frank the poet says, "For me, creative writing is a compulsion. It's the act of making something - like artists feel compelled to paint, or dancers to dance... For any art form, you have to delve deep and connect with something deep within you... you have to tap into something more than just your technique. In some ways, that act of looking introspectively is a form of therapy in itself." According to Frank, poetry has an added advantage over other types of writing in its ability to conceal your subject. He says, "In poetry, you can obscure what you are talking about behind metaphor and imagery. You could write a poem about a house crumbling, for example, but it could really be about your marriage. So, you can channel the emotional energy of your personal issues into it, which not only makes it very powerful for readers, but can make it a real source of solace for the writer."

If writing creatively and sharing sounds appealing, but you don't know where to start, the Dubai Writers' Group (DWG) is a good place. Will Rankin, head of DWG, says that for people of all experience levels and backgrounds coming along to their meet-ups, hearing other people's writing, and possibly even sharing your own, can be very therapeutic. He says, "For the majority of people who come along, writing is a form of catharsis. Some people paint, some people make music, some self-harm... but writing your thoughts down and sharing it with other people can be a great form of therapy. At the same time, writers are often shy, so there is no obligation to share and there's no criticism."

Will's second-in-command at DWG, Traci Schwerin, says, "We have lots of members who've never shown anyone what they've written - letting people read your writing is an incredibly personal thing. But it's inspiring to be around other writers who are often facing many of the same challenges - there is a kind of safety in numbers."

Not only is it good for motivation to be around other writers, but it can also inspire you to try your pen at a different type of writing, which you might have great results with. "I'd been working on the same book - rather unsuccessfully - for about five years," says Traci, "but after a DWG session I tried writing some prose, which I had never done before. I didn't intend to attempt something so different, but it all just came out. I found myself working through the pain of my father's death... it was written in a bit of a haze with a pile of sodden tissues beside me. It gave me a chance, in a way, to say how much I loved him - something which was never really said while he was alive. It was incredibly painful but afterwards I felt lighter and more at peace."

It's this emotional purging that is the theme connecting all types of writing and all types of writing therapy. A validation of feelings, a sense of reality to the chaos. Frank says, "We live our lives locked up inside ourselves. The one thing we can never be is somebody else. Uniqueness has loneliness. I think quite often as readers we are searching for a way to see the world through someone else's eyes, which is also a type of therapy. In a way, anything that makes you feel good, and that lifts you, is a form of therapy. But writing is different. It organises your thoughts - forces subliminal emotions to a conscious level, forces order on desperate ideas - and puts them into perspective. And that can be very beneficial."

DIY writing

Femida Hirji, psychiatric occupational therapist at the Human Relations Institute, uses therapeutic writing in one-on-one sessions and in her Creative Therapy workshops. She says, "This is just one of the techniques I use in my sessions, but it's a powerful one. A lot of people I see are not used to writing, or they may not be feeling very creative. I sit with them and prompt them at first, but they soon get into it.I don't need to see what they've written - it's about what they get out of it themselves."

Try these two exercises to get your emotions/thoughts flowing into words:

Who Am I?

>> Warm up: Write your name down the side of a piece of paper. Next to each letter, write a word that describes you that starts with that letter.

>> Free writing: Answer the question, ‘Who am I?' When writing, think of answers to these questions: Do people see the real me? Do I like me? If I could change one thing about me, what would I change?

If you find this question hard to answer, try finishing off the following sentences:

>> The five things I like about me are...

>> I think other people see me as...

>> The celebrity I most identify with is...

What ‘Home' means to me

>> Warm up: If your house was on fire and you could only take one thing with you, what would it be?

>> Free writing: Write a letter home. Remember, home can mean anything to you and it can be in the past, present, or future. This letter can be to anyone, or anything you choose.

If you find this hard to do, try finishing off the following sentences:

>> My fondest childhood memory of home is...

>> I used to love arriving home after school because...

>> My favourite person, or place, in my childhood home was...


Want to try your hand at writing, but need a little kick-start? Try these...

Go to meet-ups

Will Rankin, journalist and head of Dubai Writers' Group, says, "Come to one of the Dubai Writers' Group meetings... 90 per cent of the time we meet in a café, or bar. Turn up, listen and talk to people. We choose different themes, different topics, we have different speakers... we want to explore different ways of getting people to write. This month we are doing an event which combines writing with drumming. Help us dispel the myth that there's not a creative side to Dubai." For more on Dubai Writers' Group, visit, or find them on Facebook.

Learn online

On her website, Kathleen Adams, psychologist, author and director of The Center for Journal Therapy, offers free advice for getting started with journaling. She suggests the following techniques: timed writing, such as writing quickly for five minutes; lists of 100 things, such as 100 things I'm sad about, or 100 things I want to do; a character sketch about yourself, or someone you know; a letter to someone, which you don't intend to send. For more writing activities, and tips on how to get the best out of your writing time, visit

Sign up for a workshop

Femida Hirji, psychiatric occupational therapist at the Human Relations Institute (, runs regular Creative Therapy workshops, where she incorporates therapeutic writing techniques with music, image-based exercises and more. The courses normally run for six or eight weeks, with one session each week (Dh350 per session). However, she can tailor-make workshops for individual groups, and adapt the material to their interests and needs. Femida also runs Creative Therapy workshops for adolescents.

This month try... attending one of the many workshops and events on offer for both adults and children of all ages at the annual Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. You can hone your creative skills and talents under the guidance of authors, journalists and other industry professionals. For more information, visit