Writing to Heal

writing to heal

My writing career began at the age of ten as I was sitting in my walk-in closet writing in my journal. My mother had given me my first journal to help me cope with the loss of my grandmother, who had committed suicide the day before. My parents had been at work, and my grandmother, who lived with us, was looking after me. I had knocked on her bedroom door to ask if I could go swimming in a friend’s pool. She didn’t answer. With a child’s intuition, I sensed that something was wrong, so I scurried down the hall to phone my parents at work.

Many years later, I learned two things about my beloved grandmother, the woman who raised me: she ended her troubled life by taking an overdose of sleeping pills, and like me, she found solace in journal writing. In many ways, my grandmother has been the muse behind my own writing career.

Now, more than 45 years later, I remember my first journal as clearly as the last time I locked it up in my desk drawer. It was a maroon hardcover book with a protective plastic sheath. The pages were cream-colored and had no lines. On the top of every other page was a quote by the prophet Khalil Gibran, and each day his words inspired my own, which I wrote down with a green fountain pen. I deliberately chose green; it must have been a comforting color for me.

When she was alive, my grandmother had experienced a great deal of emotional pain, but she also knew that writing was her key to survival, as it has been mine. While growing up in Galicia, Poland, in the midst of World War I, she lost both her parents to cholera, and then had to fend for herself and her eight-year-old sister. She eventually emigrated to the United States and made a life for herself.

Many years after she passed away and when my parents were preparing to move, they found her journal in her closet and gave it to me. I devoured each and every word. The void she’d left in my life became stronger as the years progressed and I had my own health issues to deal with, such as being diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 47. My illness inspired me to write down my grandmother’s life story, based upon the contents of her journal. Although at times the writing was painful, it did bring me close to her once again and help me more clearly understand the magnitude of her many hardships. The book was called Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal, and was published in 2007.

My second memoir, Healing with Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey, was also born during a difficult time in my life. This book began on the pages of my journal. It started with my own cancer story, but in the end, evolved into a self-help book for other women to chronicle their cancer journeys. Each chapter shared a phase of my experience, and at the end of each chapter there were journaling prompts for others to write their own stories. Not all journals turn into published books, but since I’m a writer, it seemed like a natural path for me.

Journals are a productive way to vent both small and large issues, such as problems with your boss or the death of a parent. It takes a great deal of energy to be angry at someone; it’s much healthier to drop the resentment, as one would a suitcase full of trash. Holding grudges is unhealthy and a heavy burden to bear. Once you’re able to forgive, it’s easier to gravitate to all the good things in your life.

Journaling is a cathartic way to spill your feelings on the page rather than on a particular individual. My attitude is: “Direct the rage to the page.” I have a writing colleague who says, “If it hurts, write harder,” and for years those words were posted above my computer until they simply became a part of me.

In the journaling classes I teach, I remind my students that they’re not being graded on their journal entries, and they should write whatever comes to their minds. I emphasize that there’s no right and wrong way to journal and that they’re writing for themselves and no one else.

James Pennebaker, the author of Writing to Heal, says, “Writing dissolves some of the barriers between you and others. If you write, it’s easier to communicate with others.” He does have one caveat that he calls “the flip-out rule,” which states that if you get too upset when writing, then simply stop. Pennebaker believes that there’s a certain type of writing that erupts when we’re faced with loss, death, abuse, depression, and trauma.

Whether affected by change, loss, or pain, finding the time to write is critical to the healing process. Some people prefer to journal about their experiences, while others may choose fiction or poetic modalities to help them escape their realities. Everyone must identify the genre most compatible with who they really are—the one they find the most liberating and empowering. In the end, that’s what it’s all about.

Some journaling tips:

  • Find a quiet, uninterrupted time, and place to write.
  • Choose a notebook and writing utensil that inspires you.
  • Use a centering ritual (light a candle, play music, meditate, stretch).
  • Take a deep breath before beginning.
  • Set aside your inner critic.
  • Date your entries.
  • Start by writing down your feelings and sensations.
  • Write nonstop for 15 to 20 minutes.
  • Save what you’ve written.
  • Schedule your writing time.

19 thoughts on “Writing to Heal”

  1. I got into the habit of writing in diaries every day a few years ago. Journaling my thoughts seemed pointless at the time, but looking back over them now I find many precious memories of that time that I would have otherwise forgotten.

    1. HI Kathy ~

      Thanks for your comment. How wonderful that you have been writing in your diaries and what great news that you have discovered precious memories. Keep up the great work and keep writing!


  2. Hi Dianna,

    I’ve enjoyed reading your post about journaling. I too get a lot out of journaling my feelings and my thoughts. I write down my thoughts when I need to think through things. When I’m feeling overwhelmed with emotions, I write about the events that I’m responding to. Journaling helps me to discharge my emotions and to sort out my thoughts. I don’t journal as often but when I do, I feel a lot better and my mind is clearer and I have a better handle things.


    1. Hi Eugene

      Thanks for your comment. How wonderful that you are journaling and that the results have been beneficial for you in that you feel better after you do. I guess this is a message to continue to do so.

      Happy Writing!


  3. You zeroed-in on the crux of writing, and I simply love: “Direct the rage to the page.” I cannot even list all of the things I’ve gotten over by writing them out. Most come out in my novels, and often those passages need rewriting :) But the best of my fiction originates from that well of deep emotion.
    I love this about your grandmother as well. Mine, too, led somewhat of a troubled life. But she’s who instilled and fostered creativity in me, and taught me about unicorns dancing in the night . . .
    Thank you for this, Diana!

    1. Dear Susan ~

      Thank you for sharing your insights and I’m glad writing has helped you in many ways and I love the idea of “unicorns dancing in the night!”

      Happy writing!


  4. Hi Diana! I so agree with everything you wrote here. I have been journaling for about 20 years now along the lines of Julia Cameron’s morning pages. Not only have they helped me become a better writer, they are all the things you mention in this post. Everything, everything gets written there–the good, the bad and the ugly. And all of it helps to make my life work better. It’s sort of like the practice of gratitude. Such a simple sounding thing with tremendous benefits. Thanks for the reminders! ~Kathy

    1. Hi Kathy~

      Thank you for sharing your sentiments. How wonderful that journaling has been a part of your life so such a long time.

      Keep up the great work!


  5. Journaling has definitely been cathartic for me during adverse times. Gibran was also a heavy influence upon me as I entered my early teen years- and still is. Thank you for sharing your story.

  6. Loved this – I totally agree that journaling is such a profound way to connect with your true self and to heal pain over time. Beautifully done!

  7. This blog brings back so many memories. I’m a self-identifying poet and I can relate to what’s written. Starting at an early age, being triggered by emotional experiences and writing about times that are or were difficult to heal your wounds. These relate-able blogs are what make people like me feel like they are not alone in the world.

  8. Life is about creating memories and sharing with other. Writing is a good way to account for certain events in life, expressing thoughts and capturing those feelings. Researching the family tree, it is interesting to find out what your long lost relatives got up to, documented their life through writing letters and learn from their experiences. How times have changed as technology has taken over and everything is online!

  9. Thanks Diana for this encouraging piece. I’m about to write some articles on losing my father a few years back and have been fearful of what feelings I might reawaken. I don’t think I’ll be as fearful now. In fact your post has really motivated me.

    1. Hello Alan

      For some reason, I never saw your post. Thank you for sharing and I’m sorry about the loss of your father. My new book, “Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life,” is now available on Amazon for pre-order The publication date is September 2017.

      Happy writing!
      Diana Raab, PhD


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