Writing Wild

Wild Words Heal

The therapeutic benefits of writing and storytelling.

from Writing Wild By Tina Welling | Posted 4/12/14 | Updated 5/1/21

In therapeutic counseling sessions, the inward/outward attention to personal detail and outer event while relating our story keeps the experience in balance and in proportion to actual life and aids in the healing process.

Often, a counselor asks for outer details and descriptions when a client is locked into her own emotions and not moving through her process. And in the reverse, the counselor requests acknowledgment of personal feelings and memories when a client is frozen into everyone’s experience but her own.

James W. Pennebaker, PhD, reports in his book Opening Up that he and his graduate student Sandra Beall conducted experiments asking three groups to write about a traumatic event.

  • The first group was assigned to write down their emotions in detail while also describing in detail a traumatic event.
  • A second group was asked to report only the event of the trauma, no emotions.
  • And a third control group was requested to only vent emotions.

Pennebaker and Beall requested each group to write for fifteen minutes a day for four consecutive days, then measured their health. The results of writing about one’s emotional experience in detail along with describing the outer traumatic events proved in each case to have a dramatic healing effect on the participant’s body, with measured health benefits lasting approximately six weeks.

In six months, the participants who wrote about both inner emotions and outer events made 50 percent fewer visits to a health center for illness, while the other groups made more. Pennebaker reports that writers experienced negative feelings in the hour or so immediately following their writing about the trauma and its emotions, but mood, outlook, and physical well-being improved considerably thereafter.

Most writers reported a sense of relief and happiness. Pennebaker states that writers who wrote about their “deepest thoughts and feelings surrounding traumatic experiences evidenced heightened immune function.” The experiment was expanded to help people endure the loss of their jobs and to heal relationships.

PaperTry This: Writing Practice

Recall an upsetting event in your life — it need not be traumatic — and write continuously for fifteen minutes about the event, including physical details and the emotions and thoughts surrounding it. Do this for four consecutive days. Use this method periodically as a clearing exercise for the unconscious. The unattended, unexamined emotional events of our lives drain energy.


Writers give witness. To suffer alone without human acknowledgment is a special hell of its own. It is the fear of prisoners, torture victims, and the sick and injured. Jean Shinoda Bolen uses the term “vision carriers,” which applies to anyone writing and witnessing for others.

I have given readings of a short story that came from my experiences with my mother when she was suffering from Alz-heimer’s disease, and people have approached me afterward to express relief that I put words to the humor, sadness, and puzzlement of caring for an Alzheimer’s victim. While I witnessed for them, the listeners witnessed for me. In fact, the short story arose from journal entries in which I was witnessing for myself, translating into words the trouble my mother and I suffered together, which cleared the way for us to better manage the situation. Healing energy was at work throughout each part of the process, from journal entry to public reading.

Writing is a full-circle experience of healing.

A Give-and-Take with Nature

For an intimate relationship with the earth, you don’t have to know the natural environment in the manner of a biologist or geologist. You just have to know it in the manner of you. Your experience will bring you amazing intimacies and knowledge not commonly known. For instance, select a single snowflake, watch its journey, and discover that snow does not always fall downward from sky to earth, as is commonly assumed, but rather travels in swags like a warbler, darts abruptly like a dragonfly, or actually floats upward for a ways. A single snowflake often does all three before landing.

As we watch that single snowflake, we align ourselves with the creative aliveness of the natural world. When we draw from this energy to write, we make an exchange with nature. Our natural surroundings then create us as we create our art.

The poet Pattiann Rogers calls this reciprocal creation. In her poem “Dream of the Marsh Wren: Reciprocal Creation,” she tells us how the wren creates the sun through its experience of the sun in the marsh as “blanched and barred by the diagonal juttings of the weeds.” And how the marsh creates the wren, “makes sense of the complexities of sticks / and rushes.” The wren “makes slashes and complicated / lines of his own in mid-air above the marsh by his flight.”

What Pattiann Rogers says in her poem is exactly our goal in writing wild. It is the recognition that we know ourselves through our natural surroundings; that this is the basis for our understanding of all life; and that our natural surroundings create the patterns in which we view life, like the wren who sees the sun in terms of slashes between reeds and who then darts in flight in the same pattern. Rogers also believes that “the land anywhere, the earth, responds to and encourages and itself takes sustenance from such human bonds.” The human bonds I believe Rogers refers to are the love and attention we offer the earth. She is saying that the earth receives nourishment from us just as we receive nourishment from the earth.

When writing wild, we give sustenance to and take it from the earth. First, we still ourselves and open to the rhythms of the natural world around us. We breathe the air deeply into our bodies. Second, we cast our net of awareness, using our senses, and pull in a “sense” of the moment. This moment. There is no other like it. This moment is all we need to live fully. The result is sometimes a quick, sharp memory that rises almost immediately, and we begin writing. Sometimes we go deeper into the life of the earth; we lie still and wait; we walk a distance; and we gather a more and more intimate experience of the natural world around us. We begin to synchronize ourselves with the breezes and birdsong; we enjoy a unison of mood and manner. I think of this time as romance — sometimes moving quickly through the mating dance, sometimes going for the deep intimacy, and always building to a pregnancy of creative energy, giving birth to our writing.

Try This: Writing Practice

Take your notebook outside and choose a fallen leaf, a frosted twig, a teaspoonful of dirt, and experience this small piece of nature and yourself interacting with it. Do this by first naming, then describing, then letting memories, ideas, wishes, and concerns stir within you. Whatever occurs to you in the moment, you are to trust, for it is yours and yours alone, inspired within you by your openness to nature in this time and in this place, with each step in accordance with mystery and chance.

It is of the moment and of the mood, one playing within the rhythms of the other, back and forth, and then producing a third mystery: a story of one’s own. A memory stirs, the body experiences a change, emotions surface into consciousness, and scenes produce themselves in our minds.

What we create then creates us. We are altered by our own awareness and language.

Copyright ©2014 Tina Welling. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from New World Library, NewWorldLibrary.com.