Discover the power of putting your feelings on the page, along with advice to help you find the words
Have you ever penned a poem or scribbled a short story inspired by something hard you’ve been through? Maybe you’ve written a personal essay exploring your emotions, or found solace in the pages of your journal.
As a writer, difficult times regularly inspire me. Sometimes, I’m drawn to write articles that take my experiences of illness and disability to help others and to give a voice to things that aren’t always spoken about. Other times, it’s jotting down my thoughts into poetry that I will likely never share, but gives me the space to reflect and pour out my feelings onto the page.
The power of writing
“Writing about our difficult experiences can help us to understand and process them,” counsellor Beth Roberts tells me. “It’s very difficult to get complete closure in this complicated life, but writing does offer a greater opportunity for some closure, and to be able to carry on after difficult experiences without such a heavy burden.
“It can help us to self-validate what we felt or are feeling. It can be a huge relief to be able to say: ‘After what happened, I understand why I feel the way I do.’ It can help us to see things from a different perspective, or recognise growth that’s arisen from a situation. Writing down our thoughts and feelings is practice for talking to others about the difficult experience, so it can help enable connection and support.”
Researcher Suzette Henke came up with the term ‘scriptotherapy’ to describe how writing about difficult experiences gives people a sense of authorship over what’s happened to them. When I think about being unwell, I think of how scary it was to feel that way, and also to have a lack of control over my own life. Being able to write about it gives me a sense of ownership – it is my narrative.
Different forms of writing
Nonfiction, such as personal essays, memoirs, or articles, is an obvious choice as a medium for writing about challenging times. It’s a space to write truthfully about what you’ve been through, to break taboos, or to tell your side of the story. This kind of writing is also powerful for readers. It’s those moments where we see something of ourselves reflected in another’s words – those “Yes, I feel that way too!” sparks of connection that make us feel less alone. Nonfiction writing can bring its own challenges, though. You may find it too exposing to write openly like this, or worry about what others will think.
Poetry, songs, and short stories are another great outlet. You can still use your difficult experience as inspiration, but it’s easier to fictionalise aspects, or to only use certain elements of what you’ve been through. You don’t even have to share that you’re writing from a personal perspective.
You can, if you want, let your readers or audience know that your writing is about something real. I recently went to a poetry night where a poet shared her work about surviving trauma. It was incredibly powerful – the room was silent as she delivered her words, and I felt moved close to tears by her poetry.
Of course, you may want to use writing very much as a reflective space for yourself. This is where techniques like journaling come in, as you can write with full honesty and explore your thoughts with no pressure.
How to get started
Whether you already see yourself as a writer, or are new to it, it’s normal to feel intimidated by the blank page, especially when dealing with difficult topics. Beth recommends the following prompts:
- How did I feel then?
- How do I feel now?
- How have I changed as a result?
- What was most difficult about the situation?
- What have I learned?
What do I need now?
“If you find it difficult to describe how you felt or feel, you can try writing in metaphors or similes. This can be a short-cut way to describe things, and it can be helpful and healing,” Beth says.
If you’re writing with the hope of sharing your work, it can help to think about what you want your reader to take away from it. Will they learn something, feel less alone, or understand a different perspective, for example? Don’t worry about spelling or grammar as you write – you can always go back and edit your work later.
Looking after yourself
It’s important to look after your wellbeing when writing about difficult experiences. “Don’t spend too long writing about the very difficult parts,” advises Beth. “You could set a timer for 30 minutes or an hour, whatever seems right to you. Stop if you need to.”
She also recommends having things like a comforting drink with you, and to plan something relaxing or fun to do afterwards. If I know I’m going to be writing about something upsetting, I make sure to have something enjoyable lined up, like dinner with friends or going for a walk.
Writing is an incredibly powerful way to explore difficult times. When you feel ready, try sitting with a notebook and pen, or at your laptop, somewhere you feel safe and relaxed, and let the words flow.