Writing to Heal with Margie Davis

Last Editorial Review: 10/23/2003

WebMD Live Events Transcript

From her own healing experience as a personal essay writer and from the perspective as a teacher of personal essay writing, Margie Davis realized that cancer patients everywhere could benefit from writing about their experiences.

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Good evening all! Please welcome Margie Davis.

Welcome, Ms. Davis.

Davis: Thanks, I'm glad to be here.

Moderator: Can you begin by telling us how writing can aid cancer treatment?

Davis: Expressive writing has been shown to help people heal, both emotionally and physically. When people write their deep thoughts and feelings about traumatic events, and cancer is certainly a traumatic event, their blood pressure decreases, their heart rates slow, and they produce more lymphocytes, which is a type of white blood cell that boosts the immune system.

Moderator: What is your background in this?

Davis: I have been writing professionally for 25 years. For the past seven years, I have been teaching personal essay writing, first in person, then on the Internet. Cancer touched me for the first time when my father died of brain cancer in 1991. More recently, a close friend of mine has been battling cancer for two years. Drawing on what I know about personal essay writing, and the research that has been done in the field of expressive writing, I realized that virtually any type of cancer patient could benefit from writing about their cancer experience. 

Moderator: Have you always chronicled your own life through journaling?

Davis: I have kept journals for a few decades. I have a stack of them, although I rarely go back and read them. Journaling, though, is not necessarily the same as expressive writing. When you write in a journal, you can put in anything -- what you did that day, a list of things to do, etc. But when you do expressive writing for the purpose of healing, you focus on stressful or traumatic events, and explore what you think and feel about them. Some people like to go back and reread their journals. That's not necessary to reap the healing effects that I described earlier. 

Moderator: Is it the process there that's important, or should you keep an eye towards producing a finished book or project?

Davis: It is most certainly the process of writing that produces the healing. The research that was done in the 1980s by Dr. James W. Pennebaker and his associates showed that what was important was translating the emotional experiences into language. By putting their traumas into language, whether written or spoken, people came to a clear and coherent understanding of what happened and they were then able to move to a resolution. Even if there was no meaning to an event, it became psychologically complete. Now some people may choose to publish what they write, and there are many stories out there about surviving cancer that give hope to patients who are currently undergoing treatment. I lead a course called Writing About Cancer in which I give writing topics with prompting questions to my students each week and they write about that topic. I encourage them to write, not for an audience, but for their own exploration, to exhaust all their thoughts and feelings about the topic, so they don't have to obsess about it anymore. 

scrapy1_WebMD: Are we just talking "cancer" here, or do you think writing helps heal all ailments?

Davis: A year ago the first study was published linking expressive writing to disease. People with asthma and rheumatoid arthritis were found to have a lessening of symptoms after doing this type of expressive writing. I believe that this type of writing, writing deep thoughts and feelings about stressful events, is beneficial to everyone, including those with any type of serious illness. The Pennebaker studies were done on people from all walks of life and all showed similar results. 

smersh_WebMD: I always think about writing, but don't know where to start. Any advice?

Davis: Well, if you have or have had cancer, you could pick up a copy of my new book, The Healing Way, A Journal for Cancer Survivors. This first-of-its-kind, structured journal has over 60 topics with prompting questions to help patients and survivors write about their experience. People with any type of serious illness can actually write about most of the topics in this book. If you are well and you want to explore expressive writing, I lead personal essay writing courses at America Online and at my web site, www.writingtoheal.com.  You can subscribe to my online newsletter by sending an email to me at [email protected] and I will let you know when courses open for registration. If you want to write on your own, pick major events in your life, the milestones, e.g., leaving home, getting married, illness, death, birth, and write your deepest thoughts and feelings. These feelings can include joy as well as the negative emotions. The important thing is to dig deeply and see what's there and to let it go.

smersh_WebMD: What do you think about the idea of putting up a webpage instead of just writing on paper?

Davis: Instead of just writing on what?

smersh_WebMD: paper.

Davis: Oh, paper.

Davis: A web page assumes an audience other than yourself. The important part of expressive writing for the purpose of healing is to write the very deepest thoughts and feelings. If you write, and I don't mean you personally, for an intended audience, you may, consciously or otherwise, not get to the very truth of your emotions. You may write to please your audience. Now if that's your intention, that's okay, but that's not what expressive writing for the purpose of healing is about. 

scrapy1_WebMD: I'd have to destroy my entries daily so as not to hurt or anger those left behind at my death.

Davis: And that may be a good idea. Not everyone who does this type of writing wants or needs to keep what they have written. Privacy is certainly important, and I recommend finding a place to keep your journal so NO ONE reads it. It's more important to write and shred than to not write at all. I just read this week in the paper about a study that showed that anger may harm arteries and produce heart disease. Some people have a hard time expressing themselves in words, and even if they can speak okay, they don't always have a sympathetic ear to speak to. Writing is a way to get things off your chest, to unload without burdening anyone else. In addition to leading Writing About Cancer courses, I lead a course called Writing for Personal Caregivers at my web site, www.writingtoheal.com. People who take care of loved ones are a group of people who sometimes have no one to talk to about their role as caregiver. They don't want to burden the people in their care. Writing for them makes a lot of sense, particularly in light of the first study done recently at the University of Pittsburgh that shows personal caregivers at risk for early death because of their stressful situations. 

Moderator: Since you're not necessarily writing for an audience, should one worry about grammar and punctuation?

Davis: That's a great feature of expressive writing. No one cares about grammar or punctuation. Anyone who can write, in any language, can write expressively for the purpose of healing. There are other benefits of this type of writing, too. It's a flexible activity that people can do almost anywhere: at the kitchen table, in bed, in a waiting room, during medical treatments like infusion therapy and dialysis. It's a creative and therapeutic activity that you can feel good about after you do it. 

melvin_webmd: How do the online courses work?

Davis: In Writing About Cancer and Writing for Personal Caregivers, I email weekly topics with prompting questions to the class. They have a week to write their personal narratives. Then those who choose to share what they have written email their narratives to each other. There is a private class message board for classmates to post messages to each other. I have two classes going right now and the class message boards are pretty busy. They create an intimate community through their sharing. Not everyone chooses to share what they have written, and that is okay. There is no pressure to do so. In Writing Personal Essays at America Online, I send weekly writing topics and prompting questions along with a lecture on a different aspect of personal essay writing each week. Participants have a week to write a personal essay and submit it to me for a general critique. This is more of a course for people who want to learn to write and possibly publish personal essays. I also teach an advanced essay course and a course on revision at AOL. At my web site, www.writingtoheal.com, I offer a self-study course called Your Life in Essays, where I send quite a bit of lecture material and topics with prompting questions for eight sessions. At the end of the self-study course, participants email me their very best essay and I provide a detailed critique. 

scrapy1_WebMD: I feel my grown children are tiring of my obsessing about aches and pains. This will be a great way to vent on my own. Thanks

Davis: Most of my personal essay writing students are middle aged and older. My oldest student was in her 90's. It seems to be in middle age when we have a desire to examine our lives with reflection. And learn how we got to be who we are.

fidel__WebMD: What do you think of venting through the writing of fiction or poetry?

Davis: I need to say that expressive writing isn't just about venting, or complaining. It's about coming to an understanding of one's feelings. When people write fiction, and I have done this, too, it's a way of expressing that doesn't seem to be direct. Fiction writing can be a way to fulfill dreams that won't happen in our own lifetimes. I do want to point out, though, that when some of my students write about a particularly difficult time in their cancer treatments, they might have to write in third person. For example, "She realized she would never be able to have children." This is okay because it's the closest she could come to admitting the truth. As for poetry, I have read some very poignant poetry by people with cancer and they seem to have gotten to an understanding of their lives through that medium. I don't happen to be a poet so I can't comment about that genre as a way of healing. 

fidel__WebMD: What kinds of issues do people talk about on your message boards?

Davis: In the private class message boards, they post comments of support and advice. They might compare their situations with those of other classmates. Also at my site, I have free buddy boards for people who are looking for people who want to write about cancer with a buddy, for people who want to write about caregiving with a buddy, and people who want to write personal essays with a buddy.

tenuli_WebMD: While writing can be cathartic, I don't want anyone to see what I write. Sometimes it is emotionally true but not factually accurate. How can I explain to my partner that I am not sharing what I write because it is just for me?

Davis: Hm, I'm not in that kind of advice-giving business. I can tell you what I tell my husband. I tell him that I need privacy with my writing -- of course, he knew that about me before we were married. I keep a stack of my journals, although why I'm not quite sure because I don't want anyone to read them and I have stipulated in my will that when I die, the journals get destroyed. I keep the journals in my den, and my husband and I have an agreement to respect each other's privacy. I don't rummage in his stuff and he doesn't rummage in mine. What I write is true for me in that instant, in that place. I need to write to understand how I feel, what I think. What I put down on paper is a process, and if he were to read my process, he would jump to conclusions that aren't necessarily true. 

Moderator: What kinds of questions should one ask him/herself, when sitting down to construct an essay?

Davis: Think reflectively. It's not enough to just tell a story with who, what, where, when, and how. You need to reflect back on the event and examine how it has affected your life. I'm talking now about personal essay writing, which may or may not be undertaken for the purpose of healing, although many of my personal essay writing students write in their course surveys that they have come to understand themselves better. A good personal essay entertains and informs the reader. The reader gets to know the narrator. 

Moderator: Can you give a few examples of topics people have chosen in the past?

Davis: Actually, I provide the topics. I have accumulated over 600 writing topics with prompting questions for my personal essay writing courses. Sometimes I'll ask people to write about qualities, e.g., courage, and to show how they were courageous or timid (lack of courage) with an example from their lives. Showing with examples is important to get their points across. Another topic: Write about when your heart was broken as a teenager. 

Expressive writing can help people heal emotionally and physically. It's not enough to complain, though. It's important to write deep thoughts and feelings about stressful events. Please check out www.writingtoheal.com  and my new book, The Healing Way, A Journal for Cancer Survivors.

Moderator: Well, thank you very much for your time today, Ms. Davis. It's certainly been a pleasure.

Davis: I was glad to be here.

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