With Pen in Hand book cover

With Pen in Hand

Publisher: Perseus
Website: http://www.theperseuspress.com/

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By the best-selling author of Writing on Both Sides of the Brain, an inspirational guide to releasing past and present emotional pains through therapeutic writing.

In moments of grief or loss, we often turn to the written word to say what cannot be said aloud. Indeed, directing sadness, rage, or confusion at the page can be tremendously cathartic and liberating. As we express our deepest feelings without reserve in poetry or prose, we feel the power of our words begin to draw out some of the pain in our hearts and replace it with hope.

But fears about writing honestly and self-criticism can stand in the way of making use of this powerful therapeutic tool. With Pen in Hand is an inspirational and practical guide to breaking through these roadblocks and to helping one "write to heal." Outlining writing techniques that are best for working through pain and for privately collecting raw emotions "Writing a Letter of Goodbye," "Interviewing Your Body," "Rapid-Writing," and more Henriette Klauser shares stories and tips that will help readers gain comfort from what they commit to paper. For the accomplished writer and non-writer alike, With Pen in Hand will help one make use of the kind of expression that in the aftermath of a crisis or loss, can make one whole again.


When your heart aches, and you think you have no one to turn to, turn to pen and paper. You are not alone. Writing will ground you, and often provide a path of healing as well. With Pen in Hand addresses two kinds of therapeutic writing: RealTime™ and Reflective. The first records the immediate moment to stop the swirling, to ground you, the second is looking back at a hurt, even many years later. It is never too late to heal.


Why Writing Heals

My friend Parker is fond of a passage in the Chronicles of Narnia. The magician's nephew is on a winged horse in quest of the silver apple. Aslan tells him firmly that when he comes to the ice-mountain, he cannot fly over it; he has to go through it. That is the only way he will ever reach his true destination.

It is a truism of humanity. You cannot skirt the pain when your life is shattered by an event you never expected. You must go through the mountain, not around it, not over it, and confront the snarling beasts and demons.

Fortunately, you have a tool to defend you and protect you, like a magic shield, a tool you were given in grade school. You don't even have to be good at it for it to work--and it is at your fingertips. Literally. Pick up your pen and write.

John, a reader from England, now living in New Brunswick, sends me an email telling about a horrific period in his life. His brother, then his father, died, and he almost lost his son through a bitter transcontinental custody battle. He thought he would go insane. He underlines for emphasis the salve.

"The one action that has literally saved my life and my sanity, has been writing."

How is it that the simple act of putting pen to paper, of getting our thoughts out of our heads and onto the page can have this kind of power and curative effect?

Writing Provides Grounding

For one thing, making concrete marks out of abstract, unarticulated thoughts provides grounding and reality.

When the foundation gives way, and you find yourself falling into a crater, writing puts earth back under your feet. The act of consigning the hurricane inside your head to paper quiets the agitated spirit, shifts the brain waves, brings peace. It takes what can be toxic and decontaminates it. It makes it safe. Writing makes sense of confusion and gives voice to the wisdom within.

In Put Your Heart On Paper, I tell about nineteen year old Aaron Camp, who travels on a shoestring, sometimes with a one-way ticket. When he arrives at his destination, he has no place to go. Writing this fact down helps him from panicking. For some reason, his statement of fact has a hold on me, and I use it verbatim when I am feeling lost:

Here I am in San Francisco, I don't know where I am staying.

There. It's a fact. Now he can get his bearings and figure out what to do.

I call this Writing In Real-Time™, as opposed to retrospective writing. (See Chapter 6, where Tim wrote about September 11th, recording the immediacy of the moment.)

Writing is Therapeutic

Often the best therapy is to voice your feelings and judgments to a sympathetic ear, to someone who won't turn on the ballgame or do the dishes, won't cradle the phone, multi-task, and tune you out. We usually have to pay for that kind of focused attention, but the secret is that by providing such a forum, the professional counselor leads you to find the answers inside yourself. And the best answers are the ones you already know, but don't know that you know.

You come to the aha! by spelling it out, by being given a platform to explore options. Writing does that. Writing brings you face-to-face with your own truth and reality. And the truth and reality can set you free; otherwise, you are stuck.

The act of moving the pen across the page can be meditative, creating a calming state. Sometimes we don't even know what came out of our pen until we go back and read it later. And then we are surprised by the wisdom of our own words, and the insight.

My young friend Shane takes leave of a group of us talking together.

"Gotta go; I have an appointment with my therapist."

He grins and holds up his journal and heads off for a place where he can think and write in quiet.

Writing is Healthy

Researcher Dr. James Pennebaker of the University of Texas has spent the last 20 years examining under laboratory conditions the mind/body link between writing and health. More than simply a catharsis or venting, translating events into language can affect brain and immune functions. The subjects he tested had an increase in germ-fighting lymphocytes in their blood and lower stress levels. In addition, Pennebaker states, "Not only are there benefits to health, but writing about emotional topics has been found to reduce anxiety and depression, improve grades in college, and...aid people in securing new jobs."

Dr. Pennebaker tested a wide range of subjects, from "grade-school children and nursing home residents, arthritis sufferers, medical school students, maximum security prisoners, new mothers and rape victims." Writing about strong feelings improved the mental and bodily health of every category.

Hand vs. Machine: To Write or Type
People often ask me, Is it okay to use the computer or a PDA (Personal Data Assistant)? Will it still work if I write electronically? Some people are more comfortable at the computer, others find it intrudes. Cassie (Chapter 8) likes the emotional distancing when she writes on her Mac.

However, if your usual mode is mechanical, I encourage you to try your hand at pen and paper. There is a different energy in it. Even choosing the writing tools can be a way of taking care of yourself--the pen that glides and has a heft you like, the notebook or journal with a picture or texture that invites you to relax. Many find comfort in the quiet and physicality of handwriting. The hand moving across the page can create a semi-trance. Some people have the ability to "zone out" while they are typing, but most find this "alpha state" easier to achieve while writing by hand. (If you do compose at the computer, turn off the monitor so you won't be tempted to tinker with the words as they appear before you).

Some stalwart souls even use a typewriter, complete with inky ribbon and return carriage, with its satisfying little "bing!" at the end of each line. Whatever works for you is what is best. Whatever gets the words out of your head and onto the page is what is right.

Giving Out Permission Slips

Judging from my mailbox, a lot of people are worried about doing it "right." There is no right, there is only do, as Yoda might say.

For several years now, I have been an "advice columnist," a kind of "Dear Abby," for a writing magazine. I answer questions about ways to journal.

People worry a lot about rules. One man, for example, wrote to ask, "Is it correct to use a Staedtler Mars Lumingraph 100 HB pencil?"

After awhile, I came to realize that my specific answers did not matter. My job was to give out permission slips. My stand is that there is no right or wrong way, and I hope through the anecdotes of others in With Pen in Hand to give free access to all to use this powerful tool.

Email: The Community Piece

My friend Robin used writing on the Internet to get her through a tough time. Her baby was sick with asthma, and her husband diagnosed with MS; in addition, Robin was battling a severe post-partum depression. The thought of writing by hand was overwhelming to her, but in the middle of the night, she found release through email exchanges with a supportive person who was kind-hearted, and visiting an online MS chat room. She could write at any hour, agonizing at the keyboard over questions that had no answer. "Why me?" and "What part of Hell am I in now?"

Robin's writing solution is what Pennebaker calls "The Community Piece," because even though the people you are writing to are usually anonymous, there is a common caring and it is a relief to have that connection.

When do You Stop Feeling the Pain?

Lisa (Chapter 3) cries when she talks about her baby who died 19 years ago. It's not that she is clinging to grief, but she will carry that child in her heart always.

The comedienne Linda Richman understands this. Devastated by her son's death in a car accident, and her mother's death a few days later, she wrote the book, I'd Rather Laugh. A woman whose daughter died heard Richman speak and was surprised at how happy she seemed. After the presentation, the woman went up to Richman and asked, "When do you stop feeling the pain?"

"You don't,'" Richman answered.

"'You have to integrate the pain into your life,' I told her. 'It doesn't go away. It can't. It shouldn't. It's part of you. You had a beautiful child, and now you don't. That loss is part of you, just as your daughter was. These feelings are your feelings. What happened to you was hideous and horrible, and now you have to find a way to go on and even to rediscover laughter and joy.' "

Holding Your Humanity in Open Hands

When your loss has been egregious and only you can judge that there is no "closure."

"I hate that word, 'closure,'" says Jack Kennedy, the man who taught me so much about Ignatian Discernment (Chapter 5).

The television displays images of grieving parents at the site of a plane crash, family members walking through the ruins of a suicide bombing, the tanks withdrawing from the refugee camp. "And now let closure begin," intones the anchorman in a voiceover, as though there could ever be a termination of the emotions and pain in the face of such loss.

"Ignatius teaches how to hold the light and the darkness together," says Jack. "How do you hold a crying baby; how do you dress a wound? You take time and reverence. That's what I mean by 'holding.' It's okay to hold your grief--not hang on to it, but, in Dutch theologian Henri J. M. Nouwen's image, hold it with open hands. That's our humanity."

As Jack spoke, it hit me like a thunderbolt. That is exactly what personal writing, in fact what this whole book, is all about. Not about closure, but about integration. About holding. With reverence. Whether a spiral drug store notebook, a leather bound diary, or single sheets torn from a legal pad, the written page is a place to hold our humanity.

Pleasure And Pain: Gateway to Your Humanity

Poet Mary Oliver put it this way: in order to be fully human, fully alive, there are "Two things you need: / Some deep memory of pleasure / Some cutting knowledge of pain."

Facing the sad emotions in your life tenderizes you to appreciate fully all the good that is there, too. Grief is not meant to shut you down, but to point to what is important.

Jack sums it up, "If you block your grief, you block your joy. They go together. The depth of joy can only be measured by your willingness to go to your depth of sadness. What you discover is how deep you are."

Emily's Pencil Case: A Mantra For My Life


I know that because my daughter Emily told me so, and even hand-painted it on my favorite, carry-it-with-me-every-day-of-my-life pencil case. Against a backdrop of deep purple, Emily scrolled my name in yellow above the zipper. A mountain range in wild strokes of blues and greens is pictured underneath. At the highest peak, she drew a woman in exaltation, arms flung wide, foot lifted in a high kick, with a full sun behind her. Below the dancing figure it reads,

I am supposed to be exactly where I am.

Sometimes when I am traveling, I use the pouch as a little purse, so I had it with me when I got lost in the back streets of Athens. I couldn't find my way back to Areopagitou, the main street; all the winding cobbled streets and white houses looked the same; nothing looked familiar. I started to panic. Then I looked down at the pencil case in my hand with its comforting inscription. I took it literally. This is where I am supposed to be; don't be afraid.

Many times now I go back to that motto and it reminds me that I am not lost, or dumb, or anything less than what I am meant to be physically, geographically, emotionally, financially, spiritually: I am supposed to be exactly where I am.

Writing is like my painted pencil case from Emily--writing reminds you that it is okay to be you, whatever that means. Accept what is. "It's okay to be sad," says Pinkly, a survivor of domestic violence (Chapter 14). Mike, (Chapter 13) who lived through Vietnam, echoes her. How you do things is not how somebody else does things. Writing lets you heal at your own pace and will not hurry you along or get impatient with you. You are supposed to be exactly where you are.

Stay in the Midst

Taking time is counter culture. We want an instant answer.

Jack presents an alternative view.

"You need to stay until you know where you are. If you try to move beyond where you are at, you get to come back to where you are at anyway. If you stay long enough, it will shift and lead you to the next organic place of itself."

That is exactly the role of writing. Writing supports you in staying in the midst of it until it shifts.

The world is impatient. It tells you, You should be over that by now. The page does not judge how long it takes you. The page can hold your sorrow and will not hurry you on.

Honor your inner life and trust the process.

When you have a devastating loss in your life, or have lived through war, sexual abuse, domestic violence or other trauma, you need to heal on your own time frame. Nobody but you can say how long that takes.

And that is where writing comes in. Writing allows you to integrate, at your own pace.

Labor Leads to Birth

Those of you who have given birth, or been present at the scene, know that the toughest part of labor is the period right before delivery. That's when the mother wants to quit as if it were possible and the labor coach is all smiles. He has read the books and taken the classes and he knows the signs: the baby is almost here. The tougher it gets, the closer the birth.

Do you know what this duration is called?


Isn't that apt?

Transition is a bridge; it is going somewhere. Right after the toughest stretch, something glorious is waiting. Something worth working for, worth hanging in there and pushing for when you don't feel like pushing. After the pain comes new life.

Think of your writing as an infinitely patient and caring labor coach. You are in transition. You can't fly over it, you have to go through it. There will always be a way through. Remember to breathe.

How does writing help heal? Come see.