Can Creative Writing Heal a Wounded Soul?

Community Chronicle, May 2021

Can Creative Writing Heal a Wounded Soul?

A lot of people think that creative writing, be it a personal journal, a story, an essay, a novel, or something more monumental comes from sheer talent or great inspiration. That great writers are born that way. Usually writing entails none of these.  Ask any writer. It’s usually something the person cannot “not” do. Just like you don’t have a choice between being right or left handed, neither does a writer have a choice to write or not. Many writers, myself included, consider it a part of our DNA. 


Writing, at its core, is often something a person does out of a need to put into words what cannot be said out loud. Writing allows a person to think through what the individual wants to say on their own timetable. When putting pen to paper or fingers to a keyboard, you have time to think through what you want to say, how you want to say it, and change it once, twice, or a dozen times. 


Writing does something else too, it soothes the soul. The mere act of putting one word down after another requires that you dig down deep to what matters, to that place in your heart where only you know its secrets, its pain, its joy. Which is how I ended up teaching Creative Writing at the McLennan County Jail. 


When I was approved by the folks at McLennan County Jail’s Reintegration Program to teach Creative Writing to inmates, I jumped at the opportunity. Not just because I believe that everyone deserves a second chance, and not just because I know how cathartic writing can be. I’ve known inmates who have made successful transitions to the outside by educating themselves, by delving into that deepest place of the heart, by writing. I also know that until changes are made within an individual, that inmates will continue to return to jail, again and again. It’s called recidivism and unless it’s curtailed, the cycle never stops. At McLennan County Jail they’re doing something to reduce the rate of recidivism. In college I wrote countless papers on turning around recidivism. At the time, honestly, it was a pipe dream. Now, seeing it in action in the Reintegration Program affirms what I thought would be possible given the right resources and right people leading the charge. 


You’re probably wondering, how can writing turn someone around to help them avoid a return to a life of crime and jail. Is that even possible? Yes, it is, and here’s why. 


Across the ages countless writers have found solace in the outpouring of words, the act of baring their souls. It’s impossible to mask what fills the heart. Most authors bare their souls, it’s part of the craft, the essence of their work. Theybare their souls through their own telling of a story that came to them through their subconscious. Such stories have more of the author in them than readers realize. Their desires, rage, heartache, sadness, and happiness become their signatures; they write about what they know. 


In Jack Bickham’s “Scene & Structure,” a book about fiction writing, he states: “Each of us carries around inside ourselves a mental picture of the kind of person we are.  This self-concept is at the heart of our opinion of ourselves – how much we like ourselves, how much confidence we feel, and we live our lives in large measure to be in consonance with this self-concept, and to enhance it. Our self-concept is our most precious mental and emotional possession.”

Writers, whether famous, obscure or one who writes in a journal feels this same self-concept. It leads to a soothing of the soul. In all likelihood many people have already experienced this phenomenon, though they may have forgotten it. 

When you were younger perhaps you kept a diary. Maybe you hid it in a drawer or under your bed. You may remember it as a time and place where you confessed your worries and fears, your dreams and your failures, without concern of being judged. It probably felt cathartic to put all those feelings down in your diary. It likely helped you see the world with a clearer set of eyes. Do you remember how that diary was like a friend you could talk to whenever you needed an ear, someone to simply listen?  How it helped your emotional well being?


When you became an adult, your diary probably got tucked away with your high school diploma and other memorabilia. While it may seem that diary writing has disappeared, it hasn’t. These days, a lot of adults keep journals that are not unlike the diary of their teenage years. It’s a place to write down thoughts, beliefs and sentiments to better understand them. And just as when a person was younger, a journal provides a cleansing outlet, a way of getting things off the chest, and moving on. 

Writing has always been a useful stress management tool, this is not new. And writing has always been extremely useful in contending with a wide range of issues. The simple act of writing, any kind of writing, can increase a person’s happiness. Studies have shown that people who practice consistent writing often cite elevated moods. Psychologists believe that writing provides an outlet to release emotions, and work through negative feelings in a constructive way. Creative writing is an effective way to work through emotions because it involves expressing creative thoughts, ideas, and stories. Things that matter to the heart, to the soul, to one’s self concept.  

Which brings me back to why teaching creative writing at the jail can be a conduit for those inmates who want to make a better life for themselves. Just as writing requires digging deep, so does turning one’s life around. If creative writing can elevate a person’s emotional well-being, and help that person stay out of jail, then every word, every paragraph, every page written is worth it.