"Does writing help? Or not?"

I was asked this question recently by Arthur W. Frank*, a scholar I so admire, who specialises in dialogical narrative analysis and narrative therapy. I had written to tell him how much his work had inspired and helped me when writing a very difficult thesis about the death of one of my sons.

"Does writing help? Or not?"

In his reply to me, Frank said this question had been in his mind for many years as he wrote and researched his "illness narratives" – At the will of the body, The wounded storyteller.

I find his question hard to answer in the way that writing a poem is hard: the answer runs away at the edge of the page, refuses to be pinned down in easy phrases. And yet the poem is, and the question is, soaringly liberating, and liberating to wrestle with.

His email to me explained that all the while he wrote, his wife had been busy interviewing bereaved parents like me, "bringing home stories of these parents, their grief, and how they found ways to go on ...  So I think that parental bereavement has been part of my thinking since I began this work." Knowing nothing until now, of the atmosphere of parental bereavement in which Frank had been putting forward his beliefs on narrative analysis, there I was, a bereaved parent so attracted to his work, as instinctively as a moth to a candle.

As with his books, like Letting stories breathe, Frank’s question unlocked something for me. It got me thinking about writing on many dimensions, and about the different kinds of writing I have done over the past 10 years:

  • participating in an email-based bereavement study conducted by a group of PhDs in Holland – a three-month intervention I undertook early in my grief
  • journalling, using the Progoff method of intensive journal writing
  • writing poetry – for me a very stop-start, haphazard form of writing where there is not always an easy relationship with one’s writing/life
  • teaching writing, which always excites me and takes me into new directions
  • academic writing, and finally, 
  • writing prose and poetry, post-thesis.

Looking at that list of different kinds of writing, and asking, "Did writing help? Or not?" I find this apparently small question extends long tentacles into my understanding of grief. At some level, writing does not help. Grief remains. As I would wish it to. Who could want to ever forget François?

When applied to academic writing, the question is deeply radical for people who, like me, write autoethnographies. In some ways the idea of writing as therapy, of writing to help the author, undermines the very purpose of autoethnography, which is to help critique culture: autoethnography aims to serve wider cultural purposes.

However, autoethnography is persistently misunderstood as self-writing. Recently an academic colleague said she regarded autoethnography as blogging culture. No, writing culture, I countered, citing Clifford & Marcus's book by that title, which explains the ethnographic roots from which autoethnography sprang. Autoethnography developed over three decades ago, long before the clumsy word "blog" made such an impression on our consciousness.

Returning to Frank’s question, Does writing help, my own answer is a qualified "Yes... writing helps, but ..." You can hear the "No" in the wings.

My qualified "Yes" comes from a deep experience at one narrow point in my thesis, where I felt ill with stress. I felt impelled to analyse my grief, for once and for all, instead of persistently ignoring it as instructed by my university's ethics committee guidelines. This grief writing came to the fore in an intense session of Progoffian journal writing. That intense writing, to my surprise, lead me on to write about something underlying my grief, which was fear.

"No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear", said CS Lewis, in the opening chapter of A grief observed. Examining my fear, in turn, lead to an insight for my thesis: that at the heart of my story lay stigma.

That insight, which started out as an exploration of the physical pain of grief, completely turned my thesis results chapter around, and made it face into the direction where all the work of the autoethnography had been leading all the time: how very deeply the twin issues of shame and stigma were ingrained in almost every level of my story of youth mental illness.

Wrestling with grief and fear as if with the proverbial thorn in my side, discovering how stigma was deeply embedded in my story and in society's response to difficult accounts of the lives of contemporary youth, helped my thesis find its way down the path to its conclusion.

Until I did that piece of intense writing, I had been blind to the full implications of my story and my son's. Here, writing, even writing against the grain and into the headwinds of something proscribed, helped. Yes, overwhelmingly yes, writing helped! After all, as Laurel Richardson has told us, writing is "a method of inquiry".

We could leave it at that. But sometimes, writing does not help. And what of those times, when the answer to Arthur W. Frank's question is No?

Do writers write about those times? The experience of writer's block is, like fear, always an experience of something else being blocked just as fear is a fear of something else deeper. Here is where I turn to Progoff's method for unlocking more than mere "creativity" through journalling: writing into the answers. Or at least, towards them.

This post was revised on Monday 18 September 2017.

* Arthur W Frank is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Calgary, where he has taught since 1975. He is currently professor at VID Specialized University, in Norway, where he teaches on narrative practices and the intersection of healthcare, therapy, and ethics. He is also part of the core faculty at the Center for Narrative Practice in Boston.