The Healing Potential of Writing

by Elizabeth Hanly

Once upon a time, a student told me his story. He told it in the voice of a child, since he was still quite young when the story occurred. The student had been kidnapped in Guatemala. His captors complained about his tears. “My mother complained of my tears too,” the student wrote. “Maybe that is way she let these men take me.” With that, suddenly, the student understood what he had been unconsciously carrying around with him for over a decade. And with that, I became super curious about the healing potential of writing.

I discovered a mountain of research that suggests writing uses neural processes that function beneath the level of awareness. When those processes are given rein through writing, “stuck” internal narratives can be challenged, freeing intuitive insights to come into awareness. Translation: Reflective writing is a way to discover insights you didn’t know you had.

And so when asked to work with the prompt “Memory that won’t let you go,” a cancer patient found herself writing of the prayer shawl her dad wrapped her in on Saturday mornings before he set off for synagogue. Quite an image to take with her into chemo. Another patient found herself remembering the carved wooden box her father had continued to work on for her even during a decade of the most heated and bitter of exchanges. These stories came to their writers unbidden. The writers couldn’t have known beforehand how healing these images would become. I watched in wonder.

I’ve watched in wonder as well at the laughter shared among the folks in my groups.

Friends sometimes ask me why this work? Because the space shared in these workshops is—dare I say it?—holy. Yep. That’s why.

Write with Elizabeth Hanly. “Togetherness: Writing for Those Touched by Cancer and Other Serious Illness” meets four Tuesdays beginning July 18, via Zoom, 6:00-8:00 p.m. Register

Elizabeth Hanly is a widely published freelance writer, covering the arts, refugees and issues of faith and healing. Her reporting has led her all over Latin and Central America, as well as the Caribbean. Her work appears in the New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, Vogue, and others. She is an affiliate professor at Florida International University’s (FIU) Herbert Wertheim’s College of Medicine and leads writing workshops for patients at NYC’s Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Cancer Center. Online: