Getting it off your chest — writing as therapy

Written by Eric on September 13, 2016 in: Uncategorized |

Writing is a critical part of therapy, so you might consider Julie Davey to be a therapist for the U.S. Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

But her real job description is as a volunteer writing coach, teaching young Marines how first to identify their deepest feelings and then write them down – a way of coming to terms with the experiences that have been seared into their brains.

It’s a therapy she knows all too well first-hand.

A former investigative newspaper reporter in Texas and Mexico, Davey later spent nearly two decades in southern California, teaching journalism at Fullerton College, a community college which is a little east of Los Angeles.

In 1984, she had her first brush with breast cancer; it returned in 1996, but the City of Hope Cancer Center was able to treat it successfully.

Then on 9-11, two hours after terrorists commandeered planes to bring down the World Trade Center Towers, Davey was again teaching a journalism class at Fullerton College as she and her students sought to understand a drastically changed world.

“With tears in my own eyes, I stared at their tear-stained faces,” she writes. “I was barely able to speak. ‘We all have skills,’ I told them. ‘Use yours; help somebody. Make a difference.’”

A couple of weeks later, she took her own advice and volunteered to teach her fellow cancer patients at City of Hope Cancer Center in Duarte, Calif., how to write about their own experiences.   That has made a big difference to her new students — and also to their teacher.

“What I have learned is simple: Words can help us heal,” Davey writes. “”A doctor can help heal your body, and a psychiatrist or a good friend with a soft shoulder can help heal your spirit. But focused and directed writing about what you are going through in the depths of your soul provides a unique and sometimes immediate sense of relief. That experience can also be the beginning of a special kind of healing.”

In 2007, she compiled what she had learned as a writing coach into a book: Writing for Wellness: a prescription for healing.  Learn more about the book and her class at this website:

It’s based on the tell-one, show-one, do-one method of teaching. First Davey writes of her own experiences. Then she provides examples of other students writing about their own experiences. Finally, in a section called “It’s Your Turn,” the book helps readers begin writing about their own lives.

To make it easier, Davey provides “prompts.” That means students may plug their own words into a pre-written formula, such as the following:

“When I think about the best times in my life, I always remember ….”

Or, “A day I would like to relive and change the outcome of was when ….”

Or “… made the biggest difference in my life because ….”

Then out of the blue one day, Dr. James Johnson, who is a Navy commander of Camp Pendleton and also its head chaplain, called to tell her he had read her book and wanted to know whether she’d join him in co-teaching a writing class on base to help his Marines. The only real difference was that they’d make it more relevant to Marines by changing the program’s name to “Writing for Strength.”

The class was voluntary, but many Marines were hesitant. Free pizza and home-made cookies kept the classroom full – the home-made cookies, in particular, were an almost irresistible magnet for many of the young men.

No one was required to read his or her writings aloud, but there were invitations to do so. And often the responses were gut-wrenching. “We get a lot of writing like, “I wish I hadn’t seen my buddy die,” or “I wish I hadn’t seen all the dead people in the street,” Davey told me.

Sometimes, the results can be totally unexpected.

Chaplain Johnson read an article aloud to the Marines.  It had some excellent advice on how not to “become engulfed” by negative experiences and losses in our lives.  The Marines were clearly moved by the information in the article which said none of us ever really forgets life’s traumas, but we can put them into perspective and “carry on,” searching out positive experiences and remembering our losses without having them take over our present-day lives.

Then, Davey suggested the group write their reactions to the article, giving them assurance that what they wrote would not have to be read aloud.

Davey remembers one such incident: “Well one Marine did not wait. He just jumped to his feet and said, ‘I’ll read MINE!’ It was kind of shocking. I had no idea what he’d say. In a strong and determined voice, he read word-for-word what was on his paper, but he also gestured as he read.

“He said, ‘Do them justice

Perhaps I am odd

I don’t waste time on tears

I simply pick up their pack

And carry on.’

“With that, he reached down, making a gesture as if he were picking up the pack of a fallen Marine. The chaplain and I were spellbound.

“He spoke, ‘You have to accept the horrible things in life. Ignore them or they will consume you.’

Davey continued to describe the scene. “Well, I could hardly speak. It was stunning. I was quiet for about a minute, as was everyone else in the room, and then I asked him to read it one more time. He did, and the message again was powerful. Hearing his words and seeing his actions became a life lesson for all of us. I realized that my own pack has my brother, my mother, my father and lots of friends in it. The precision of the Marine’s words brought vivid images. I saw a person picking up fallen tears and placing them in the pack he carried.

“After class, I asked him if he had anything else to say about what he wrote and he said, ‘After the chaplain read the article, we were asked to write about something sad so I wrote about losing Marines. Every Marine carries a pack on his or her back. There’s a lot of gear in these packs and things that weigh more than the gear itself. The way I see things, you respect the dead by carrying the weight they once carried.’”

That poem, “Do Them Justice,” was written and delivered orally in class by Sgt. Brendan S. Bigney. It’s part of a new book of poetry that he’s preparing to have published.

Another Marine, who asked not to be identified due to an ongoing active-duty status, wrote in response to the prompt about what he or she missed the most: “I miss myself. I miss my innocence. I miss my faith in my government.”

Such compelling honesty is precisely why writing is therapy.




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