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Writing your way to wellbeing

Sue Spencer
Senior Lecturer in Primary Care  
University of Northumbria

Writing about experiences has been shown to have a very positive impact on a person's sense of wellbeing and helps give people a vehicle and medium through which to express themselves and become listened to.(1) A loss of wellbeing and health can find you attempting to navigate life without your familiar destinations and maps; telling stories about this experience and finding ways of sharing and shaping this story can help you restore a sense of direction and purpose. In addition, telling these stories to other people and writing them down as autobiographical accounts, short stories or poems can help legitimise the experiences and enable you to touch other people.
As human beings we need to be able to communicate with others, and being able to express ourselves through writing can be an effective way of achieving this. It has also been acknowledged that writing has a therapeutic effect. John Fox calls it a natural medicine.(2) His work shows how poetry can help bring people's lives back together by simply enabling them to discover new things about themselves (including a creative ability). Like talking therapy, it can help restore a person's mental health. In this country an organisation called Lapidus promotes and supports the use of literary art in health and personal development.
In recent years there has been an increasing interest in listening to patient's stories of illness as a way of helping professionals respond more sensitively to their client's needs.(3) There has also been a parallel growth in the recognition of the therapeutic potential of reading and writing.(4) There is no doubt that there is a power in being enabled to write expressively and reflectively about life-changing experiences. When read and attended to by significant others, it can help the person become more visible and have their needs recognised.
An example of this is the Kingfisher Project in Salisbury, where creative writing workshops were provided in a local hospital led by Fiona Sampson.(4) The authors believe that the sessions were a factor in helping people deal with and recover from illness. Myra Schneider provides an inspiring and thought-provoking insight into how writing helped her with her diagnosis of breast cancer and the subsequent treatment.(5)
Over the last two years I have become increasingly committed to the idea that writing (and particularly writing poetry) can restore a balance and a sense of purpose in one's life. As nurses we are committed to a holistic approach to care, and I believe that writing in a creative and expressive way can help establish the spiritual and emotional elements of care often hidden under technical interventions and the drive to achieve targets. Using poetry in my teaching has helped experienced nurses regain a sense of perspective and proportion in their busy working lives.
I have begun to share some of my poems with nursing students and colleagues and have discovered others that write poetry. I hope to continue this enterprise and find, for myself, a way of being that fits with the values and beliefs that I have developed on how healthcare should respond to a person's individual and unique experiences.
Finally, let me share with you one of my poems written after listening to some of my students. Some readers may find this rings a chord with them.
If you read it and think to yourself "I can do that!", then feel free to send us poems you have written. If we get a good response we will consider including some in future editions of Nursing in Practice. Alternatively, if you have stories to share about reflection and problem solving using creative thinking, then please share those with us.

How I'd like to be able to be
(A plea from a district nurse)

I wish I could be available
responsive when you need an ear.
Be there to hug and cry with you
recognise your pain and fear.

Talk to you about your life
the things that matter now.
Give you care and attention
and negotiate the how.

But I have thirty other people
who I need to go and see.
So excuse me if I seem to busy
it's the system not me.

How I wish to be and can be
are two different things.
I ought to be there for you
for the comfort it can bring.

But I'm not allowed that luxury
you'll have to do without.
I'm needed in the surgery
to hand the dressings out.


  1. Hedges D, Bolton G. Poetry, therapy and emotional life. Oxford: Radcliffe Publishing; 2005.
  2. Fox J. Poetic medicine: the healing art of poem-making. New York: Tarcher Penguin; 1997.
  3. Launer J. Narrative based primary care. A practical guide. Oxford: Radcliffe Medical Press; 2002.
  4. Sampson F, editor. Creative writing in health and social care. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers; 2004.
  5. Schneider M. Writing my way through cancer. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers; 2003.


Further reading
Darling J, Fuller C. The poetry cure. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books; 2005
Helman S. Suburban shaman: tales from
medicine's front line. London:  Hammersmith Press; 2006