Elizabeth Maynard Schaefer has been taking a writing group for those with mood disorders through Stanford University’s Psychiatry Department since 1988. She has bipolar disorder, and is a science writer, earning her PhD in biological sciences from Stanford. Writing through the Darkness: easing your depression with paper and pen is a clear and helpful handbook for those wanting to explore writing as a therapeutic art form for their depression.
And she does make a firm distinction between writing as therapy and writing as therapeutic. This is important, as writing remains an art not a form of therapy, and the therapeutic effects come through expression of that art form. Schaefer also is careful to note that publication is not the main goal of her writing group, but rather the easing of depression. Thus, critical responses to each member’s writing are not given unless specifically asked for. They are supportive meetings, meant to heal.
The tone of the book is uplifting and positive while remaining realistic and balanced. There are quotations from both famous writers and thinkers as well as the members of the author’s writing group distributed throughout, some more inspiring than others. Writing exercises are also placed strategically throughout the text, and extra ones in the last chapter. Some of these seem bland, but for those with little or no writing experience they may prove useful as spurs to get something down on the page.
The exercises I tried certainly brought out powerful feelings about past events, and I could see how these exercises were ideally to be done in the context of a group, where the results could be talked about with others, if needed.
Schaefer deftly balances her own story of bipolar disorder with the (sometimes anonymous) stories of her group members and the general discussion.
Her three rules are to write continuously, to write for the self, and to stop if something feels too threatening. She emphasizes the importance of writing ‘one word, one sentence, one idea’ and not waiting for inspiration. Even when depressed, a person can have a go at writing something, without judgment, and at some point afterwards they will notice improvement in their mood and feelings, and this will give them a sense of power.
Schaefer spends a chapter showing in detail the impressive amount of evidence of how expressive writing helps health, referring to studies done by James Pennebaker, for example. She is careful, however, to note that it is not a cure for mood disorders, but can certainly assist with some of the symptoms.
The book is divided into three parts, the first showing the writing-depression connection, the second showing ‘how to write through the darkness’ and the third going into practical aspects of setting up a writing group for people with mood disorders. She discusses how to begin with journaling, then move on to freewriting, making a neat comparison between them: the former makes inner connections, the latter outer ones. She discusses writing fiction, poetry and memoir, and the benefits of sharing what you have written. There is a helpful bibliography, with both online and print resources.
Her book is very encouraging, and very mindful of the sometimes delicate state of people with depression. She gently urges the reader to try to write even when they don’t feel like it, but not to continue if it becomes disturbing, as their health is the most important factor. Sharing their writing can be beneficial, but if people are not ready for it, then that must be accepted.
Writing through the Darkness is a book I would definitely recommend, particularly to be used in conjunction with a writing group rather than by the individual alone.
© 2008 Sue Bond
Sue Bond has degrees in medicine and literature and a Master of Arts in Creative Writing. She reviews for online and print publications. She lives in Queensland, Australia