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From pain to pen: expressive writing and healing

U.Va. English Prof. Charlotte Matthews creates writing workshop for cancer patients

<p>Artwork by Kristen Rexter pairs with poem, titled "Hoping To Find Me," written by a patient who participated in the U.Va. Cancer Center workshop.</p>

Artwork by Kristen Rexter pairs with poem, titled "Hoping To Find Me," written by a patient who participated in the U.Va. Cancer Center workshop.

For Assoc. English Prof. Charlotte Matthews, writing poetry became a way of reclaiming power after battling against stage three breast cancer. Eager to share her experience with other women affected by cancer, Matthews worked with filmmaker Betsy Cox to launch Whistle Words, a multidimensional project consisting of writing workshops, online anthologies and an upcoming documentary film. 

“[Writing poetry] felt empowering because so much of cancer diagnosis and treatment is passive,” Matthews said. “To be able to actively do something restored me to a sense of true self.” 

Matthews frequently wrote her poetry on a 1949 Corona typewriter, acknowledging that each key’s satisfying “clack” reinforced the release of a burden. She listed specific reasons as to why the typewriter became an important component of her writing process.

“The first reason is that I cannot be tempted when I’m on my typewriter to go into the vortex of Google and start looking stuff up,” Matthews said. “Number two: It slows me down because my fingers are not strong enough [for the typewriter].” 

Former instructor in the University’s English Department Kiera Allison explained that the process of revising and rethinking —  into which the typewriter forces Matthews — is inherent to gaining control over an experience. 

“For my students, it’s in the drafting and revision because once they have the words on the page,” Allison said. “They can look objectively at what they have and revisit it. That’s where the mental processing happens.” 

Matthews centered her writing workshops around this idea of empowerment through reflection and re-examination. The workshops were previously held at Olivet Presbyterian Church and the Martha Jefferson Hospital and soon to be held at the Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center.

A participant in the Olivet workshop, Mitzi Ware, recalled that one of Matthews’s prompts was “I remember,” which had to be answered in two pages. Another prompt asked the participants to write about their mothers. 

“The freedom of the prompts helped me come up with different ways to navigate,” Ware said. “I was frozen after my cancer treatment because that was my total focus, and this was a way of bringing my thoughts back to life — revising them almost.”

Like many participants, Ware didn’t write poetry prior to attending her first workshop. She lauded Matthews for her ability to create a safe and comfortable workshop environment for everyone, regardless of writing experience. Ware said Matthews’s excellent leadership skills enabled the workshop participants to work past their inhibitions to writing.

Ware’s positive workshop experience is supported by research that shows the emotional and physical health benefits of writing with deep feeling. According to a study published in Psychosomatic Medicine, patients with HIV infection who wrote expressively demonstrated improved immune system function when compared to the control group. Another study in Behavioral Sleep Medicine showed that insomniacs who wrote about their problems and worries fell asleep faster than their counterparts who did not write.

The themes of Matthews’s initiative — hope, humanity and healing — complement a well-established tradition maintained by physicians-writers.

According to Daniel Becker, Director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Humanities at the School of Medicine, writing expressively about medicine and the process of healing dates back many centuries — before modern research techniques could attribute the benefits of evocative writing, like poetry, to health. 

In what Becker calls “accidents of fate,” physicians — the other side of the healing equation — found it inevitable to write about their medical experiences.

“If you read the ‘Iliad,’ you get the feeling that Homer knew a lot of pathology,” Becker said. “Most great literature has to do with love and death, and to a great extent, that is what clinical medicine is about — keeping people alive and understanding what they’re going through.” 

Marcia Childress, director of programs in humanities at the School of Medicine, further explained why physicians turn to writing in addition to practicing medicine.

“Taking care of people with life-threatening illnesses is not easy, regardless of one’s comfort at taking the patient’s circumstances to heart,” Childress said. “Doctors need outlets for reflecting on the nature of the work they do and the people they come to know in very intimate ways.”

Both Becker and Childress note how writing helps physicians stay open, resilient and less likely to burn out. As a result, the School of Medicine has taken initiatives to integrate the humanities with the traditional study of medicine. For example, fourth-year medical students can opt to take an elective called “Literature and Medicine.” 

“We know that the capacity of making moral reasoning, the ability to understand the horrible things people do to each other, is not fully developed until late twenties,” Becker said. “We admit 22-year-olds to medical school, so we encourage people to be reflective in this way.”

However, the tendency to reflect creatively may not always carry over to the examination room in an obvious manner.

How physicians and patients approach the topic of writing when together may vary, according to Childress. Patients and doctors may exchange writings about each other, but often times, the patient may choose to share his or her work only with family members.

Childress specified that patients may not share their creative work with doctors because doctors may not openly show their receptivity to expressive writing. However, doctors who are familiar with creative, therapeutic endeavors like Whistle Words may recommend that their patients take up writing in addition to their normal treatment.

Whether a patient or physician, writing expressively provides a path towards emotional and physical healing. 

“The act of writing is a reminder of our human significance,” Matthews said. “Even if one is very sick, it helps remind of bigger reasons of why we’re here, so we’re not only the patient but a human being of respect and dignity.”

The website for Hospital Drive, the literary magazine of the School of Medicine, is one way people can learn more about creative writing that focuses on health and illness. In addition, Whistle Words will be offering free online workshops every Sunday evening at 7:00 pm starting Feb. 4.