A Research Paper on Healing through the Art of Therapeutic Writing and Drawing

Written / Monday, May 1st, 2017

Healing through the Art of Therapeutic Writing and Drawing is a research paper I wrote for my Studies in British Literature 300 class. I research and discuss how artistic expression helps people who have witnessed dramatic events heal. The paper centers around psychological research and how it connects to the novel Atonement by Ian McEwan.

Dana Webb
Professor Babcock
ENG 341
1 May 2017

Healing through the Art of Therapeutic Writing and Drawing

The idea that artistic expression, through writing and drawing, helps to heal people who have witnessed traumatic events is explored through the novel’s protagonist, Briony, in Atonement. Briony wishes to justify her self through her writing by creating another world. She uses a notebook to actively write and draw her thoughts onto the page. Briony displays creativity by confiding to her notebook when she is a nurse during World War II and again later in her life when she becomes a novelist. In both instances, she is generating a new world through her imagination by writing and drawing. The drawings she creates in her notebook allow her to deal with the traumatic events that she witnesses every day when attending to the soldiers. The story she creates, when she becomes a novelist, is to justify her actions and rewrite a different ending to the sexual traumatic experience she witnessed as a young girl. Through her writing, she addresses her contribution to the separation of her older sister, Cecilia, and her lover, Robbie. She changes the story by creating an alternate ending for her sister where she is given happiness. Briony is an example of a person who uses the art of writing and drawing to express the feelings of her inner self. She expresses different parts of herself through the letters she writes, the drawings she makes, and the stories she creates. Research has discussed how different forms of art- drawing, imaginative writing, and letter writing- help heal children with traumatic experiences. Briony, a victim of a traumatic experience, reinforces and adds to the observations made by the research. She reinforces that writing preserves emotions and time; however, she uses the characters in her writing to fulfill her inner desires of wanting what is best for her sister. She uses writing and drawing to see her faults and goes beyond her egocentric point of view. Furthermore, Briony uses letters, a form of writing, to isolate herself from her family instead of using it to connect her to her family. Overall, research proves that the exploration of the art of therapy writing and drawing as an outlet for expression allows to further the process of healing for people who have witnessed traumatic events.

A study in expressive art therapy “attempts to reach clients with various problems through artistic expression,” (Sydner 1) which is displayed through artistic forms such as drawing, acting, and storytelling. The study explores the idea that creativity implores emotion and can be expressed through colors and words. The expressive art therapy is a “vehicle for awakening dormant creativity” (Sydner 1). The works created by the patient “contribute to restoring the cognitive, emotional, and creative” (Sydner 1) thoughts that were originally corrupted by a traumatic experience the patient has witnessed in the past. Further, the art therapy “can lead clients of all ages to a better understanding of their unconscious through interpretation of developmental phrases and of psychic structure as shown in their artwork” (Sydner 2). The study discusses how expressive art therapy is an egocentric process-that the child has an inability to see beyond their point of view. The art is allowing the patient to become self-aware and tap into the “archetypal images that reflect the deepest levels of feelings” (Sydner 7). Through art, the patients begin to see themselves. When the patients “engage in creative storytelling, they often report feeling a reduction in tension and anxiety that seems to emerge from expressing their own stories in metaphor and myth” (Syndor 6). The study discusses methods of healing through five different storytelling techniques which include hearing family stories, theme stories, cohering stories, re-storying, and inventing stories.

A study on the power of writing in relation to the healing process discusses the exploration of “the healing function of writing as the integration of social-cognitive-emotional life” (Daiute 1). The data for the study included three hundred and sixteen narratives collected from children from 3rd to 5th grade. The research focused in particular on mechanisms of emotional release and emotion regulation in relation to writing about painful experiences. Cognitive processes, such as attention and emotion regulation, have been explored as healing mechanisms by virtue of disclosure during expressive writing” (Daiute 54). It proved that writing can be used as a tool for self-reflection and self-knowledge. The study “measures emotion words, casual connectors, and other linguistic indicators of affective expression” and how they “have been established and related systematically to a range of health outcomes” (Daiute 55). The writing paradigm that displays the results of writing about traumatic events shows that the writing indicates an “importance of emotional release and self-regulative functions” (Daiute 55). The writing produced by the patient is from their own, unique perspective. Writing can be used as a symbolic means to “mask as well as express” (Daiute 56). The “children can use it to perform their identities or to reflect on them” and thus, “use writing to create healthy orientations to life” (Daiute 56). They reflect on their experiences and use their imaginative processes to create a story to represent themselves. The writing is used as a mechanism for the children to handle challenging experiences and reflect on their on-going self-reflection. The characters within the story “can be imagined, interpreted, and even revered through readings by others as well as the self. When writings contend with specific conflicts in the narrator’s experience, this social-interpretive function of writing can promote healing” (Daiute 57). One strategy that is explored in the study is writing about resolution strategies, which includes imagining or intending a resolution within a story. “Conflict resolution skills require mature understanding and control in young children, [which] illustrates how narrative writing can provide supports for such developments” (Daiute 70). The conflict-resolution technique “explores the healing function of writing as the integration of social-cognitive-emotional life” (Daiute 70). “Like therapies that guide people to re-narrate their lives, [writing is used] as a means for changing the [patients] orientations of future events” (Daiute 57). The main purpose of the study is to “gain some insight into the issue of maturation in social aspects of narrative writing” (Daiute 68).

A study on the effect that writing therapy has on children with traumatic experiences or post-traumatic stress disorder shows cognitive coping, the processing of a traumatic event, and how writing contributes to positive feelings. If post-traumatic stress disorder is not addressed early on, “symptoms may persist into adulthood” (Van 241). Children can “display traumatic symptoms after being exposed to one specific type of trauma” (Van 241) and live with the memory for the rest of their life. The study discusses how writing for children that have experienced traumatic events, allows them to tap into their imaginal exposure and cognitive restructuring. The study shows that “exposure, cognitive restricting, social sharing are integrated” (Van 242). Other “imaginal procedures, such as drawing or other expressive methods” (Van 242) can also be used to help children with coping with traumatic experiences. Writing “may improve insight and increase understanding of casual factors of a particular traumatic event” (Van 246). After having children partake in therapeutic writing, a range of 20 – 40% of children said that they felt “a lot better” after therapeutic writing (Van 247). There “was a significant improvement from pre- to post-test” (Van 246). In addition, the “case reports show that children exposed to war trauma, [showed] a significant reduction of PTSD symptoms and depression” (Van 242). The study reinforces the idea that therapeutic writing helps children that have had traumatic experiences heal.

A study on letter writing shows that writing letters gives patients, that have witnessed traumatic experiences, a space to express their feelings about their trauma. These letters are used to offer the patient “compassion, gratitude, and forgiveness” (Christenson 23) and will allow the patient to feel “justification, rationalization, and minimization” (Christenson 26) as well. The idea of letter writing “providing opportunities for adolescents to be confronted with their behaviors while also giving them space to accept responsibility and embrace the need to change” (Christenson 28). The study shows that “letters can be effectively used to promote change within the individual and family” (Christenson 29). By writing a type ofgoodbye letter to their problem, [the letter is used] to help the client externalize the issue and move forward” (Christenson 23). The purpose of this study was to “address the gap in literature by outlining how letters can be effectively and powerfully used to promote change in the family system” (Christenson 24).

Through Briony’s artistic expression in her journal, she expresses her cognitive, emotional, and creative side through her drawings. Briony created a new identity for herself in her foolscap notebook. She did not discuss the details of her everyday life but rather, “her entries consisted of artistic manifestos, trivial complaints, character sketches and simple accounts of her day which increasingly shaded off into fantasy” (McEwan 263). Within these drawings and “built little stories,” (McEwan 263) she released her inner feelings. She created a world within her notebook where she could use her imagination and forget about the life that was her reality. In the notebook “was her true self, secretly hoarded, quietly accumulating” (McEwan 263). She was able to make up stories and pretend she was in her own world. She was able to justify her being by creating these entries within her notebook where she was “under no obligation to the truth” (McEwan 264). It was “the only place she could be free” (McEwan 264). Every day Briony was exposed to the trauma of the soldiers by attending to their wounds. The world was a place of darkness and depression because of the war. Although Briony did not state that she had post-traumatic stress disorder, she experienced a trauma when she was younger. By isolating herself to the soldier’s wounds, she is exposing herself to war trauma. Research discussed that “children exposed to war trauma, [showed] a significant reduction of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and depression” (Van 242). Briony expresses her feelings about her work by stating, “she doesn’t mind” (McEwan 263) and is perfectly content. Attending to the injured soldier’s helps Briony heal from the sexual trauma she experienced with her sister, Cecilia, when she was younger. She only thinks about the war, attending to wounds, and her notebook, which serves as an outlet for her creativity. During “this time, her journal preserved her dignity” (McEwan 264). It was a time in Briony’s life where she “was cut off from everything she knew- family, home, friends-writing was a thread of continuity” (McEwan 264). She shows that although she witnesses trauma every day of her life, she can still find peace through her notebook. She defines herself through her drawings and starts to “better understand [her] unconscious through interpretation of developmental phrases and of psychic structure as shown in [her] artwork” (Sydner 2). By expressing herself through art, she is overcoming her egocentric process of only seeing the world from one angle. Through her drawings, she starts to see how life can be viewed differently. She is becoming self-aware through her “artistic manifestos, trivial complaints, [and] character sketches” (McEwan 263). This allows her to tap into the “archetypal images that reflect the deepest levels of feelings” (Sydner 7). The creativity of her drawings reveals her inner self. She realizes her potential and uses her creativity to guide her to be the person she wants to be in the future, a novelist.

Briony expresses her feelings of isolation, from her family and the outside world, through the letters she writes. Instead of finding “justification, rationalization, and minimization” (Christenson 26) through her letters, she does not go into detail about the life she leads. She  became a nurse to “abandon herself to a life of structures, rules, obedience, house-work, and a constant fear of disapproval” (McEwan 260). She left her life at home to forget the fact that she was the sole cause of Robbie and Cecilia’s separation. She isolated herself from her family, cut herself off from [her] home” (McEwan 263), and separated herself from her old life. Only “sometimes [she] wrote her own concise letters home which conveyed little more than that she was not ill, not unhappy, not in need of her allowance and not about to change her mind” (McEwan 261). She did not tell of her daily life to her family rather she kept it concealed, “confid[ing] the matters only to her notebook, and even then, in no great detail” (McEwan 261). Briony does not contribute to the idea that writing letters will help her heal. She uses the letters to isolate herself from her family, causing little or no further connection to build between her and her family members. Briony uses the idea of letter writing in a different way. Instead of using the letter as a “space to accept responsibility and embrace the need to change” (Christenson 28), she uses it to not go into how she feels about her life. She uses the letters to state the minimum amount of information about her life because she doesn’t want her parents to worry.

Briony restructures a new world by becoming a novelist. Her writing explores the ideas of “imaginal exposure and cognitive restructuring” (Van 242) by creating a story where there is a happy ending for her sister, Cecilia, and Robbie. In this new reality, Briony, along with her other character’s “exist as [her] inventions. Briony[‘s] [character is] as much of a fantasy as the [character of the two] lovers, [Robbie and Cecilia]” (McEwan 350). She holds the “absolute power of deciding outcomes” (McEwan 350). Briony is using the conflict-resolution technique to

“explore the healing function of writing as the integration of social-cognitive-emotional life” (Daiute 70). Briony chooses to give the lovers of her story a happy ending. Only in her imagination has she “set the limits and terms” (McEwan 350). Since it is her world, she writes what her mind desires. She knew that she could never “undo the damage” (McEwan 269) she caused in the past, but she was able to imagine a different outcome through the fantasies she created within her mind, within the novel she wrote. She changes the names of her characters and gives her sister the happy ending she never had. She uses her fantasies to make her feel better about herself. Briony display’s imaginal exposure by confronting the thought that she had feared the most, the sexual trauma she witnessed between Robbie and Cecilia and the aftermath. She uses cognitive restructuring to create another outcome for this memory, which allows Briony to feel that what she writes is justifiable. Through her writing, she is recognizing and facing her trauma but by changing the outcome of the story, she is forgiving herself for being the sole reason for Robbie and Cecelia’s separation.

Different types of art, which include letter writing, imaginative writing, and drawing, help patients heal from traumatic experiences. Briony is an example of a character that uses writing therapy to create an alternate ending for a traumatic event she experienced as a young girl. In addition, Briony also draws in her notebook to cope with the traumatic appearances of the soldiers she attends to during the war. Briony proves that writing and drawing help her heal from the traumatic events she experienced within her life by going beyond her egocentric point of view through her art. She uses the characters of her story to fulfill her inner desires to give her sister a happy ending; she uses her drawings to create a new world, which allows her to see her faults and cope with the trauma she experiences from the war; she uses the letters as a form of writing to isolate rather than connect herself to her family. Briony, reinforces the idea that the art of therapeutic writing and drawing helps people who are traumatized heal, but furthers that argument by displaying her inner self through her creativity in drawing, her isolation from her parents in letter writing, and her headstrong personality by confronting her trauma through imaginative writing. Atonement, reinforces the research on the idea that the art of therapy writing and drawing helps the process of healing for people who have experienced traumatic events and is, in fact, an outlet for self-expression.


Works Cited

Christenson, Joacob and Amber Miller A. “Slowing Down the Conversation: The Use of letter Writing with Adolescents and Young Adults in Residential Settings.” Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal. March 2016, pp 23-31. Psychology and Behavioral Science Collection.

Daiute C, & Buteau E. “Writing for their lives: Children’s narratives as supports for physical and psychological well-being.” S. J. Lepore & J.M. Smyth (Eds.), The Writing Cure: How Expressive Writing Promotes Health and Emotional Well-Being, xii, 313, 2002, pp. 53-74. PsycBOOKS. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/10451-003

Synder, Beverly A. “Expressive Art Therapy Techniques: Healing the Soul through Creativity.” Journal of Humanistic Education & Development, vol. 36, no. 2, Dec. 1997, pp. 74-85. Psychology & Behavioral Sciences Collection.

Van der Oord, Saskia, et al. “Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Children Using Cognitive Behavioural Writing Therapy.” Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, vol. 17, no. 3, May 2010, pp. 240–249. Psychology & Behavioral Sciences Collection.