Creative Writing and Recovery: Transforming Lives and Transforming the World with the Power of Words
By Robert Hammond, MFA
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
How Stories Transform Lives
In the beginning was the word. Since the dawn of civilization, the storyteller has held a unique role in guiding, inspiring, and transforming individuals and communities. Every day around the world, in homes, churches, online, through social media, on convention center stages, in theaters, and big and small screens, storytellers continue sharing their experience, strength, and hope by telling others what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now. Whether through listening or telling, writing or reading, stories are powerful. Stories are healing. Stories transform lives.
This article focuses on creative writing and recovery with an emphasis on how you can help your clients transform their lives through writing their stories. You will also discover how you can transform your own life and career by becoming a published author. What’s your story?
The Mystery of My Story
By the time I entered the recovery house, I was already a successful author, having written several books on personal finance and consumer issues. I had appeared on hundreds of radio and television talk shows as one of the nation’s leading credit experts. Writing was an essential part of my life, but something was sorely missing – my life was a miserable mess. I needed to do something different. I needed help.
As part of my treatment plan my counselor arranged for me to write out my fourth step in the form of a memoir. For an hour a day I poured out all my thoughts and memories, frightfully surprised as rivers of poetry mixed with secret crimes and lovers bubbled to the surface of my soul and spilled out onto yellow legal pads. The result of this process was a catharsis that led to emotional healing and spiritual insight, transforming my life with a deep and permanent Light.
Within 30 days I had a 300-page memoir in front of me ready to share with the world. I soon found a literary agent who wanted to shop the book to New York publishers as a sensational true confessional. Suddenly, my agent died and the manuscript disappeared into a desk drawer to gather dust. Years later, I dusted off the early draft and decided to change the names, locations, and even the primary character to the point of total anonymity. I recently rewrote the book as a novel titled, The Light, a mystical odyssey about addiction, recovery, and redemption.
Writing and Recovery
How many of the 12 steps actually requirewriting? Many people in recovery programs complete workbooks or journals, writing out their thoughts and answering questions about each of the 12 steps of recovery. If you sit in enough groups or 12-step meetings or ask a dozen different “experts,” you’ll get a number of different opinions. According to a strict interpretation of the book,Alcoholics Anonymous, the only steps that seem to requirewriting are the fourth step, “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” and the eighth step, “Made a list of people we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.” The “Big Book” further indicates, however, that the eighth step is taken from the writing already done in the fourth step. Therefore, one could argue that writing a thorough fourth step inventory is the only writing really required for recovery. But is that really enough?
Regardless of minimal requirements, writing can be an essential tool for discovering deeper layers of emotional entanglements, uncovering destructive thought and behavior patterns, and discarding self-destructive habits. So whether a person writes out his or her daily thoughts in a journal, completes detailed worksheets for each of the 12 steps, pours out poetry on paper, or expands his or her fourth step into a 300-page memoir, the process of writing is essential to recovery. Writing, as a way to tell stories and express emotions, results in healing and transformation. Words are powerful. Words transform lives.
Books such asAlcoholics Anonymous andNarcoticsAnonymous are overflowing with the stories of people who have recovered from substance abuse. In the 2007 movie,Freedom Writers, Hilary Swank plays a high school teacher who inspires a troubled group of “unteachable” inner-city teenagers to discover tolerance and to rekindle their dreams through creative writing. In his stark memoir, Soul on Ice, former Black Panther member Eldridge Cleaver reveals how his life was transformed by writing. Juvenile facilities, jails, hospitals, and prisons throughout the country have instituted creative writing programs to help their residents work through dark emotions, confess their hidden secrets, heal their shattered souls, and transform their lives.
How could creative writing classes be instrumental in today’s substance abuse treatment facilities, recovery centers, and sober living homes? If your treatment center, private practice, or recovery facility has not already done so, how might you incorporate creative writing as part of the recovery process? Whether you encourage participants to write their daily thoughts in journals, express themselves with poetry, or tell their stories in longer forms such as memoirs or semi-autobiographical novels, consider ways to encourage storytelling and creative self-expression as an adjunct to your current modalities. You might also look at enlisting a student volunteer from a local college or hiring a creative writing instructor to facilitate weekly classes or to work with residents one-on-one. What if you compiled the stories and poems from selected participants into a published anthology? What are some other ways you could incorporate creative writing into the recovery process? What’s the best thing that could happen?
What’s your story?
Do you have a story that could make a difference in the world? As a substance abuse treatment and recovery professional, how would becoming a published author transform your business, career, or personal life? Are you an expert in your field or have a new perspective on how to solve age-old problems? If you’re like most people, you’ve probably thought about writing a book some day. What’s stopping you? What if somebody really needs to hear your story? What if writing your book and telling your own story was part of the healing that you as the healer may need right now? Physician, heal thyself.
If you want to build a house, create a business, or develop a new invention, you need to begin with a blueprint. Regardless of whether you want to write the complete book yourself, work with a co-writer, or hire someone else to write the book for you, you will need to start with a concrete description of what your book will be about. Start by brainstorming your ideas. What do you really want to write about? What is the essence of your story? What is your expertise? Who is your audience? What is your tentative title? How do you plan to market and promote your book? Where would it fit on the bookstore shelves in terms of categories and comparable titles? How is it different? After you brainstorm your basic ideas, begin to expand them into a full outline, detailed chapter descriptions, and summary. Create a plan and a writing schedule. Then stick to your plan. Write your book and get it published.
The Hero’s Journey
In Joseph Campbell’s groundbreaking work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the hero begins in an ordinary world before receiving a call to adventure. Reluctantly, s/he enters a new world, faces challenges, enemies, allies, and mentors, before crossing the final threshold, facing the ultimate challenge, and returning home with the reward.
Prepare to embark on your personal hero's journey. Your quest is to become a published author so you can tell your story and make a difference in the world. This is your call to adventure. Now begin.
“Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.”~Goethe