Recently, I was talking to an old friend about a difficult but very private situation I’ve been going through. I could talk openly with her about it, but I haven’t been able to write about it in order to protect the privacy of another person involved.

“It’s such a hard season,” I said, “but really it’s her story to tell.”

“It’s your story, too,” my friend offered.

“Yeah, but I can’t really blog about it.”

“But you could write about it privately,” she said.

That’s when a lightbulb went off. I could write about it privately, In fact, I already have been jotting down thoughts and feelings in my journal, but apparently I need to do that more to feel like I’m really dealing with what’s going on.

The writing life in the 21st century can be so public if we let it. Blogs and social media provide a constant outlet for our work, and the immediate feedback we receive can be so gratifying. But there are risks involved.

One risk of living a fully public writing life is that we toss out subpar writing on our blogs or hit send to a publisher before the writing is ready simply to feed the machine. I’ve been guilty of that.

There’s a greater risk, though. We do damage to our souls when we write about only those things that we’re willing to make public. Sometimes, that means we overshare; offering our most vulnerable selves only to be either overlooked or publicly shamed. Other times, that means we withhold our primary tool for dealing with life from some of our own most challenging moments. We’re writers. Writing is how we process and interpret the world. And if we’re not bringing that gift to our own difficult places, we wound ourselves.

According to Natalie Jacewicz in a recent Kaiser Health News article, research has shown that writing has a positive effect on people who are battle all kinds of illnesses, including asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and irritable bowel syndrome. Another study revealed that writing helps unemployed people find new jobs.

In 2004, cancer survivor and author Sharon Bray launched a program at Stanford Cancer Center to help other cancer patients through writing workshops. She went on to develop programs at Scripps Green and at the University of California-San Diego’s Moores Cancer Center.

Bray’s work helps cancer survivors at all stages process their illness and eventual outcome through “expressive writing.” According to Dr. Adrienne Hampton, an assistant professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Wisconsin, the heart of expressive writing is emotional disclosure. “It can be trauma-focused, or it can be aspiration-focused,” Hampton told Jacewicz for the KHN article. “Really, the key is just that it involves either conscious or subconscious emotional processing around a given topic.”

You don’t have to be a cancer survivor to reap the benefits of expressive writing. And your writing doesn’t even have to be private to help you work through life’s difficulties. During one of my four bouts with cancer, I wrote a series of essays on my blog about undergoing radiation.

But don’t let the pressure of publishing keep you from doing the important private writing you may need to get through life’s difficulties.

Write It Out

Take some time today to reflect on the difficult thing(s) you’re going through. Use one of the prompts below to write expressively about what you are experiencing. If you want to share your work, start by showing it to someone who’s going through the same thing you are. Or, if you feel comfortable, share it publicly on your blog or social media accounts.

  • When I first learned about [your situation], I felt ….
  • I wish other people would treat me and [your situation] like …
  • My biggest fear about [your situation] is …
  • One good thing that came about because of [your situation] is …
  • When I was younger, I thought [your situation] would mean …
  • [Your situation] has made me a better person by …

Photo by Evan Clark on Unsplash.