These surreal times of uncertainty, self-isolation and fear are a dictionary definition of the words “anxiety and stress,” especially if you are a UC Davis Health provider or staff member caring for patients or helping to maintain a vitally important health system.
For some people, music provides soothing relief. Others get lost in drawing or painting or singing on videos. But there’s another art form that might seem a little less common for stress relief: Writing. After all, writing is hard.
But it can also be enormously cathartic, especially under the guidance of Teri Wolf and the Writing as Healing free workshops based at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“It’s a chance for sheer release – of anything,” said Wolf, who runs the writing program along with her full-time job as Nurse Program Manager for the Stop Tobacco Program. “Writing is a chance to be reflective, to release the pain, to just let out whatever is going on, with no critique and no judgment of any kind. It’s just you, telling your story.”
Wolf started offering Writing as Healing sessions in 2009, with a little time off a few years back. Before self-isolation, they were offered two evenings a month at the Cancer Center for anyone interested and drew cancer patients, staff from across UC Davis (including five people who regularly braved rush hour traffic to get there from Davis), and people in the community. She upped it to weekly – virtually, of course – to fill the need since the COVID-19 pandemic upended jobs and life.
“People wanted more writing and more connections with people,” Wolf said. “Everyone has a lot more to process and this gives them some relief.”
Dick Maw is a retired insurance broker. He is not a UC Davis Health patient or staffer, but said the writing, especially now, does offer an inner healing.
“It really takes us to a different place,” Maw said. “For me, I just forget all that’s going on and just exist in those words on the page.”
One big reason this kind of writing can be healing is the format. Wolf offers writers a prompt – it could be a phrase, a picture, a poem or something else – and people set off writing in whatever direction that leads them. They write whatever they want, however they want, with no restrictions.
Then people are offered the chance to read their passages. There are no critiques, no questions, not even comments like, “I feel that way, too.” The group just says what they liked, what was strong, what stayed with them.
“It’s very facilitated to keep it totally safe,” Wolf said. “Everyone simply gets to tell their story – whatever their story is. You may be a cancer patient, but you don’t have to write about cancer. Or you can write about cancer every week.”
“I give Teri so much credit for making everyone feel so comfortable,” said Maw. “She’s like someone at the tiller of the sailboat. She has a very light touch so the ship is always sailing in the right direction.”
Maw calls himself a total amateur who just likes to write. Grete, who asked that only her first name be used, works in the UC Davis Transplant Center and has authored two published novels. She said she gets some of the same value from the workshops as Maw.
“It’s been a great way for me to deal with clinical depression,” Grete said. “I’m compelled to write like I’m compelled to breathe. One of my signs that things aren’t going well is when I can’t write, and this is always such a safe, easy place. There’s no critique of my thought process or technique. I don’t worry about structure or grammar. I just let loose with no stress.”
Wolf writes along with the group and gets the same benefits. “We have hard days in oncology, and we meet people on incredible journeys. That impacts the staff, too,” Wolf said. “The people we write with say this is like a sacred time for them. It’s inspiring to hear people write about their experiences, and to hear what they have to say. I’m so honored every time I hear their words.”
The Writing as Healing group meets every Wednesday virtually 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. For more information or to join, email firstname.lastname@example.org.