Words of Wisdom

Therapists who use the "Intensive Journal" method say it promotes healing from the inside, in language a patient can understand: his or her own.

September 20, 1999|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

She's not yet middle age, the lady who finishes writing. Later she will say she is married and has two children. Now, though, she raises her head from her desk.

"I'll read," she says.

It's about the garden she's making. She has been planting flowers, enjoying it, moving along until she comes to a wide open space. It's large. She doesn't know what to do with it.

Writing about this, she realizes she's been here before, when she was 18 and graduating from high school. The whole world lay before her, a large empty canvas. She opted for the convent. "I am a person more comfortable with certainty," she says.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption in yesterday's Today section incorrectly identified the Rev. John McMurry, head of St. Mary's Spiritual Center in Baltimore, as Thomas McMurry. The Sun regrets the error.

There are 33 people in the room with her, but none speaks.

They work in their journals privately, at comfortable chairs behind polished black desks, each with a smooth black blotter. There will be four three-hour writing sessions this weekend. A wall of glass lets in the natural light and soothing glimpses of trees and sky. Fifteen-minute breaks may be taken in the adjoining living room, but this room is not for chit-chat. This is a sanctuary.

In this way, for a few days or sometimes a week, people hope to transform their lives.

For 30 years people have used the "Intensive Journal" method developed by a New York psychotherapist, Ira Progoff, to see beyond the moment, the year, maybe all of childhood and discover things about themselves they can use to move forward.

What happens here is to be experienced, not talked about, says the man who leads the Baltimore Intensive Journal workshop, John McMurry. "It's like ice cream," he says. "It's for eating, not talking about."

Fashionable now, journal writing takes a variety of forms. Workshops are growing along with sales of diaries and books that prescribe various methods of keeping journals. Sales of diaries exceed 5 million a year.

Historically journal writing has been favored by queens, literati and novelists. Psychotherapists have long recommended it to patients, as have mothers to daughters. One daughter whose mother advised her to keep a journal as a form of therapy, Alice McDermott, won the National Book Award last winter.

Last spring, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, came the first scientific evidence that writing about traumas of the soul may be an effective medical treatment for ills such as asthma. (Four months after patients wrote down their experience over a three-day period, their lung capacity improved on average 19 percent.)

The opportunity for a person to disclose or work through a stressful event without fear of social consequences is unique, explains Joshua M. Smyth, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. Typically, people can't talk out a trauma before friends and family stop wanting to hear about it and begin to avoid them.

"The sort of writing we do is unlike what we do in a `journaling' workshop or what people do on their own," he adds.

Why or how or when this works remains unexplained, though Smyth and other one-time skeptics are beginning to theorize. He is now studying writing's effect on arthritic patients. Earlier studies -- ones he tried to disprove -- found that college students who wrote about their fears and feelings of isolation visited the campus health clinic less often than those who wrote about inconsequential things.

And physical therapists are urging their patients to write about accidents or illnesses that transformed them, sometimes talking directly to their bodies, because the research shows they heal faster.

It's not simply getting out thoughts that is important -- it is making sense of them.

The method taught in Baltimore and a hundred other locations this summer can be called the source of the movement, and it provides a way into the working of the unconscious, the mind and, ultimately, how tapping it moves the body.

Anonymous approach

Whatever it is, people approach it with apprehension and in anonymity. The only thing quieter than a seminary in August is a seminary in August having a writing workshop. There are no introductions and no name tags at the check-in counter at St. Mary's Seminary and University where participants are issued a binder with 20 colored files and a stack of loose-leaf paper.

In this binder they will learn how to reach into the past, to collect materials that reflect one's life in all its aspects, to see patterns, and take stock.

Now, one should not swap tales from a journal. Nor should he or she use it as a weapon -- hand it to a spouse and say, "See, here's what I wrote about you" -- or make a decision based on a single discovery. It is a tool of discernment.

"You are trying to find out where you are in the course of your life, your position. Then, [you are] getting an overview of your whole life, a feel for its movement and whole experience. Then, dealing with relationships among people and events and projects," McMurry says.

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