Diane Morrow: a physician and writer in North Carolina with a long-time interest in how the act of writing can benefit healing.
I’ve been interested in writing for a long time, but it was while I was in medical school that I first began to discover a connection between writing and healing. This discovery was a personal one.
I began, during my first year of medical school, a habit of writing in the mornings. Like swimming laps during those same years, it became for me a kind of healing habit. Those were years during which I encountered several firsts—my first encounter with a dead body, my first experience with death, my first time hearing someone told that they were going to die. (“What did you think?” he said to me afterwards, “that I was like a houseplant? That I was going to live forever?”) Writing became a way to record these experiences, and navigate them. It wasn’t that I never got thrown off kilter during these years. I did. But writing was something that helped me get back on kilter. Writing was able, over and over, to help me regain a sense of balance.
After medical school I did a residency in family medicine and then practiced for a couple years at a small clinic in northwest Washington D.C. There, I learned, with some regret, that family medicine—at that time seeing patients every fifteen to twenty minutes, writing lots of prescriptions—was not the right kind of work for me. I got an opportunity to enter an MFA in writing program at George Mason University, in suburban D.C., and I leapt at it. I had good teachers in the program—Susan Shreve, Richard Bausch, Alan Cheuse, and Chris Thaiss—and many good colleagues. I learned a lot about good writing, and about what fosters good writing. I also got an opportunity to design and teach writing classes for freshmen and sophomores.
I discovered that I loved to teach writing—but I hated having to give out grades. I left the classroom, and, after a move to North Carolina, eventually began a three-year stint teaching writing at a place that I’ll call Recovery House, a community for men and women recovering from addiction. Something happened there. I saw what writing could do. I saw how powerful writing could be when people were hungry for it. And I saw how the power of writing could be amplified in a group—stories calling to stories, poems calling out to poems.
It was while at Recovery House that I began to consider that perhaps this power in writing could be harnessed in people who were ill. This was in 1997. In 1999 an article appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association which reported that people with rheumatoid arthritis and asthma who wrote for twenty minutes on four consecutive days about their deepest thoughts and feelings demonstrated better health—they actually demonstrated positive physical changes—improvements in joints and improvements in air flow—when compared to people who wrote about trivial topics. This study was good news for me—and potentially good news for lots of us. What it did for me was make me feel like maybe there was something to this writing and healing.
Around this same time, I began to consider returning to the practice of medicine but doing it differently this time around—more holistic, seeing patients for longer periods of time. I understood then, as I do now, a need for primary care medicine and acute care; I just realized that that kind of medicine was not the best fit for me. For a brief time I considered training in acupuncture. Then I had this dream. I understood in the dream that I'm not the kind of doctor who uses needles, though this is what some people seem to expect. I understood that I'm the kind of doctor who uses words. I don’t always act on my dreams, but this one seemed particularly clear. I happened, at the time, to also be reading Andrew Weil’s book, Spontaneous Healing. From Chapter 6, “The Role of the Mind in Healing,” I got a lead on a professional training program that would allow me to become more skilled at using words and images in the service of healing.
In 1999 I traveled twice to San Rafael, California to complete a professional training program in Interactive Guided Imagery, a program then offered by the Academy for Guided Imagery. Again, like Recovery House, it was one of those experiences—something happened. It changed the way I thought about things. That same year I returned to the practice of medicine, offering more time to patients—75 to 90 minute visits—and also the tools of mind/body medicine, namely stress management, interactive guided imagery, relaxation strategies, and writing.
And my patients began to teach me about healing--more than I'd ever learned in medical school--and more, in fact, than I'd learned practicing primary care. They taught me--and they continue to teach me--what healing looks like, what kinds of things tend to foster healing, what kinds of things tend to get in the way, and, sometimes, what writing might have to do with all of this.
In addition to seeing patients, I periodically teach writing workshops and am, right now, teaching an ongoing writing and healing workshop at Cancer Services of Winston-Salem.
You can (re)visit the main page of my site by clicking on the link at the top of this page. I also welcome your feedback via the email link at the top of this page and in the upper left-hand corner of my site.