“We make sense of our lives through story.”

Students and staff discuss the fears and benefits of personal writing


Vick Lukaszuk, Staff Writer

It’s a brutal January evening. The snow, in its relentless fervor, pushes me into a local Culver’s. As I wait for my order, I take a booth and open my laptop to a document that is mostly blank. The only text is a prompt that reads:

“Is there a memory that caused you to learn something influential or significant?”  

My mind drifts to a particular woman, as it always seems to. I couldn’t tell you why. My fingers hover over the keyboard, and I hope they will answer that question for me. They press the first keys cautiously, moving in tandem with my mind to make sense of her impression on me. The same questions that once ghosted my mind in her presence make themselves explicit on the page:

“What did her love mean to me? Did it matter whether I felt that I deserved it or not? Why did I struggle so much to take something that was so freely given?”

I pause in search of an answer. 

What I find instead are a pinched throat and tears brimming my eyes.

What you just read was an excerpt from a personal writing assignment I completed. 

Many might shy away from these sorts of projects. Perhaps these assignments risk reopening wounds that have just started to heal, or maybe students don’t think they have any wounds worth examining. Or, simplest of all, students just don’t think they’re good writers. 

I was much the same–if it weren’t for the fact that I needed to complete this essay for a grade, I’m not sure I would have ever written it. 

But do I regret it? God, no!

Personal writing–that which centers around events in the author’s life–has an incalculable power, at least according to many ECC instructors. 

“When students have the power to tell their own stories—to use their voices and know their voices matter—they are more likely to be successful,” said Johanne Cummings, a professor of English at Elgin Community College. 

Cummings is familiar with the benefits of personal writing. She researched the topic for a sabbatical project. A number of factors–including this article–motivated her to step out of her comfort zone and explore the potential for personal writing in college curriculums. 

It wasn’t easy, however. 

One element of her research involved stepping into the shoes of her students and enrolling in a creative nonfiction course. 

“I had the chance to remember how unnerving it was to share my writing with others—and to be graded,” Cummings said. “Becoming a student again helped me to be sensitive to my students’ anxieties and fears surrounding writing.” 

Fear of incompetence

ECC second-year student Carter Hyde was caution about personal writing.  

“[I was] nervous because I’m usually not very good at writing about myself,” Hyde said. 

Many students don’t think of themselves as writers, according to English professor Joshua Thusat, who has taught English for twenty years.

“Over the course of these two decades, I noticed that many college freshman and sophomore writers do not consider themselves capable of writing,” Thusat said.  

Such insecurities can be compounded if one’s writing will be evaluated by teachers with professional writing experience, as is the case in creative writing courses. 

Fears of personal writing

Second-year student Austin Giesey was hesitant to open up in his project, not just to himself, but to fellow students and faculty. 

“I was personally nervous, knowing that a personal narrative involves some level of vulnerability,” Giesey said. “With vulnerability, there’s always a level of risk as well, and I was trying to prepare myself for that.” 

Second-year ECC student Jonathan Marhofke was nervous going into his first creative writing project, fearing it would turn out “boring and not very insightful.” 

“I don’t like talking about myself and I really don’t think I’m that interesting,” Marhofke said. 

Many factors can contribute to these fears–there is, for one, the comparison culture that has cropped up with the boom of social media. When everyone’s feeds are filled with people their age and younger who broadcast more success than them, it’s easy to see how they can develop an inferiority complex. 

Writing can reopen old wounds, according to first-year student Steph Lesiuk.

“I was scared,” Lesiuk said. “I was writing [about] an extremely personal memory and I’m still not okay after what happened.” 

Writing about personal moments, especially trauma incidents, might be emotionally exhausting, uncomfortable or triggering.

So, what can be done about those fears? Rachael Stewart, professor of Creative Writing at ECC, has some words of advice for confronting that nagging voice:

“Tell that voice in your head to f—off,” Stewart said.  

Every student interviewed for this story reported some level of apprehension prior to and during the personal writing project. Yet, when they were asked what they gained from the project, everybody had something to say.

Personal writing benefits

In personal writing, there is a tendency for writers to gravitate toward the more troubling moments of their lives. After all, the pain that is attached to these memories often prevents people from confronting their feelings otherwise. Writing, it seems, makes such emotional baggage easier to process and even resolve–how is that?

“We make sense of our lives through story,” Cummings said. 

The framing of a story allows students to analyze memories not as a mere series of events, but something deeper–something with a narrative, a theme, a purpose. And, when writers come to find that purpose through writing, they can achieve closure–a heightened understanding of why the events in their lives unfolded the way they did, and the consequences they’ll have to grapple with as a result.

At least, that’s what writing did for second-year student Abigail Prevost. 

“In a way I did gain closure,” Prevost said. “[This situation] was something I never wrote about in this way [personal narrative] and I was able to face a lot of feelings I had.”

For some, the insights of personal writing extend beyond the events on the page. 

By analyzing significant events, students may observe patterns in their lives and, in the process, learn more about themselves. Such was the case with first-year ECC student Charlie Djordjevic.

 “I found myself surprised at some of the words and insight I wrote,” Djordjevic said. “I learned a lot about why I function and act the way I do.” 

These understandings track with the observations of Thusat. 

“[M]any writers will tell you one of the biggest benefits to personal writing of all,” Thusat said, “[is that] somewhere between the physical act of writing and my mind thinking, there I am. I’ve discovered myself.”

Thusat incorporated personal writing exercises into his curriculum, in part, to challenge what he observed as a “[loss of] spaces for sustained thinking.”

“I realized that I was pressing young adults to have opinions on gun rights and abortion and climate change,” Thusat said. “But they’d barely been given the opportunity to reflect on their own lives and why they think the things that they do.” 

And why is that? The culprit–according to Thusat–is technology.

“We are transferring the way we scan for information on our phones to our reading, and I have to guess (by extension) our writing,” Thusat said. 

In an age where people aren’t encouraged to think for themselves, it would seem that the need for self-reflection is more important than ever. 

Personal writing reframes the narrative

The article which inspired Professor Cumming’s sabbatical project emphasizes writing’s ability to “nudge people from a self-defeating way of thinking into a more optimistic cycle.” 

Perhaps most illustrative of this principle is a study done by the University of South Florida–in it, half the participants were asked to reframe a relationship conflict they endured from the perspective of a neutral third party. When participants were surveyed just two weeks later, those who participated in this writing exercise reported less conflict and aggression in their relationship than those who did not.  

So where does that leave personal writing–that is, writing from the perspective of the author?

“By writing about our [past] experiences, we are ‘re-seeing’ them with fresh eyes,” Cummings said. 

Such reflection can allow writers to see the bright side of an otherwise dark experience.

First-year student Sarah Winterroth wrote about her grandfather’s death and the grief that followed. However, in the process, she discovered that his influence on her never died. 

“I learned that the ones we lose never really leave us,” Winterroth said.

 This ability–to reframe the events in one’s life as lessons learned–is invaluable, according to Cummings.

“When we see our experiences as growth opportunities,” Cummings said. “We are more likely to embrace future opportunities for growth.” 

Closure, insight and reframing are three of the cited benefits to embrace personal writing, which is why several ECC instructors assign persona writing projects. 

“For anyone reading this who wants to know who benefits from personal writing,” Thusat said. “The answer is simple. You do.”