Reflection on Expressive Writing for Covid-19

Screenshot of a Zoom Meeting for the Expressive writing course. John Evans is in the upper right hand corner, and the lab manager, Cuquis Robledo, is on the top row, second column.
Screenshot of some of the participants from the Expressive Writing for Covid19 Workshop. John Evans on the top right, and the Lab Manager, Cuquis Robledo, is second from the left on top.

This series is supported by Duke Institute for Brain Sciences

Expressive writing is a beautiful methodology for “writing down the bones”, especially these days.

Dee Stribling, participant

By Cuquis Robledo

As classes transitioned online back in March, a majority of Duke’s campus events had to either be postponed, cancelled, or moved to an online space. For my lab, the Duke Health Humanities Lab (HHL), that meant that the rest of our workshops on Narrative Medicine with Dr. Sneha Mantri and the weekly Chronic Health Conditions Storytelling Group sessions hosted and led by three medical students had to be put on the back burner for the time being since the hosts were working in the hospital or the medical school system had to focus their efforts on patient care and finishing up the medical school year safely.

One of the most popular workshops that the Duke HHL has hosted over the last couple of years has been a six-week Expressive Writing Workshop for Resilience, led by Expressive Writing Coach at Duke Integrative Medicine, John Evans. The HHL has opened this workshop up to Duke faculty, students, staff and the Durham community as an opportunity for participants to write about traumatic life events in the hopes to decrease stress, decrease rumination and increase resilience.

I remember one afternoon when I, the HHL Lab Manager, referred one of our members to John Evans who was looking for more potential writing offerings and resources at Duke during this time, John gave me a call and said, “I have an idea. What do you think about the lab offering a six-week Expressive Writing workshop for Covid19?”

Immediately I said, “Yes, we need this. Let’s do it.” It was the perfect opportunity to offer this workshop, especially since the concept of these Expressive Writing workshops is to bring people together to discover and reflect during difficult moments. It just seemed with this uncertainty that many people may be feeling lost and alone, and this workshop would bring people together during this time.

John then asked if we can pull it off as soon as possible, and I responded, “We can pull it off by next week.”

Within a week, the six-week workshop known as Expressive Writing for Resilience Related to Covid19 was created to be hosted every Friday afternoon from 12:30 – 2 PM EDT via Zoom. I developed a registration link that would allow me to keep count on an estimate of how many participants we were expected to have each week. The registration link also allowed me to develop a roster of participants in order to ensure that only the people on the roster were being admitted into the workshop for the protection of their privacy.

John and I were pleasantly surprised by how many participants showed up every week, an average being between 25-35 participants each week. We had participants from the Duke and Durham community, but also ended up having a national and global reach as well. Locations ranged from as close as South Carolina, to farther places such as Los Angeles, Nova Scotia, the UK, South Africa, and Turkey.

The six different forms of writing that we all engaged in included: expressive writing, transactional writing, poetic writing, affirmation writing, legacy writing and mindfulness writing. For most, expressive writing is the hardest writing prompt to write because it requires you to write about your deepest thoughts, feelings and emotional traumas. However, throughout the six weeks, John and I noticed that we had quite a bit of retention of participants and even new ones joining in as the workshop continued.

Towards the end of the six-week workshop, I began receiving emails from the participants saying how much they appreciated the sessions and asking if John would be hosting more of these workshops in the future. Their reasons for participating in the workshop varied. Some shared that they had children who were on the frontlines, others were fighting the virus itself, and others discussed how their work was affected by the virus. It goes to show that this workshop did bring people from around the globe together. At the end, everyone left the workshop smiling and even a couple of participants shared phone numbers at the end of the six weeks to stay in touch.

I remembered on his very last session John pulled up a calendar for the month of May that had one action item or task for each day of the month. Each task is meant bring happiness, as well as to look after ourselves and each other in this uncertain time. Some of the items include sending photos to friends, letting someone know you love them, or reconnecting with nature. He encouraged all of the participants to find happiness in the little things in life and do things that are meaningful for yourself.

He then closed with this mantra…

“May you be happy. May you be well. May you be at peace. Namaste.”

John Evans


“I was immediately attracted to the Writing Seminar advertised and seized upon it as soon as the notice arrived in my inbox. There are incredibly few Humanities based responses to COVID-19 and the Seminar was positioned as far more than a Webinar of Humanities information sharing, but rather an invitation to deepen one’s understanding of Self during this crisis. I found the writing exercises to be gentle, natural and they allowed an organic unfolding of thought and Self…The facilitator was patient and incredibly non hurried and non-intrusive and allowed the participants’ voices to emerge and be shared in their own time.

My internet connection may have been spotty and weak and times, but I think we all experienced a very real connection to Self and others. Thank you.”

Maheshvari Naidu,
Professor & Academic Leader Research 
School of Social Sciences 
University of KwaZulu-Natal
South Africa 

“When we meet to write and share, both aspects are valuable to me, as others describe things I’m not feeling or experiencing, so I learn and grow. I feel a shift occurring within for a day or two after the class. I think it signifies a coming to terms, acceptance of what I became aware of in the class, both within me and around me. I look forward to this class. Much gratitude for offering it to the public.”

Kimberley Wulfert, PhD, Lic. Psychologist
Holistic Mindfulness-based Psychotherapy
Meditation Teacher, & Coach for Women over 40

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