Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the most well-known master of the therapeutic journaling technique known as the “unsent letter.” Lincoln had hundreds of “hot letters,” as he called them, that were “never sent, never signed” in his desk drawer. When Lincoln felt an overcoming rush of anger directed at a person, he penned a pointed letter expressing his feelings. His emotions inevitably would cool down, and the experience would result in catharsis.
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczner Rebbe, was known to advise others to practice the same technique: write an angry unsent letter, leave it for a few days, and review it once the anger has subsided.
The unsent letter is one of a number of methods utilized in the field of therapeutic writing, and one among others incorporated in Write Your Way Home: A Torah Guide to Therapeutic Writing by Yocheved Rottenberg. Write Your Way Home is less of a book and more of an interactive writing handbook filled with prompts and exercises designed to enable the reader and writer to heal, grow and change. The work requires a separate notebook to complete the writing exercises (“Watch your notebook become your best friend!”) and is designed to help integrate therapeutic writing into the reader’s daily life.
In the introduction, Rottenberg differentiates therapeutic writing from journaling. Therapeutic writing is structured and timed, with the focused purpose of personal understanding and growth. Just as talking about trauma, for example, has therapeutic effects, writing about it has proven to have a healing effect as well, and she details the research in her introduction.
The exercises provided in the book are designed for therapeutic purposes. Rottenberg emphasizes that one does not need to be a writer to gain from the book. One only needs to follow the directions and through the writing experiences, one will achieve growth in self-awareness and self-development. According to the author, “Writing is a simple and superb way to get to know ourselves better. It helps us uncover the tremendous wisdom that we each have within ourselves. It allows us to access our clarity and understanding, heal our past hurts, and discover our strength to succeed in the future.” (Rottenberg does point out that therapeutic writing should not and cannot replace trauma therapy.)
Just as talking about trauma, for example, has therapeutic effects, writing about it has proven to have a healing effect as well.
Write Your Way Home presents over sixty topics in alphabetical order, including concepts such as acceptance, empathy, anger, negativity, vulnerability and optimism. Perusing through the range of topics laid out in the seven-page-long table of contents is in itself a fascinating read, particularly for those readers interested in self-help and middot development. Throughout the book, each topic is first explained according to Torah insights by Chaya Hinda Allen, a well-known Torah teacher, and includes supportive quotes from Jewish sources with five-minute writing prompts.
The crux of the work occurs next with two longer writing exercises, each ranging from fifteen to sixty minutes. Rottenberg provides tips in the introduction for how to gain maximum benefit from the exercises. She advises writers not to overthink or proofread. (“Whatever comes out of your pen is perfect.”) Use a timer and keep writing until the timer rings. Follow all instructions step by step and in order. Date each entry as a record of your growth, and write by hand for the greatest effect.
The step-by-step writing instructions for each topic reflect how Rottenberg smoothly interweaves psychology and Torah hashkafah. This interplay is both impressive and satisfying, most notably when one personally experiences the positive impact of expressive writing via the exercises. The effect feels wholesome, real, balanced and Torah-true.
The collection of meticulously cited Torah quotes throughout the book, ranging from medieval Jewish philosophers to Chassidic masters to ba’alei mussar, source the concept of therapeutic writing in the grounding roots of our tradition. One special selection is from Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe in Alei Shur. It could serve as a sort of haskamah (approbation) for Rottenberg’s work:
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczner Rebbe, was known to advise others to practice the same technique: write an angry unsent letter, leave it for a few days, and review it once the anger had subsided.
It is crucial that one who is building his spiritual world and is concerned that his challenges not take over his life, keep a journal. Many previous gedolim toiled over their journal entries. Writing in a notebook must be geared to practical growth. We should not only write about our past and our pains. If someone needs emotional encouragement, there is no greater encouragement than what he writes to himself. Anything important to his internal development should be written down. . . . This notebook should be with him at all times. It should not be random pages, but rather a specific small notebook that he can carry with him at all times (Alei Shur, vol. 1., p. 160).
The significance of Write Your Way Home’s publication date as 2020 is not lost on the reader. The book—and the subsequent filled notebook of personal work—is a gift of comfort, calm and clarity during these tumultuous times. The exercises provide a unique opportunity to view one’s past, present and future through the lenses of self-awareness and growth. It’s a journey home—to our best selves.
Alexandra Fleksher is an educator, an op-ed columnist for Mishpacha magazine, and co-host of the podcast Normal Frum Women.