Years ago I pursued a doctorate in the interdisciplinary fields of art, psychology, and theology. At the time, I served as poetry editor for a flailing literary journal with the same three-part focus, an enterprise that eventually folded, as did many publications of that era.
I felt intuitively that our journal was a well-timed cultural contribution, but I struggled for words to explain just why. My research was meant to address this. I knew of several other faith-based literary publications, some that blessedly survived the years, but still none that pursued the unique blend of art, psychology, and theology. I longed to see these three disciplines work in harmony, and their benefit to be transferred into people’s daily lives—but my research task was daunting.
I was also a new therapist in private practice, searching for ways I could integrate approaches that engaged my clients’ creativity. I was especially interested in using poetry. In my graduate school counseling studies, I’d been influenced by visionary professors who’d taught me the importance of story, poetry, and narrative theology in the therapeutic process—and I wanted to both honor and further their forward thinking.
Midway through my doctoral studies, I encountered a research surprise: I stumbled upon the largely unknown field of bibliotherapy—the use of literature to promote mental health and cultural understanding. Bibliotherapy’s literature is defined broadly as virtually anything containing words: poetry, fiction, memoir, essay, film, even song lyrics.
Suddenly, I glimpsed a promising integration of art and psychology, two of my three fields of study.
The creator of one of the best known bibliotherapy models (also known as poetry therapy or expressive writing therapy) is Arleen McCarty Hynes, whom many years ago was a librarian for St. Elizabeths (no apostrophe), a psychiatric hospital in Washington, DC. St. Elizabeths sheltered people facing severe psychological challenges, and is best known as the one-time homes of both Ezra Pound and John Hinckley Jr.
Arleen was married to Emerson Hynes, a legislative assistant to Senator Eugene McCarthy. The Hynes’s bustling home, filled with ten children, was a haven for both progressive social thinkers and Catholic Worker activists such as Dorothy Day. Later, after Emerson’s death, Arleen became a Benedictine nun.
During her time at St. Elizabeths, Arleen noticed how helpful her literary recommendations were to patients. She witnessed clear psychological transformations, as novels and poems, coupled with gently guided conversation about the readings, offered these often-despairing people heart-salve and sanity.
Arleen saw quality, carefully chosen literature as “tools for the liberation of the human spirit”—one aspect of her own spiritual approach—and soon she was working alongside a psychiatrist who helped her develop her theory as a therapeutic model.
Along with one of her daughters, Dr. Mary Hynes-Berry, a professor at the Erikson Institute for Early Childhood Development, Arleen eventually wrote an academic textbook, Biblio/Poetry Therapy—The Interactive Process: A Handbook (the most recent editions published by North Star Press).
The textbook disseminated Arleen’s work to a larger audience of therapists, and what is now known as the Hynes and Hynes-Berry Biblio/Poetry Therapy Model was born.
The Hynes and Hynes-Berry four-stage model is a flexible, multi-layered but straightforward approach to leading meaningful literature discussions—a theory that also incorporates the same complex, thoughtful therapeutic goals found in many other clinical counseling models. Eventually, practitioners added creative writing prompts to the bibliotherapeutic process, and soon the model spread beyond working clinicians to writers, spiritual directors, and educators.
Arleen’s theory proved so compelling to me that, instead of finishing my doctorate, I pursued poetry therapy training instead. After reading about the model, I was eager to see bibliotherapy in action, in real time, outside academia’s ivory tower. I wanted to witness how poetry could engage at-risk youth, or reach those in homeless shelters or prisons.
But I knew it wouldn’t be possible in many cases to offer those poems myself—that the best and most wide-reaching approach would be to educate and facilitate those who could. I also realized that bibliotherapy might be one of the best ways to introduce poetry to a wider audience.
That belief was confirmed the first few times I participated in a women’s writing group using the Hynes and Hynes-Berry model. I was in awe. It was organic, flowing, alive—not at all what I expected from an academic counseling theory in action. It was a theory that translated into everyday life.
Women once intimidated by poetry read aloud Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day” or “The Journey,” then called out various images, lines, rhythms they enjoyed. They named poetry lines that spoke to current situations in their lives, or that prompted a memory from childhood. At the session’s end, they left with fresh writing on the page—and fresh Mary Oliver poems in their pockets, ones shared later with friends and families.
In time, as I facilitated my own bibliotherapy groups, taught masters level students, and trained and supervised therapists, I recognized that the model was not merely psychologically sound; it was a solid literary approach, too. The Hynes and Hynes-Berry literature selection criteria closely parallels those used in good literary education curriculums.
Progressive poets using Arleen’s bibliotherapy model selected and used high-quality, contemporary poems by writers such as Naomi Shihab Nye, Li-Young Lee, Joy Harjo, Tony Hoagland, Jane Hirshfield, Adam Zagajewski, and others. These poems circulated among other working bibliotherapists, then spread widely outside our small circles.
Stories came back from facilitators using the Hynes and Hynes-Berry model. I learned of women in battered women’s shelters reading aloud Lucille Clifton, laughing, shaking their hips side to side from the sheer exuberant joy of “homage to my hips.”
And then there were street kids, wizened, weary, crumpled Jimmy Santiago Baca poems now tucked in frayed backpacks—writing, writing, writing as a result of reading a poet that got it. Baca’s poems transforming rough and beautiful barrios. Poetry making a cultural difference. A psychological difference.
Shortly thereafter, I unearthed the faith contribution of the model, the third dimension of my original doctoral studies. I remember the day I encountered an inherent spiritual perspective in the model, one I found so exciting I felt compelled to re-read the Hynes and Hynes-Berry textbook late one night in bed.
I’d recently discovered that Arleen had developed the model based on her own daily practice of lectio divina: divine reading. She believed that the model’s strength came from responding to a literary catalyst outside the self—in this case, the written word, an approach echoed in religious traditions through rabbis’ participation in Midrash or the Christian study of scripture. Her theory embraced an implicit transcendence.
I’d also observed that good conversation about the literature was more transformative than simply reading alone—a principle embedded in the Hynes and Hynes-Berry method. Through my classroom teaching, I’d witnessed people of different cultures, ethnicities, and religious or political beliefs finding solidarity from a well-chosen piece of literature. The poetry conversations that emerged were often about our shared human experience, about the fragile threads that connect us. Arleen’s theory was also a surprising peacemaking approach.
As I re-read the textbook late that evening, every prism of newly-revealed spiritual light proved a source of wonder for me. How can academic theory be such a thing of beauty? I marveled. But I already knew: because it introduced battered women to Clifton’s sassy hips, inspired at-risk youth living in Baca’s beautiful barrios.
Eventually, in the same way this progressive model gradually unfolded to me, I let the model unfold me into new ways of thinking. Early on in my own work as a licensed professional counselor, I’d read textbooks and taken continuing education courses on treating trauma. One of the hallmarks of many trauma theories was the integration of the sensory in treatment.
In fact, art therapists were among the first to employ the use of the sensory, the tactile—touch, smell, taste—in trauma recovery approaches. Sensory interventions help ground the traumatized client in the here and now, rather than the past. Both art and play therapists describe the positive psychological results from creatively working in tandem both the left and right sides of brain.
In Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma & Emotional Upheaval (New Harbinger Publications, 2004), University of Texas psychologist Dr. James W. Pennebaker describes the results of his groundbreaking research project, where he asked students to write for four days, 15-20 minutes a day, about a traumatic incident in their lives.
The results were astounding: not only were there obvious emotional benefits to the students, but those who did so made 43 percent fewer doctor visits for illness than the control group, who only wrote about superficial topics (Pennebaker and Beall 1986).
But the parameters of progress were clear: creating a story—a cohesive narrative with a beginning, middle, and end—is what proved most healing. Abstractions devoid of specific, vivid, emotionally compelling details didn’t help.
Neither did continuous “ranting,” besides the initial first self-expression on the page. What seemed helpful to the students were detailed accounts, linking feelings with events.
Pennebaker’s research helped me better understand why some memoir or confessional poetry writers stayed stuck only on their stories of injustice or trauma or abuse, while others pushed through to both more emotional and literary clarity.
In addition, the crafting of a cohesive story or poem requires both creativity and structuring. In other words, such crafting works both sides of the brain—offering a creative antidote for black-and-white, compartmentalized thinking. This concept is echoed in studies from both play and art therapies.
These are just a few ways that the elements of good trauma therapy run parallel to quality literary writing: very concrete, sensory, specific details, as well as a cohesive narrative, are what prove healing in therapy—in the same way such details and cohesion prove memorable to the literary reader.
I soon realized that a movement from self-expression into craft—into laboring to revise and polish abstracts into sensory specifics—is what eventually results in the most personal insight and transformation. This is exactly what so many writers and poets have known intuitively for years: that such literary crafting can be actually be life-changing.
In her book Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling our Stories Transforms Our Lives (Beacon Press, 1999), author and professor Louise DeSalvo explores the writing lives of literary writers such as Virginia Woolf, Henry Miller, and Isabelle Allende. She concludes that, for these creative writers and many others, the process of writing is a way of healing, of transforming despair into understanding (39).
Along with Pennebaker’s thinking, DeSalvo’s insights as a working writer and non-therapist clarified for me the possibility of theories such as the Hynes and Hynes-Berry model extending far outside the traditional counseling room: creative writing, in and of itself, could be personally transformative.
I realized I’d come full circle in my original pursuit of integrating art and psychology, with the addition of faith a means of peacemaking, but this time, they were one and the same. So why not focus completely on nourishing and encouraging literary writers, I thought, if writing well—using concrete, sensory, specific details—is inherently healing?
Eventually, I closed my private counseling practice and turned wholeheartedly to further crafting my own poems, as well as facilitating workshops for poets and writers. At Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, a nonprofit literary center, I design and teach intro to creative writing classes.
These workshops offer beginning or blocked writers a place to study craft, explore the sensory, experiment with new genres, respond to good literature—and then perhaps move on to take other Lighthouse workshops and become part of our burgeoning writing community. By receiving and offering thoughtful critique, communally unpacking a rich piece of literature, many of us have experienced a fresh sense of creative wholeness and solidarity.
And, while I seek to teach solid literary workshops for my students, I’m aware that the very act of writing, of working hard on craft, also has tangible psychological and physical benefits—not as the goal, but as the surprising byproduct.
Not long ago, several Lighthouse writers created Hard Times—a creative writing workshop facilitated each Tuesday at the Denver Public Library for those experiencing homelessness. Recently, I visited the workshop, and was both amazed and humbled at these writers’ use of sensory details, their careful crafting of words into powerful stories and poems.
They began their workshop reading a piece of literature—paragraphs written by singer-songwriter Patti Smith, a writer they’d requested to read together. Their discussion was lively and interesting. Then, they sat down to write, scribbling furiously in their Lighthouse notebooks. They read aloud their work, trading comments about what they liked or noticed, or sentences they found intriguing.
Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen, says the writer of Hebrews. That day, I couldn’t help but remember the visionary Arleen Hynes, the wise and compassionate librarian at St. Elizabeths.
Those brilliant and astute writers, surrounded by floors and floors of books, is a sight she’d have loved.
It was the library of her dreams.
Joy Roulier Sawyer revised and updated the third edition of Biblio/Poetry Therapy—The Interactive Process: A Handbook by Arleen McCarty Hynes and Mary Hynes-Berry (North Star Press, 2012). In addition to several nonfiction books, she is the author of a poetry collection, Tongues of Men and Angels (White Violet Press, 2016), and is a recent Pushcart Prize nominee.