Health News

The write stuff: Expressive composition in Sarasota class helps improve wellbeing

The worst year of Norma Pitzer-Kelly's life arrived in 2010. That winter, her parents died within months of each other. She lost her job as an insurance adjuster in early spring.

Just before summer, she found out the reason for her sharp back pain: Advanced breast cancer had spread to her spine. She spent three months in the hospital. Within a month after she came home, her husband died of a sudden heart attack.

That year alone is more than enough to write about in an ongoing class in expressive writing at the Center for Building Hope in Sarasota. Pitzer-Kelly, who is 47 and lives in Sarasota, jumped at the chance to take the class when it was announced.

Not so much because of what life has dealt her, but because she always wanted to be a writer.

When she was younger, she dreamed of writing novels. Now she plans to write an inspirational book about loss and faith and her journey through illness. Such a book would help others, which she feels is her life's purpose.

"It will be about moving forward, keep fighting, don't quit," said Pitzer-Kelly.

The writing class is taught by Sarasota author and writing coach Ronni Miller and designed to improve wellbeing through pen and paper. Miller's method is to teach people how expressive writing can become the place where trauma is transformed and released, and also be a practice that leads to self-discovery.

Miller has been teaching her brand of writing in Sarasota and Bradenton for more than 20 years. She has taught expressive writing in schools, hospitals, community centers and in private sessions.

She moved to Sarasota in the early 1990s, bringing with her the writing program she developed in Woodstock, N.Y. She calls her program Write It Out, a trademark name for creating essays, fiction, poetry and plays that express life experience.

A background in writing isn't required to enroll in Write It Out classes. Grammar and form aren't what counts.

"I don't teach writing. I give people back to themselves," said Miller. "What I've heard from people when they are doing expressive writing is 'I haven't thought of that in years.' It came because it's there."

Miller has kept journals throughout her life. She writes plays, short stories, children's books for her grandchildren, novels, personal essays, and books on writing. Her writing has been a journey in self-discovery; all her material is siphoned from her own life and by diving deep into her personal history.

This type of writing throughout the years saved her life, said Miller. It took her through divorce and helped her find the person she really is. It took her through the women's movement in the 1960s and early '70s, when she went from suburban housewife to independent feminist. She wrote and wrote as she raised her three children, and kept writing after they left for college.

She has never stopped, constantly jotting down observations.

In her new book, "Cocoon to Butterfly: A Metamorphosis of Personal Growth Through Expressive Writing," published by her company, Robi Jode Press, Miller describes her expressive writing as being closer than a mate.

She developed Write It Out in the 1980s, completely unaware that scientists were studying the type of writing she was teaching. Researchers were delving into how writing about trauma and troubling experiences might improve health.

In 1999, her son Bill sent her an article from the Journal of the American Medical Association. The article was a research paper about the activity of writing and its effects on rheumatoid arthritis. People with the condition were divided into two groups. One wrote about traumas in their lives; the other was free to write about anything.

"One group got better. Do you want to know which one? The group that wrote about trauma," said Miller.

A short time after reading the research article, Miller discovered books by James Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas who is renowned for his research on how expressive writing improves health and work performance. His books include "Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions" (The Guilford Press, 1997) and "Writing to Heal: A Guided Journey for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval" (New Harbinger, 2004).

It was the first she had heard of him. "I started reading his work and was blown away," said Miller.

She later made a cold call to Pennebaker's office at the University of Texas and soon found herself chatting with the professor.

"He encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing. He said, 'We need more people in the field like you,' and that if I lived in Austin, he would send me clients," said Miller.

The two have kept in touch over the years by email. Pennebaker wrote an endorsement printed on the back cover of Miller's latest book, "Cocoon to Butterfly."

Although scientific research focuses on the effects of writing about trauma, Miller never pushes her students to explore their worst experiences. They are free to choose their own topics.

"I don't do that to my students. It would be too much," she said.

Miller sees her role as giving encouragement and positive feedback in an atmosphere where they are emotionally safe.

"That's the beginning of when you open up -- when you feel safe."

Her reward is the letters and emails she receives that thank her. Among her clients have been people facing severe illnesses; the loss of a child; sudden blindness; accidents; and sexual abuse.

Some have just wanted to dig into who they are and discover passions.

In the writing class at the Center of Building Hope, the women affected by cancer and enrolled in Miller's class have formed a tight bond.

They share their writing -- which often isn't about cancer or tragedy -- and are creating a spiral book of their work for the center's library.

"We're all so close because we share our thoughts. It's like we're all in this together," said Pitzer-Kelly. "The class is great for making me feel good."

To learn more about Write It Out, visit Miller's website at

Susan Hemmingway, Herald health correspondent, can be reached at