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Writing as a Group Endeavor

March 1, 2006
by Jeffrey D. Roth, MD
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After inviting you to join me in my explorations of group process in cyberspace in the November 2005 issue, and writing in the January/February issue about the vicissitudes of hugging/physical contact in groups, I now would like to share with you some thoughts about the process of writing. Writing is frequently misunderstood as, by definition, a solitary activity—author alone with pen in hand or in front of a keyboard. While some may write in this fashion, I have found my own writing inextricably connected to you, my readers.

Jeffrey d. roth, md
Jeffrey D. Roth, MD

Keeping you in mind while I write therefore establishes a psychological and emotional group. This kind of group informed my book on group psychotherapy and recovery from addiction, and also helps me to work in a virtual group in cyberspace where communication is limited to the written word. My experiences as editor of the Journal of Groups in Addiction and Recoveryreinforce this notion of writing as a group activity.

This past autumn I had the opportunity to attend my first meeting of a group of addiction journal editors, the International Society of Addiction Journal Editors (ISAJE). I never would have thought such a group existed until I became an editor. I was reminded of the proliferation of 12-Step groups that arose from the success of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Although certainly not a 12-Step group, and with a minority of its members in recovery themselves, ISAJE seems to function as a support group for its members, who have the means to share their experience, strength, and hope as editors with one another. Indeed, part of the meeting was taken up with new members giving a “lead” describing their journals to the other members. The challenges of finding promising work to publish and of maintaining a vital editorial board were among the many topics that members addressed.

Entering into this group brought home to me how any publication, including this one, functions as a “virtual” community in which the major task is to communicate experience. For this magazine's community to remain vital, the communication needs to be bidirectional. While those who are more practiced in the art of writing may assume a leadership role, those who are less experienced also have opportunities to practice writing, using a forum such as a letter to the editor or addressing a question to the writer of a column.

Opportunities online

I am grateful to have offered another avenue for bidirectional communication with my readers in the online consultation group that I described in the November 2005 issue. I will have met with this group at least once by the time this column appears in print, and I thank the readers who offered to participate in this group. Any of you who wish to join in subsequent meetings of this consultation group may contact me at jrothmd@juno.com for more information.

I also would like to share some progress along related lines with the project of having a 12-Step group meet in a chat room in cyberspace. This group also will have met at least once by the time this issue reaches subscribers, and I plan to publish a transcript of this meeting with an analysis of its process. This mode of carrying the message relies upon the concept of writing as a group activity, because producing a transcript involves writing as a recording of the group's actual words.

Writing's practical applications

While for the most part group therapists tend to think of group members sharing in group therapy using conversation, I suggest that we may incorporate writing in several ways to enhance our work.

One method, most frequently practiced in residential treatment centers, involves giving assignments to group members to write about experiences in practicing their addictions, to write personal inventories, or to write “amends” letters. We seldom think about such assignments as giving group members the opportunity to take the group with them into their experience of writing, because we generally focus on what happens when these writings are shared in the group. Indeed, some therapists attribute the power of such exercises to the “fact” that the writer first expresses the ideas alone.

In my experience, though, group members are acutely aware that what they are writing will most likely show up in the group. The writer, therefore, has the group already in mind, as the words flow onto the page. What distinguishes the writing from sharing extemporaneously is that during the time of writing, the writer may imagine having the group's undivided attention. Of course, the reality is that at the moment of writing, the group has the writer's undivided attention to the writer's own thoughts and feelings. When the writing is then shared in the group, intense feelings may be liberated, as the commitment of words to paper helps cut through the shame that otherwise might have inhibited spontaneous expression of the same content.

Another application of writing is the actual practice of writing during the group time itself. I have seen this method most frequently in 12-Step meetings, particularly when the group is engaged in constructing a vision of what is desired as part of the recovery process. Individual members, writing of their own visions, work silently in the context of a group, which supports the writing by providing an environment where all who wish to write have the immediate experience of being joined (even embraced) by others who are writing. Again, the focus of this activity may easily be directed more toward the sharing of these visions than to the process of constructing them together.