WriteWell founder and former NHS nurse Christina Bunce has seen firsthand just how powerful the written word can be for mental health, and she’s on a mission to bring those benefits to a wider audience
Christina Bunce is nearing the last leg of her train journey when a man ambles down the aisle and takes the empty seat across from her. He’s sixty-something and casually dressed with sharp white hair, slightly damp from the drizzly spring rain that’s been hugging the coastline all morning. They make eye contact briefly as he settles into his seat and he smiles, saying hello in a strong northern accent.
Perhaps it’s her background in nursing, her years as a lecturer or her easy smile — but there’s something disarming about Bunce that seems to invite connection. So it’s no surprise when she finds herself being drawn up into conversation with her fellow passenger. This naturally steers towards the expected questions, such as where she’s headed or what she does for a living — and Bunce tells him the short version, which is that she runs an online creative writing school.
The man sits up in his chair, clearly piqued. It’s then that he tells her, with a tone of such earnestness that Bunce is temporarily taken aback, that writing saved his life.
It wasn’t the first time she’d heard this — or at least something similar. Originally a nurse and then a medical journalist, Christina spent the early part of the century as the Content Director of Dr Miriam Stoppard’s digital arm, and editor of a groundbreaking online editorial and community CPD resource for nurses justfornurses.co.uk. The new era of digital communications was an exciting landscape to be a part of, and Bunce was inspired to use this new technology in developing a novel way of teaching writing, making it more accessible to all. She began devising, producing and managing online and face-to-face university undergraduate and postgraduate courses in writing — creating the world’s first fully-online MA in writing at Falmouth University and eventually setting up the Professional Writing Academy with colleague Susannah Marriot in 2012.
It was then that she really began to observe the powerful healing impact of writing in her students. Both online and in-person, she saw the way students would find resolution through the writing process by getting down their personal stories in fiction or nonfiction; ‘writing it out’, as people sometimes say. ‘Often people were drawing on their own personal experiences as part of their writing,’ she explains. ‘Some were weaving more challenging experiences from their own lives into their work – whether it was fiction or non-fiction – and through the writing process, they seemed to be finding a sense of resolution. As they developed their writing skills, their confidence in other areas of life seemed to grow too.’ She’d found this in her own life as well, discovering that by offering a safe way to articulate past traumatic experiences, she was at last able to diminish their influence over her life.
But the story of the man on the train illustrated exactly how powerful the healing impact of writing could be. In his case, writing had quite literally saved him. As they spoke further, he revealed that he was in fact a prisoner, having served 18 years of a life sentence for murder. The train journey that brought him to the seat across from her was the first time he’d been out in society on his own as he worked towards a parole board hearing. He’d initially begun taking classes in fiction and in reflecting writing through the prison simply ‘to fill the time’, and he was surprised when the words started spilling out of him onto the page. Through his writing, he gradually came to see the cause of his anger and ‘ultimately what led to the catastrophic events that took away most of his adult life.
I really believe that without writing I wouldn’t have changed in the way I have, I would be the same person I was when I went into prison. And being that person means that I would probably be dead now.
For Bunce, her encounter with this man strengthened an already burning conviction about the necessity of writing as a tool to manage what feels like a universal mental health crisis — and one she feels should be available to everyone. It was this conviction that led her to form WriteWell in 2020, after seeing the enormous success of the Therapeutic and Reflective Writing course offered through the Professional Writing Academy platform: ‘As the pandemic kicked off, and the level of universal suffering grew clearer, I became interested in how we might extend the benefits of writing and the community support of our online courses to a wider group, making the practice more accessible. Gradually the vision of WriteWell Community crystallised.’
We wanted it to be a new kind of learning experience which worked for an audience regardless of age, gender, education, location, background or writing experience.
The man on the train was a case in point. He’d left school at 16 with no qualifications and would never in his wildest dreams have called himself a writer. But now writing was an essential part of his life and crucial to his ability to rehabilitate himself. He had revealed to her that if he were granted parole, he planned to keep on writing a regular reflective journal because he felt that it would be an essential part of navigating what he admitted was the very scary process of (hopefully) being reintegrated into society. For Bunce, this felt a natural progression: ‘One particular advantage of writing for wellbeing is that current mental healthcare tends to be about treating a crisis. But this is also preventative. It allows you to intervene before reaching crisis point, and you can do it inconspicuously if you wish.’ For the man on the train, writing meant exactly that — the ability to keep himself on track and avert the sort of crisis that had previously derailed his life.
Bunce admits that the process of writing isn’t always easy. After launching WriteWell, she reveals she at first felt apprehensive to jump into any of the tasks herself. ‘I think I was scared that I wouldn’t experience the benefits that I had helped so many others to achieve or that I would judge myself,’ she said. ‘So, secretly one day I took the plunge in one of the WriteWell live workshops, thinking no one need know and I would just see what happened.’ She let the words flow onto the page without thinking about them and without reading as she went. ‘The result was gobbledygook to start with, but I got into a flow and was surprised at the end when I felt a palpable sense of relief, of a lightening and as if I had expunged something.’
When I read the words back it was clear they were all referring to issues that had been bothering me and I felt much less anxious for just writing them down. Magic!
For others struggling to get started, Bunce suggests jumping in with something light-hearted and fun. One of her favourites is the In the Nets exercise: ‘Sometimes, people just need a way in,’ she explains. Finding something fun can make things feel less daunting. She also feels the idea of play is particularly important. ‘There can be a problem with conditions such as anxiety, depression and PTSD,’ she says, ‘that if your behaviour doesn’t fit a social norm, then you get referred to a specialist and, in the process, arguably your personality is medicalised. By allowing people more reflection and creative expression, you can help both them and their medical professionals better understand their individual experience and condition. It is frequently argued that from school age onwards, some people are basically given drugs to stifle the very creativity that could help them.’
Ever since her surprising encounter on that fateful train journey, her experience of hearing the man’s story has stuck with her. He pops into her mind regularly as she contemplates the future of writing for wellbeing and the role of communities like WriteWell. ‘We believe that creative practices in general, and writing in particular, will play an increasingly important role in wellbeing in the coming years,’ she says. ‘We know from our own experience and from the evidence-base out there that writing is a powerful tool,’ she continues. ‘It’s affordable, accessible and can be used in a huge variety of ways. There are so many reasons for people to add writing to their list of self-care activities.’ And if you think writing is just for writers, Christina begs you to reconsider. ‘If you’re not used to writing classes, they can seem rarefied and off-putting.’ But as this man’s story shows, writing ‘can be used by people from all walks of life – certainly not just “creative types”’. If you’re not quite sure, she recommends you sign up for a free trial and see how it goes. Like the man on the train, you might just be surprised at where things take you.
Fun Facts about Christina:
Most loved exercise? In the Nets.
Hand-written or typed? Typed. My brain is now so wired to my fingertips that it’s the way things flow best.
Poetry or Prose? Prose – unless you can count some instances of random, semi-stream of consciousness word arrangements!
Favourite thing about Writewell? That it is designed to work for anyone, regardless of background, education, location or culture, and that the benefits are backed up by real scientific enquiry.
Why not give WriteWell a try? Sign up for our 14-day free trial and write yourself a better future.