Do you ever have the urge to write, just write, about something, anything? You begin typing or putting pen to paper, and for some reason, it feels good so you keep going. But then you feel a little silly or maybe even self-indulgent. A voice in your head says, ‘I can’t write’ or ‘I’m not a writer’. And you stop.
Don’t stop! No matter what’s driving you, the healing and relaxing powers of writing are abundant.
American psychologists James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth have been researching the therapeutic benefits of expressive writing since the mid-1980s. Early studies by Pennebaker involved participants writing at least three to five times a day over several consecutive days for 15-20 minutes, about traumatic or emotional experiences. While many found this difficult at first, their persistence led to long-term improvements in physical and mental health, such as lower blood pressure, improved lung function, less stress and depression, and better moods.
In their book Opening Up by Writing It Down (2016, Guilford Press) Pennebaker and Smyth go a step further and demonstrate how expressive writing can improve relationships and lead to higher academic grades. At the same time they acknowledge that “there isn’t any one way to write” and “what works for some people may not work for you”.
Breast cancer survivor, Jenny England, 65, couldn’t agree more. During the long and painful recovery following her operation, she felt compelled to write a story, which was eventually published in a breast cancer anthology.
“My story was a bit different to the others. It didn’t focus on my personal journey with breast cancer. It centered on my husband and the loving, caring way he looked after me. I felt so grateful for that.”
When Jenny looks back on that time, she’s convinced writing her short story helped in the healing process. “It felt good to have created something beautiful out of something so unbeautiful.”
Australian psychologist and author Jane Turner Goldsmith, who studied and analysed the works of Pennebaker, Smyth, and others in her 2015 InPsych article, Story-making and storytelling: an exploration of the psychotherapeutic benefits, supports the theory that people experience a catharsis through writing. But she believes it’s not as simple as that.
“If they just vent or spend a lot of time on the bad things and write these in a journal, it may not necessarily be beneficial. They haven’t worked through the circumstances leading up to the event, how they thought, felt or dealt with the event.”
Jane believes providing people with a structure can give them much more safety. “To have a therapeutic benefit, it’s actually better for writing to have a beginning, a middle and an end, regardless of whether the piece is fictional or non-fictional. Finding coherence and a resolution when you’re writing is also vital. What the research is saying is, if you don’t put things into order, you can be left with a feeling of loose ends.”
It seems people do crave some sort of organised approach to their writing. Valerie Khoo, CEO and founder of the Australian Writer’s Centre (AWC), says one of the reasons she started the AWC back in 2005 was that increasingly, people needed guidance in their writing. Coincidentally it was during the time when blogging was also coming into its own.
“Being a professional journalist, people would often ask for my opinion on their written pieces. I realised it would be useful to provide courses which could help them become more confident expressing their ideas and writing.”
Originating in Sydney with only two courses, the AWC is now in its 12th year, has added campuses in Melbourne and Perth, and now offers 50 courses, including online classes available to students worldwide.
“We’ve found memoir-writing incredibly beneficial for people. It’s often the first time someone looks back on their life – the events and their impact. Sometimes it can be confronting or even funny, but many people say writing their memoir was an essential part of the healing process, especially where they’ve experienced difficulties and challenges.”
“Creative writing can also be very therapeutic,” adds Valerie. “I know people who spend their entire work lunch-hour writing made-up stories just because they love the feeling of getting those words down. It’s their version of going to yoga or the gym.”
But what if you want to write and you either the lack the confidence or you genuinely don’t know where to start? Jane Turner Goldsmith says so-called ‘writers block’ can be caused by perfectionism and not allowing yourself the freedom to go anywhere in that first or even subsequent drafts.
“People need to distinguish between ‘creative’ and ‘editing’ processes when they write. If you want to write creatively, or anything really, you first have to let yourself and your writing go, ignoring the censorial voice that says: ‘That’s not good enough! Is this the right word? Check that spelling! Watch those apostrophes! It’s terrible!’ Once you have something written down, then you can start finessing. Treat the two processes as completely separate activities or you can get hung up over your first sentence.”
Jane says another tip is to start anywhere, not necessarily at the beginning.
“I often encourage people to dig out a photograph or bring along a special object and start by describing it. Very quickly the emotional significance of the photo or object comes to the fore. Before you know it, you’ll have a nice piece of reflection about the things, places, or people who mean something to you.”
There’s now a plethora of blogs and literature on the practice of mindful writing where writing is done in a reflective, almost meditative state with full focus and awareness, and without distractions. Financial advice remediator, Dominique Clapoudis, 33, draws on mindful writing to relax, especially after a long day in the office.
“For me, mindfulness is being able to focus on one thing. When I’m at my computer, writing and reflecting on my ideas, people and events, practicing mindfulness helps to really push me into the moment. It’s a special time, almost like a form of meditation, allowing me to switch off from the corporate world, slow down and really think about what I want to say in my writing.”
With no formal writing training, Clapoudis ventured into the written word with her private travel blog while living in Greece in 2014. “Writing was a great way to keep a journal for my family in Australia so they could get an insight into my life over there. For me, it was a pure form of unfettered self-expression which brought a lot of personal satisfaction.” It also planted the seed for the launch of her public blog this year, The Tenth Muse. “It’s a platform where I can share ideas about the inspiring, beautiful things around us, and maybe even receive some thoughts back.”
In her latest book, Big Magic – Creative Living Without Fear (2015, Riverhead Books), Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat Pray Love (2007, Riverhead Books) writes, “Sometimes when I’m in the midst of writing, I feel like I’m suddenly walking on one of those moving sidewalks you find in a big airport terminal; I still have a long slog to my gate, and my baggage is still heavy, but I can feel myself being gently propelled by some exterior force … You may know this feeling. It’s the feeling you get when you’ve made something wonderful, or done something wonderful, and when you look back it later, all you can say is ‘I don’t know where that came from’.”
Now that’s what you call the magic of writing.