November 5, 2019
If you’re one of my North American compadres, then you might’ve noticed a weakening of the sun. While many things seem in chaos these days, the Earth still reliably tilts at the axis and continues to spin in orbit around the sun. During these dimmer months, many of us writers shine a bright light on the recesses of our minds, conjuring images and stories and committing them to paper. For if we didn’t, we might find ourselves committing ourselves to the men in white jackets, our arms bound around our torso, tucked into a discrete wagon and hauled off to that happy place.
Writers can be such a moody lot. Perhaps it’s all those hours hunched in slavish solitude over keyboard, vainly tapping out mostly nonsense and the occasional runs of competence. But you do it anyway, despite the dangers to health and hearth.
Whatever your genre, fiction or not, your writings are the inevitable expression of who you are. That’s why for many of us it often invokes a sense of therapy. We feel well afterwards. Now imagine giving that feeling an extra boost, not only to your mental state, but your physical health.
Scientists call it “expressive writing”. It’s the type of writing where you explore your deepest thoughts and emotions. Numerous studies have shown its therapeutic use in treating depression, anxiety and those pesky intrusive thoughts of traumatic events. Once unburdened, subjects have often seen other health improvements. Perhaps you’re not in such a mental place and life has been treating you swimmingly. But if you’re like many of us, your subconscious might be hiding the inevitable cuts and bruises you’ve accumulated along life’s journey.
If you think about them, you know what they are. Without knowing it, they might be holding you back, getting in the way of your full potential. It’s not your fault you’ve been nurturing these wounds. We’re often told to toughen up and get over it. We bury them, cover them up, compensate for them, knowing they continue to lurk in the shadowy crevices of our brain. They’re like tiny vampires, sapping our energy, thoughts and even our health. But like the searing light of day, expressive writing exposes them, weakens them and often renders them powerless.
A daily journal is great. But this is often a breezy rehash of the day’s events, rather than a deep dive into that submerged wreck. For this to method to work, you’ll need to hop in the diving bell, connect the oxygen and flip on the halogen lights. Or in practical terms, hop on your typewriter, roll fresh paper into the platen, set the timer for 20 minutes and write.
A specific traumatic event is great, or other malignant thoughts and emotions. Loss and grief are often perennial pests. Do this for three consecutive days, maybe four if there’s some unexplored crevices. If writing from the first person perspective is too perilous, new research suggests third person may have greater health benefits. It allows exploration from multiple views and a distance. Like any writing on the typewriter, just let it go, ignore mistakes, grammar, whatever. You’re not going to save it. In fact, I recommend a ritual burning. It’s time to let it go. If starting a fire will raise the alarms, shred the stuff, cross-cut it, take a car ride, open the window and let the confetti fly! It may be littering, but the world is a better place because you’re a better you. It’s time to celebrate.
And who knows, with all these baddies expunged, you’ll finally be able to coax that shy muse from her hiding place.
Optimizing the perceived benefits and health outcomes of writing about traumatic life events. Andersson MA, Conley CS.
Stress Health. 2013 Feb;29(1):40-9.
Stepping back to move forward: Expressive writing promotes self-distancing. Park J, Ayduk Ö, Kross E.
Emotion. 2016 Apr;16(3):349-64