Right Here, Write Now

Babette Williams always knew she'd write her life story someday. But her life kept getting in the way. She sold real estate and bred show horses, married four times and raised three daughters. At 71, Williams finally started writing short stories and a memoir, interspersing her works with animal tales and wry vignettes about married life. She has a natural flair for clear writing. "I'm having a blast," she says.

Williams isn't alone. Many people want to write, and the funny secret is, anyone can write. We all have the ability. But people often put off setting pen to paper because it can seem just too intimidating. Writing takes time and work, and it's often hard to find hours for writing in a normal, busy schedule.

The rewards are so great, however, that you should not wait until you retire to express yourself. Writing provides a host of emotional and physical benefits that can enrich your life. And it is never too late—or too early—to begin.

It's long been known that writing can have a huge effect on one's sense of well-being. Writing has certainly helped me. When I knew my youngest son would be leaving for college, I began an empty nest journal. By recording and reflecting on my emotional state, I was better able to cope with the actual event when it occurred. People who write fiction convert their life experiences, no matter how painful, into stories that can help the writers make sense of them.

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Writing is also a good way to leave behind a more accurate record of your life. A student of mine recently told me the poignant reason she felt an urge to write about her life now, not later. When her mother died, she ransacked the house seeking some kind of message, something in writing that would offer her one last bit of connection. There was nothing.

Often writing can help provide a purpose in difficult experiences. The process allows you to reach out and share those experiences with others. For example, the parents' of Lo Detrich were devastated when Lo was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as an infant. By the time she was 15, however, her parents had learned so much about the illness that they wrote a book, The Spirit of Lo. The parents hoped that people dealing with the same types of issues could benefit from the shared experiences.

Writing about important life matters may even make it easier for you to access your memories. Kitty Klein, Ph.D., a researcher at North Carolina State University, led a study demonstrating that writing frees up working memory. She reports in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that people who were asked to write expressively about stressful events experience significant gains in their working memories when compared with subjects who were told to write about trivial events.

Researchers once believed that the main benefits of writing were purely psychological. But there is new evidence of the health value of forming coherent stories out of the chaotic elements of your personal history. In the Journal of Clinical Psychology, James Pennebaker, Ph.D., and Janet Seagal, Ph.D., of the University of Texas at Austin, report that people who write about personal details are healthier than those who don't.

In one of their studies, Pennebaker and Seagal asked groups of students to write about an assigned topic for 15 minutes on four consecutive days. Later in the year, the students were asked about their health: the students who had written about emotional topics had far fewer doctors' visits. "Having a narrative is similar to completing a job, allowing one to essentially forget the event," Pennebaker concludes. Once you take your most pressing memories and put them into story format, "the mind doesn't have to work as hard to bring meaning to them."

Other physiological benefits have been documented. Researchers led by Joshua M. Smyth, Ph.D., studied 112 patients suffering from either asthma or rheumatoid arthritis and who wrote in a journal every day. In 1999 Smyth and his colleagues reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that writing about stressful life experiences had a beneficial effect on symptoms.

Go With The Flow

One way to increase these health benefits is to learn how to write more fluidly and with less angst and frustration. When you're engaged with what you're doing, the rest of the world recedes. The poet David St. John describes this experience: "When I'm working, I don't know how much time has elapsed. It really is becoming part of some pulse, other than yourself."

This altered state is known as flow. Psychologist Mihaly M. Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., of the Peter Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University has studied the phenomenon for more than two decades and has even written several books on the subject. In one of his earliest studies, Csikszentmihalyi provided teens with beepers and diaries to record how engaged they felt in a variety of activities. Some individuals, he found, are good at learning to tap into flow regardless of what they're doing. With practice you may learn to control your ability to enter such a flame of mind.

And if you write more often, you may raise the odds of producing a masterpiece. Research by psychologist Dean Simonton, Ph.D., shows that the more works an artist produces over a lifetime, the more likely it is that great works are created.

Of course, not everyone can turn out a book every year. Many people struggle half a lifetime to finish a single short story. Why do some people have a hard time writing? Figuring out how to put your thoughts into written words may be one constraint, but you might also be concerned with other fears. What if someone gets upset with you for writing this? What if you don't know enough about this subject?

The Write Ritual

Such constraints and fears may add up to what is called writer's block. It can happen to anyone, but successful writers have learned not to panic. Here are some suggestions that may help you reframe your nonwriting periods and figure out what you need to do before continue writing:

  • Set reasonable goals. Giving yourself a daunting task, such as "I will write the story of my life and appear on Oprah," is antithetical to the writing process. It is better to trivialize the task and realize that no single writing session really matters.
  • Increase your knowledge of your subject. Search the Internet or go to the library to look for more details you can add to your story.
  • Take risks. When Suzanne Greenberg, an assistant professor at California State University at Long Beach, researched risk-taking in creative writing, she found that many people are afraid of the repercussions of saying something honest. "It's an emotional stretch to really look at life and see all its gray areas," she says. Remember: Even though writing can sometimes feel risky, you're not really risking anything in the writing. Take a chance.
  • Visualize your ideal reader. Don't picture an old boyfriend saying, "Who'd want to read that stuff?" Instead, imagine a writing buddy or a good friend who appreciates the efforts you make and never puts you down.
  • Find a ritual or routine to help you through the process. Sometimes the hardest part of writing is deciding if it's worth the effort this time. But if you simply follow a pattern, it becomes automatic. As mystery author Sue Grafton explains, "I think part of the issue is presenting yourself for the task. So I show up at my desk at 9 o'clock every morning. I think your internal process needs to be geared to the fact that you will show up for work at a certain time every day."
  • Remain focused on what's important and filter out irrelevant things. "The feeling that people have of being overwhelmed is verifiable in the lab," says Ronald Kellogg, Ph.D., of the University of Missouri at Rolla and author of The Psychology of Writing and Cognitive Psychology. To eliminate the confusion, Kellogg recommends outlining and prioritizing your ideas.
  • Organize your thoughts. If you find yourself struggling to get words down, you might try an informal organizing device such as clustering, where you splatter information about your topic on a large sheet of paper.
  • Change something about what you're doing. If you're stuck, try to write something else, perhaps in a different genre. Or find an anecdote that makes you laugh. Putting this down on paper may revive your interest in the subject.

So go ahead, you have nothing to lose and a happier, healthier life to gain.

Here are a few more techniques to get words into type:

  • Play a particular album whenever you're working on a specific project.
  • Take a break in the middle of writing dialogue. Your subconscious will continue the conversation for you.
  • Write first thing in the morning, before your internal critic wakes up and begins carping.
  • Write totally out of order, beginning with any scene or description that comes to you.
  • Print out what you wrote last time, and edit it in pencil.
  • Take a long walk before writing.
  • Pull a book off the shelf and read a little to inspire you.

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