People have long claimed that expressive writing--essays, memoirs, stories--has helped them feel better. Studies have demonstrated improvements in overall well-being for those who write out their sorrows and difficult experiences.
Underlying mechanisms are hard to pinpoint, though. It’s a challenge for empirical research to answer questions like, “Why?” or “Exactly how?” Mostly researchers can count up how often something happens, and then ask for subjective responses to questions that relate to consciousness.
From my own research among famous, successful writers, and from my own and others’ experiences of writing non-professionally (i.e., not necessarily for publication), I suggest a lot of the benefits come from writing in flow.
WHY FLOW IS SEDUCTIVE
Flow takes you out of yourself and allows you to feel part of something larger. Writing is an excellent activity for entering a flow state. You get fully engaged while doing it, you’re not thinking about rewards or an audience (at least early on), time seems to shift in importance or even stop, and you forget your everyday self in the interests of this “larger-than-life” thing you’re crafting.
Depression and anxiety tend to cause rumination, having the same dreary thoughts over and over. But when you begin writing things down, whether it’s directly about your life, as in a diary, or an attempt at an essay or story or even a novel, you get deeply involved in that task and tend to rise above the ordinary frustrations of your day.
By forming a coherent narrative out of the chaotic elements of your personal history, reported psychologists James Pennebaker and Janet D. Seagal, "the mind doesn't have to work as hard to bring structure and meaning to it."
In one of their studies, experimental and control groups of students were asked to write about an assigned topic for four consecutive days for 15 minutes each day. Those who had written about emotional topics had far fewer doctors' visits during the rest of the school year. "Having a narrative is similar to completing a job, allowing one to essentially forget the event," Pennebaker concluded.
MORE THAN AN EMPTY NEST
I found this conclusion to be quite true when I kept an “empty nest journal” beginning when my second son was getting ready to leave for college. I found relief and clarity during this emotionally challenging time by writing out my feelings. Some years later, I turned my journal into my first novel, Kylie’s Heel, a fictionalized account of a woman who loses everything.
What I did was fictionalize—catastrophize, even—my own normal upcoming loss into a worst-case scenario. An example:
Why hadn’t it occurred to me to bring a camera to his prom? I’d even unthinkingly left my phone at home. Before the divorce, I was the family recorder, catching life on light-sensitive paper, arranging bits of it into albums, gathering the overabundance in yellow Kodak envelopes and storing them in a closet. A few years later, though, poring over those pictures of my son when he was small and of myself when I was younger, I might have been scrutinizing images from an alternate universe.
To say if only I had clasped it closer, held it tighter, appreciated it more: what does that mean?
Struggling with the novel's plot helped me figure out how someone could survive so much loss. By that process of writing out my anxieties to their worst possible conclusion, I liberated myself—at least partially—from those common parental fears.
2 EXAMPLES FROM CURRENT BOOKS
I’d like to share two fine examples of writing, one a memoir, the other a novel, that demonstrate how art can—and must—occasionally be created out of grief.
Falling Out of Time is a novel by the leftist Israeli David Grossman, whose son was killed several yars ago. It’a poetic litany of grief, with surreal elements, and I read it with a hard ache in my chest. Here’s an excerpt that’s excruciatingly autobiographical:
That’s how it is with me, clerko, that’s how I’m built. No getting around it. I can’t understand anything until I write it. Really understand, I mean. Veritably! What are you looking at? Again with that waif face? I’m talking about actually writing, not just regurgitating what a thousand people before me have chewed up and vomited, like you are so fond of doing, eh, keeper of the notebook? Snooping, snipping, jotting down every single fart with your precious handwriting, eh? Well then, write this, please, in big letters, giant ones: I must re-create it in the form of a story! Do you get that? It, you idiot! The thing that happened! What’s not to understand? It! The sonofabitch thing that happened to me and my boy. Yes—mix it into a story is what I need to do, have to do. And it must have plots! And imagination! And hallucinations and freedom and dreams! Fire! A bubbling cauldron!
And here’s a telling excerpt from My Mistake, a memoir by Daniel Menaker about his family life, the death of his brother Mike when they were both young (he blames himself), his cancer, and his many years at The New Yorker (where he wasn’t always appreciated) and Random House. His voice is often appealingly vulnerable.
And then out of desperation I wrote a story based on what had happened. And then came more writing — because much as I dislike the actual work of writing, it settles me, makes me feel as though I am actually managing myself, as nothing else does. I suppose this goes in the plus column too. But finally there’s this: Would I give back every sentence, every lesson learned, every bit of wisdom, every gram of sympathy for others, every sensitivity, every penny, every square inch of real estate, to have Mike walking three years ahead of me? Instead of adding year after unnatural year to my seniority over him? Instead of coming around the bend of the year and into the fall with the usual schoolboy’s summer’s-end sadness so uniquely sharpened? Instead of living in the shadow of an alternative unlived life? You tell me.