The Therapeutic Benefits of Writing a Novel
Research suggests that writing fiction can be a powerful healing tool.
Posted Jun 09, 2017
When my husband died unexpectedly in 2001, I’d never heard of expressive writing. And you know what? It wouldn’t have mattered if I had. Three months pregnant, raising a three-year-old, and suddenly a widow, the last thing I wanted to do was spend even one sharp second journaling about how I felt. No offense to Dr. Pennebaker, the founder of the expressive writing movement. It’s just that I couldn’t survive reliving the pain of my husband’s suicide, not then, not on my own. I needed to convert it, package it, and ship it off.
So I started writing fiction.
I’d find pockets and corners of time, and in them, I began to create a world where there was death, but there was also justice. Answers. Allies. Closure. The end result was May Day, which went on to become my first published novel. I hadn’t set out to write a mystery. It’s just that I had these questions, this shame, this fear, and I needed to get it out of my head or it was going to destroy me. Channeling it into fiction seemed like the safest method.
And you know what? Not only did I create a publishable book. I began to heal.
The research would tell you that I was externalizing the story, habituating myself to it, inoculating myself against deep grief by exposing myself to it in small, controlled doses. All I knew was that my brain wasn’t spinning as much and I was beginning to feel again, even if it was the emotions of fictional characters. Little by little, I was carving out new space for thoughts that were not about death or depression. Through the gentle but challenging exercise of writing a novel, I was learning how to control stories, which is what our lives are—stories.
The healing I experienced makes sense when you consider Dr. Pennebaker’s discovery that two elements above all else increase the therapeutic value of writing: creating a coherent narrative and shifting perspective. These are not coincidentally the cornerstones of short story and novel writing. Writers call them plot and point of view.
I came to call this healing process “rewriting my life,” as I was taking real events and repurposing them to fit a fictional narrative. The power of this process is transformative. Writing fiction allows you to become a spectator to life’s roughest seas. It gives form to your wandering thoughts, lends empathy to your perspective, allows you to cultivate compassion and wisdom by considering other people’s motivations, and provides us practice in controlling attention, emotion, and outcome. We heal when we transmute the chaos of life into the structure of a novel, when we learn to walk through the world as observers and students rather than wounded, when we make choices about what parts of a story are important and what we can let go of.
Based on the number of people who line up after my writing workshops for a private word, or who contact me online, I know I'm not alone. There are many of us who need to process our garbage so we can choose a better life, but who can't bear the idea of writing memoir, whether it's because we are too close to the trauma, don't want to hurt or be hurt by those we're writing about, or simply prefer the vehicle of fiction.
I’m not the first writer to discover this healing process.
Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield is his public grappling with some of his more haunting childhood experiences, including a complicated, troubling relationship with his father. In addition to Dickens declaring David Copperfield his most autobiographical and favorite of all the novels he wrote, The Guardian places it at number 15 in a list of the 100 best novels in history. Tim O’Brien is a Vietnam War veteran whose The Things They Carried is about a Vietnam War veteran named Tim O’Brien. The work is fiction. He coalesces something fundamental, something almost mystical at the heart of rewriting your life, when he writes in his most famous book, “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” The Things They Carried has sold over 2 million copies internationally, won numerous awards, and is an English classroom staple.
Isabel Allende was the first writer to hold me inside of a sentence, rapt and wondrous. It’s no surprise that her most transformative writing springs from personal anguish. Her first book, The House of the Spirits, began as a letter to her dying grandfather whom she could not reach in time. Eva Luna, one of my favorite books of all time, is about an orphan girl who uses her storytelling gift to survive and thrive amid trauma, and Allende refers to the transformative power of writing in many of her interviews. Allende’s books have sold over 56 million copies, been translated into over 30 languages, and made into successful plays and movies. Such is the power of mining your deep.
Nora Ephron’s roman à clef Heartburn is a sharply-funny fictionalized account of Ephron’s own marriage to Carl Bernstein. She couldn’t control his cheating during her pregnancy or the subsequent dissolution of their marriage, but through the novelization of her experience, she got to revise the ending of that particular story. In Heartburn, Rachel, the character based on Ephron, is asked by a friend why she must make everything a story. Her answer speaks directly to the power of storying your life: “Because if I tell the story, I control the version. Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me. Because if I tell the story, it doesn't hurt as much. Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.” Heartburn is Ephron’s first published novel. In addition to being a bestseller, her screenplay was turned into a box-office hit starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson.
This alchemy of transmuting-pain-into-gold isn’t the purview of an elite group of gifted, well-trained authors who were born with pen in hand. When I wrote May Day, I had an English degree but had never taken a novel-writing class. I didn’t even know the basics of writing a short story, let alone had met a person who actually wrote books. Plus, I was living in rural Minnesota and, pre-Internet (at least where I lived), I had no access to writing groups. I taught myself to write a novel.
Nor is the therapeutic power of novel writing exclusive to those who have experienced deep trauma. Dr. Pennebaker found that directed, expressive writing is beneficial for everyone, meeting us where we are at, whether we’re coming to terms with a difficult commute, struggling against an annoying coworker, navigating a divorce, or coping with deep grief or PTSD.
You don’t even have to want to publish what you write, and in fact, it’s okay if you don’t. If you begin from the perspective that your writing is private, you give yourself permission to write freely and with integrity without polluting your story with the fickle demands of the publishing world because here’s the truth: it doesn’t matter if you burn the novel the second you finish penning it. You can even toss it in the air, still burning, fire bullets into it, pour acid on it when it falls, and bury the ashes. You’ll still reap all the physical and psychological benefits of writing it. The balm and insight lie in externalizing and controlling the story, not in showing it to others.
If and when you do decide to publish, though, you’ll have something genuine and powerful to offer the world. Dickens, O’Brien, Ephron, Allende, and hundreds of other bestselling authors created compelling stories because they pulled them from a place of truth, vulnerability, and experience. Turning crucible moments into a novel is not only regenerative for the writer, it’s glorious for the reader. That authenticity creates an indelible story.
You don’t have to believe any of this.
You just have to do it.
This is the power of writing.
Jessica Lourey’s (rhymes with "dowry") book, Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction, the only book which shows you how to transform your facts into a compelling, healing novel, is out now. Jessica is a tenured professor of creative writing and sociology and delivered the 2016 "Rewrite Your Life" TEDx Talk. You can find out more at www.jessicalourey.com.