Can writing, in its many forms, make us happier? Research tells us that it can be a useful coping mechanism for managing stress. So how does that work?
Most of us like to read and appreciate being able to do so, whether that be for the learning we gain or the gathering of interesting facts; being enthralled by a heart-stopping storyline or simply noting the Emergency Evacuation Notice that might just save our life. But have you ever considered being the writer? You may be thinking what would be the point of that? Or perhaps you already write.
There is the obvious allure of making mega bucks as an author; realistically that only works for a few premier league novelists and I’m very happy for them. But I don’t want to dwell here on money, even though it is undeniably important and clearly can contribute to happiness.
Regulars to my blog will know that a few years ago, when I was really struggling emotionally, I began to express myself by writing down my feelings and thoughts, something I’d not done before.
Having recently arrived in Houston on a posting from England, the austere black covered notebook slung carelessly on my bedside table would become a place of refuge, an escape from my isolation. The notebook had begun life as a safe place to store my seemingly endless ‘to do’ lists, but was soon transformed into a journal. In the privacy of my bedroom, alone with my silent friend, I could say absolutely anything; shameful ramblings allowed me to unleash my authentic feelings. Instead of being in transition, I realised, I had become completely stuck – set adrift, marooned in my own head. I discovered that the process of scribbling down the unspeakable was like releasing steam from a pressure cooker!
Months later when daring to look back at my daily entries, I was surprised at the depth of feeling contained in those pages. I didn’t remember feeling them so intensely or writing them in that way and yet there they were, staring right back at me.
I summed up my sense of incredulity:
‘How is it that a formerly together, fulfilled human being can find herself torn down by the simple act of moving from one western country to another?’
Thoughts of that ilk, captured in my journal, galvanized me to write about the process I was going through and my learning from it. So the journal itself remained personal (worth noting as the privacy of knowing you won’t have to share, allows you to write freely) and later it would provide me with the material I needed to write my story as a memoir and thus share it.
What of other types of writing? Essays, articles, blogs, short stories, novels, even tweets; do they help us to move forward therapeutically?
Books and Essays
In March Pico Iyer, a journalist, writer and novelist, was the keynote at the Families in Global Transition Conference (FIGT) in Washington. He also held a Writer’s Forum session (skillfully hosted by Apple Gidley) where he spoke of the “interesting conundrum of writing” and how through imagination and creativity an “alternative self appears in the world”.
Although most of Pico Iyer’s ten books are about travel and “new global people”, it was his words about the joy of “inhabiting the alternative universe” that particularly resonated for me, he was referring to writing fiction – he’s published two novels as well. Most writers experience a sense of escape and being in another world when they are engrossed in the task of writing, I find it still wonderfully restorative and what I want to share with you is that anyone can have a go!
A top tip for writer’s block from Pico Iyer was to write from “the deep place”. And to help you capture a sense of a place you have visited, he recommends emailing a friend (imaginary or otherwise) describing it from your memory. To help bring your writing to life, Iyer advises scribbling down notes at the time; snippets of dialogue, ideas and the like to refer to later.
Unlike journaling, blogging is of course a typically public activity and yet it can still be therapeutic. Particularly if you find the act of sharing and connecting with others has that affect on you.
People blog for many different reasons; something that was also discussed at the FIGT Conference where Linda Janssen (adventuresinexpatland.com), Maria Foley (iwasanexpatwife.com), Norman Viss (theexpatcoachdirectory.com) and Rachel Yates (DefiningMoves.com) – all successful expat bloggers – spoke of sharing and connecting with others through their blogging. Some bloggers do it for personal expression, others for business reasons. My word of caution would be to be mindful of sharing personal content which could impact adversely on people close to you…
Twitter is an exciting way to connect instantly (and publicly) with people all over the globe. With its 140 character limitation, it can be a succinct way of expressing yourself and sharing useful information. Twitter can help you hone your writing skills as the challenge of trying to capture what you want to say in a tweet encourages discipline and creativity. Beware; tweeting can be time consuming – Twitter has a reputation for being a hungry bird and is not a great vehicle for expressing difficult emotions or managing your stress levels! I heard someone who advised “If you wouldn’t shout it out in the supermarket then don’t tweet it.”
Wondering how to get started with writing yourself to a happier place? All you need is a blank screen or a sheet of paper and a willingness to try. The benefits of journaling are well documented. One way to begin, is to ask yourself What is going on for me right now? Or you could ask yourself for an image, a thought, a phrase or a single word that represents how you feel. Try not to censor what comes up.
There is of course an abundance of material on the internet to help you get started on your writer’s journey; you could search for whatever is most tailored to your needs. Here are some resources I have found helpful:
Write Your Life Stories http://www.joparfitt.com/2013/03/write-your-way-to-a-happier-you/
Journaling Through: Unleashing the Power of the Authentic Self by Angela Caughlin
Writing memoir: Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
On Writing, a Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Writing Begins with the Breath, Embodying your Authentic Voice by Laraine Herring
On the therapeutic value of blogging: scientificamerican.com
Free Blog tips every blogger should read: weblogs.about.com
A step by step guide to Twitter: blogs.telegraph.co.uk
How to get started with Twitter: support.twitter.com
You can ‘follow’ me on Twitter at @laurajstephens
Your greatest resource might be your time and the giving of it to writing. Good luck and let me know how you get on.
3 thoughts on “Writing with Benefits”
If you don’t mind, I’ll refer to two webinars we held lately on this topic. One with Liese Sherwood-Fabre on Journaling to reduce stress (http://expateverydaysupportcenter.com/keep-a-journal-to-reduce-expat-stress/) and with trailing spouse Jessica Scott-Reid on the trailing spouse and blogging (http://expateverydaysupportcenter.com/the-trailing-spouse-who-are-we/). Both these webinar replays are available after signup.
It was great to meet you at FIGT!
Wow, what a comprehensive blog post! Definitely worth sharing.
Writing does indeed have many benefits, Laura, including therapeutic ones as you note. From the depths of your journal came a memoir destined to help many suffering from depression, culture shock and the emotional discombobulation associated with difficult transitions. Pico Iyer is right: write from a deep place and it will be honest and resonate with others. Thanks for mentioning the FIGT Expat Blogging panel session. Linda