Writing with Benefits

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.

Journaling

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 goboy arms up superman

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.

Blogging

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

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.”

Getting Started

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.

Resources:

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:

http://www.juliamccutchen.com/

Write Your Life Stories http://www.joparfitt.com/2013/03/write-your-way-to-a-happier-you/

Books:

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

Blogging:

On the therapeutic value of blogging: scientificamerican.com

Free Blog tips every blogger should read: weblogs.about.com

Twitter:

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.

Impact of Sandy, what you’ll see and what you won’t

October 2012 will be remembered for superstorm Sandy and it’s massive destruction, especially by those living in The Bahamas, Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, New Jersey and New York. In the United States alone nine states are struggling to restore basic services. East Coast streets submerged under sea water and heaps of matchsticks that once formed someone’s home are piled high, the images are beamed to an eager world (that would be us then).

Men dispose of shopping carts full of food damaged by Storm Sandy at the Fairway supermarket in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn in New York, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012. The food was contaminated by flood waters that rose to approximately four feet in the store during the storm. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

It’s a heady time for news journalists; the final days of the American election are playing out; Obama and Romney fighting neck and neck to take the White House, tension and suspense are mounting. But then you already know all about that.
Over the coming weeks you will be less likely to hear or see so much of the devastation wrought by Sandy; it will no longer be ‘news’ and other stories will inevitably be the headlines and yet millions of people will find their lives disrupted or forever changed.

So what is it like for them to be caught up in Sandy and what is about to unfold? If you were paying attention to the news in September 2008, you may recall hurricane Ike scored a direct hit on Houston. The eye of the hurricane alone took in the whole city and the six hundred mile wide storm left five million people without power. My family were British expats living in a suburb on the west side of the city. The media reported that it ‘could have been worse’ and for this reason you may not remember hearing about it. Ike claimed over 200 lives but as a news story it was somewhat eclipsed by comparison to the tragic loss of life wrought by Hurricane Katrina only a few years earlier (just down the Gulf Coast from Houston). For Houstonians, the devastation left by Ike barrelling through, was significant for them.

Downtown Houston, hurricane Ike approaching

Knowing the hurricane was coming was scary enough, living through it – hunkering down in our closet, hearing the high pressure hose rain lashing the windows, ominous thuds as branches and a tree fell on our house, huddling together in the stifling hot darkness without power, straining to hear commentary on a wind up radio pressed between our ears, was certainly an adrenalin fuelled experience, one to tell the grand-children about.

The aftermath was a whole different story; initially, so thankful to be safe, our focus was on the clear up operation and getting the tree that was lifting our roof tiles removed quickly. Optimism for a swift return to power evaporated by the second week, flooding was widespread. My memoir, ‘An Inconvenient Posting: An expat wife’s memoir of lost identity’ refers to the power cables in our neighbourhood, ‘usually neat swags of black cable looked like balls of knitting wool, unfathomable to unravel, and a massive headache for the electricity workers trying to repair the damage’.

Sandy has brought the memories back; no fridge, no cups of tea or fresh food, venturing out in desperation to find some ice into a world where nothing was normal; trees and signboards littered the street. With traffic lights out, the cars took it in turns to move ahead at the intersections – in Britain there would be a more ‘whoever is bravest (or more pushy depending on how you view it) goes first’ approach, for a nation committed to forming a queue it’s disappointing, so I was very impressed by the orderly, stoic attitude I encountered! At night the children were scared of the dark so we slept together in one room – a necessary safety precaution anyway, negotiating your home is not as easy as you might think without illumination – we were covered in bruises.

The heat was at times unbearable, but we got on with it, because we heard on our wind up radio that others were much worse off. And strangely, without any television or computer, we had no images beyond our own imagination. If you had a phone signal and the means to charge it you might have spoken to family far away who would have given you an update from the media coverage. Something I found particularly strange and frustrating; there I was living through a disaster and yet I couldn’t see it beyond my own subdivision of roads.

Our little community became just that; we got to know each other, cleared up together, commiserated together – people were shaken to the core and they needed to re tell their story of Ike, to try and make sense of it. There was a night time curfew in place because of fears of looting; those of us with no family to flee to needed to stick together. 

You might imagine that life returns to normal a few weeks after such a crisis, but it doesn’t, not really. The wake of such an event plays out at every level. All activities are disrupted, appointments rescheduled or opportunities lost, everything is backlogged. Businesses shut down, unable to recover from sudden loss of profits; familiar places will be closed ‘until further notice owing to flood damage’. Insurance claims take months or even years to settle. All around Houston after Ike, ‘sky-blue plastic ‘tarps’ (tarpaulins) sat on roofs like great shower caps, covering homes with damaged roofs to protect them from further leaks.’ Years later, adverts were running on the local networks offering to help with compensation claims. Reminders were all around us.

After a few months life did return to normality, it was just a slightly different one, it’s fair to say a unique life experience had been integrated. In our family, the losses were temporary  (except for the felled tree) and we could move on. For those who have experienced something more difficult to reconcile, it will take significantly more time and understanding. I hope they get the help they need to do so.

You might like to read my article about our family’s experience of hurricane Ike, written in 2008, published in The Telegraph’s Expat section: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/expat/4205444/Houston-struggles-to-recover-from-the-night-Ike-came-calling.html