Why try writing as therapy? [June 19]
I’ve been teaching writing as therapy for The School of Life for five years, but I’ve been practicing it for decades. Since my teens I’ve found writing to be the best way to make meaning from my thoughts and feelings, and to manage my anxieties. Some people keep a daily diary as a way of making that meaning. Others might write a memoir, a poem or a short story. All forms of creative writing can help us shape narrative from the chaos of our daily lives. But how does it work?
Put simply, when we’re suffering it can be hard to think straight. When we can’t think straight it is hard to find relief from our suffering. Writing requires us to try to think straight, which in turn helps relieve our suffering.
Important note: it’s better if writing doesn’t become yet another anxious pressure we put on ourselves at the end of the day. Everyone has different needs, different requirements on their time, and different ways of doing creative and reflective work. Above all it should be useful and pleasurable.
My advice would be to try and write as regularly as possible, not just in a crisis, so that it becomes a habit. We can develop ‘mind muscles’ by being disciplined about reflective thinking.
Here are three good reasons to try writing as therapy:
1) Writing can help us distinguish our situation from our story (this idea comes from US author Vivian Gornick). The ‘situation’ is the plot or the facts of our daily lives: for example, ‘woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head’. The ‘story’, on the other hand, is the insight, the wisdom, or the emotional understanding we can elicit from that situation: for example, ‘totally didn’t want to go to work today – maybe I’d be happier in another job?’ Try writing about your day under those two headings: Situation and Story. Over time, the words you write under the heading Story will reveal much useful information about your emotional life.
2) Writing can help us get in touch with our dialogical selves (this idea comes from Australian psychologist Peter Raggatt). Let’s face it,we all have conversations with ourselves, debating everything from whether we should eat that second donut to whether it’s time to leave our marriage. Try giving names to some of the ‘selves’ having these conversations (in my book ‘Shy: a memoir’, for example, I named two of them Shy Sian and Professional Sian and in the book’s final chapter they interviewed each other). Have a go at writing some compassionate conversations between your dialogical selves.
3) Writing can be a form of preventative therapy. Journalling can help us forestall suffering by making sure we keep in touch with our emotional lives, giving us early warning of any problems on the horizon. It can also be a way of accentuating the positive in our lives. Try keeping a Gratitude Journal in which you list all the things that make you feel grateful, satisfied or happy in your life. You’ll be surprised by how long that list becomes.
(This article was first published in Milligram Journal in June 2019)