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7th February 2014

Writing is seen by many as a craft, but it is one that taps deep into writers’ personalities. Writers continually draw from personal experience to inform their work, using it as a basis for fiction, poetry and more. Using their memories in this way changes writers’ relationship towards them, and can have other effects on both body and mind, from physical healing to emotional catharsis.

In a survey conducted by Hour of Writes, 72% of people agreed that writing helped them to understand their own thoughts and experience, and 65% of people agreed that writing helped them to understand past events. The comment box on this question also provided some striking testimony of writing’s therapeutic role in people’s lives. With one respondent said “writing has saved my life and helped me cure my trauma,” one said, “writing has saved my life and the lives of others, like men I have worked with in prison,” and one simply stated, “it provides hope.”

The therapeutic benefits of writing have also been studied by psychologists. In their article “Emotional and physical benefits of expressive writing,” Karen A. Baikie and Kay Wilhelm describe the ways in which an applied course of expressive writing can lead to long-term benefits of reduced stress, improved lung and liver function, a feeing of greater psychological well-being, and reduced depressive symptoms. 

They also found that expressive writing reduced absenteeism from work, improved working memory, lead to quicker re-employment after job loss, and altered social and linguistic behavior. In fact, after writing about traumatic experiences, the study found that participants started to use different words to describe them, showing that, through writing about it, participants arrived at a change in attitude towards the experience, often positive. By writing about the experience they helped themselves to understand it, and put it into context, so that it was less intrusive on their daily lives and psychological wellbeing.

Baikie and Wilhelm’s study was based on expressive writing, a type of writing that they defined with specific instructions: “write your very deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience of your entire life or an extremely important emotional issue that has affected you and your life. In your writing, really let go and explore your deepest emotions and thoughts. Whilst it is fairly incredible that writing in this way can produce a calming effect that can actually improve physical health, this was a study, and participants were pushed to reveal more and be more honest than many people may be comfortable with in writing for a wider audience or critique group, or in working on pieces that are not designed to be “expressive” as such.

The process is similar, however, in other kinds of writing, in that they involve taking experiences from life and understanding them in a different way, in the context of a piece of creative work. In the Hour of Writes survey, there were respondents who were adamant that writing was simply an end in itself: “For me, it's all about the joy of creating worlds with words--it's all about language, sentences, paragraphs. It's giving voice to something new,” said one respondent, with another echoing these remarks, “I like to play with words. I write because I enjoy playing with language."

Still, these responses were in the minority, with most respondents feeling that writing was integral to the way they processed their experiences. One respondent wrote, “Writing helps me work my way through all kinds of ideas. It is also my record of witness. At times my journal was my confidant, such as when my infant son died. Writing poetry, on the hand, is both an exploration and a satisfying craft - rather like science, now that I think of it.” This response encapsulates the varying ways that writing intersects with people’s lives; it can be a form of therapy that assists them in dealing with emotional trauma, it can be a place to explore ideas, and it can be a craft, to practice for the satisfaction it brings. 

My Notes