Thursday, February 10, 2011

Writing As Therapy?

How many of you have used writing as a form of therapy?

My guess is 99% of you raised a hand and said "I". The use of writing as a means of channeling grief, depression, or other emotions is amazingly widespread. Most contemporary authors admit freely to using writing as therapy. A few bold ones manage to turn therapy into glossy-covered bestsellers, but for the most part, those scribbles stay buried in some obscure drawer or cached in a remote corner of cyberspace.

Authors are not the only ones who use writing for therapy. Ever since the ability to write became common, people who experience traumatic events often find solace by writing. Whether it be a war, natural disaster, or simply the death of a loved one, the result is the same. Ordinary people who have never written before pick up a pencil and begin.

The poems of the first and second World Wars have been a fascination of mine for years. Our written record of these wars is vast - some of the greatest writers of the century detailed every event as it happened. More intriguing to me, though, are the thousands of poems and short stories written by soldiers and their loved ones. Many are anonymous. Most were never intended for public view. Few are written according to good writing standards. Yet they're filled with humor, pathos, resignation, bravery...

All the histories written about the wars record what happened to people. The poems and stories record who those people were.

What is it about writing that helps people deal with grief, anger, and frustration? For myself, it allows me to see things clearly. When I'm upset my emotions tangle into a knotted mess that would traumatize a psychoanalyst. I can't understand myself! Always I end up with a chewed-off pen and a scrap of paper, scribbling down verse, scraps of ideas, fragments of sentences. I allow myself to spill over onto the paper, not holding anything back.

Hours later, relieved somewhat by the "public privacy" of expression on paper, I read through the jottings. And an odd thing happens. What made no sense in my mind gradually takes form before me. I can isolate the problem, figure out the cause, approximate a solution. Perhaps most valuable, I can perceive the melodrama. Being able to laugh at yourself does wonders for your sanity.

I'm sure not everyone feels this way about writing. The best part about it is that words, like people, can become anything. All I know is that if I ever get shipwrecked alone on a desert island, forget the coconut trees. I'll be hunting papyrus and a cuttlefish. :)


Kate said...

I do that, too! *hugs*

Elisabeth said...

I didn't start journaling regularly until recently. About the time I did, I read through my previous entries, spaced weeks and months apart, and noticed a pattern - I usually wrote when I had something bothering me or needed to vent about something. My usual reaction to old entries like this is cringing in embarassment. A lot of it seems so trivial in retrospect. But occasionally you really wince as you recall something that was painful. Perhaps the instinct is stronger in somebody who writes all the time, but I think you're right - trouble drives us to write.

On the other hand, I think writing fiction tends to be a little more of an escape for me. Writing is something I enjoy, so I don't want to spoil it too much by having painful memories woven through my stories.

Your reference to WWII caught my attention, because I just finished Mrs. Miniver (entirely different from the movie, by the way, but wonderful - I plan on writing a review of it on my blog soon) and there was a phrase in the last chapter very similar to what you said about letters - about what people write during times of crisis capturing their mood and the spirit of the times. I've found the same thing while doing research. I read The Children's Civil War by James Marten this winter, and the chapter on letters between children and their fathers and brothers in the army was beautiful and funny and heartbreaking all at once.

Well, I hope you don't mind long comments... :)

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