Wounds and Words

February 28, 2013 § 2 Comments

“Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

—Ernest Hemingway

On a recent trip to the grocery store, I overheard a conversation between a man and his wife while standing behind them in the checkout line. The man, probably in his mid-thirties, complained to his wife about a last minute report he had to write for his company. Someone else had dropped the ball, and despite his weeks of overtime and severe lack of sleep, he’d been tasked with the extra work. He said he was tired. He was stressed. The last thing he wanted to do was write.

Even though I knew he meant the last thing he wanted to write was a tedious report, and he wasn’t referring to the kind of therapeutic, personal writing I enjoy so much, the comment stuck with me for the rest of the evening. I know many people who would echo this man’s sentiment, but apply it to writing of any kind. Personal, academic or professional, some people dislike any prolonged form of writing.

Perhaps the fairly common distaste for this particular art form is rooted in formal schooling. For most of us, our first venture into the world of the written word comes in a structured, often punishing environment. We learn to write, but are constantly bombarded with corrections from teachers and parents attempting to teach us to write “better.” And though their concern for our grasp of grammar and syntax is warranted and necessary, it’s easy to understand how some people might shy away from the process for fear of criticism.

If you’re lucky enough to catch the writing bug it can be stressful and disheartening to encounter people, especially friends and loved ones, with a visceral aversion to putting pen to paper—especially now that we’ve accumulated so much research indicating how effective writing can be in helping us heal both psychological and physical wounds.

Research into the connection between writing and psychological health began to gain momentum in the late 1980s, and the results gathered over the last three decades provide support for what most self-proclaimed writers already knew: writing is an excellent form of independent therapy.

One study of note compiled the results from several different therapeutic writing trials, and sought to identify whether or not writing could help victims of traumatic events better cope with their post-trauma lives. In each of the trials, researchers asked half of the group to write about mundane topics like time-management or daily activities, and the other half to write about “an extremely important emotional issue that has affected you and your life.” The writing was completely confidential, and each group was asked to write for about a half hour each day for 3-5 consecutive days.

Participants reported that the actual process of writing was quite stressful, and they often wanted to discontinue their involvement. But the results were astonishing. Researchers found that following the therapeutic writing trials, groups asked to write about their emotional experiences:

  • Visited physicians less often, had healthier immune systems, lower heart rates and reported fewer instances of illness.
  • Reported generally better moods and less personal psychological stress.
  • Showed improved grades (if enrolled in school).
  • Found employment more quickly than unemployed members of the non-emotional writing groups.
  • Were less likely to miss days of work or school.
  • Reported fewer depressive episodes.

Though the results speak for themselves, they’re even more impressive when you consider that the same improvements were found across demographic groups. The various compiled studies featured students, professionals, the elderly, and even convicted felons. Writing about trauma appears to be universally beneficial, and further research indicates that expressive writing has emotional benefits even if you haven’t had any significant traumatic experiences.

And I suspect the confidentiality played a critical role in the effectiveness of these therapeutic writing studies. Like any other art form, writing is less stressful without an audience, without critics. How honestly can you express yourself if you’re concerned with who might read your work and pass judgment? But if you’re guaranteed to be the only consumer of your written words? What an exceptional opportunity to work out complicated, difficult, stressful feelings—feelings that we’re naturally inclined to ignore and repress. And if repression, as research indicates, has a negative effect on our psychological health, expression should logically have the opposite result.

I wish I’d used pen and paper to work out my feelings about writing as therapy prior to overhearing that man complain to his wife. If I had, maybe I would have had the confidence to tell him that perhaps his work-related stress could be combatted with a more expressive form of the tedious writing he seemed to dread so much.

-Jean-Ann Kubler


Just a Thought: Live Arts misses the boat with writing

February 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

New York Live Arts (NYLA), the movement arts group led by renowned choreographer Bill T. Jones, recently announced that it would begin hosting an annual festival dedicated to exploring the interplay of art and ideas. Dubbed “Live Arts,” the festival will explore a different sub-theme each year. The first annual festival, which will run from April 17-21 in New York City, is tentatively titled “The World of Oliver Sacks” and will commemorate the great body of work Sacks has contributed to the world of neurology and, more specifically, the understanding of the connection between creative expression and the body. Outside of the medical world, Sacks is best known for his memoir Awakenings, which inspired the 1990 film starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams.

The schedule for the five-day festival has already been released, and for anyone interested in the world of artistic expression, or the world of science, there’s much to be excited about. Highlights include:

  • Jones and Sacks will participate in a keynote conversation about the overlaps in the world of neurology and the world of choreography
  • Bill Morrison will premiere his new film, RE:Awakenings, which is based on original footage shot by Sacks
  • Many of the neurologist’s former patients will sit on panels to discuss the impact of Sack’s creative inclinations on their healing and coping processes
  • Philosophers, writers, and doctors will host discussions dedicated to the doctor’s many critically-acclaimed books

Though not all the events are free, ticket prices are low enough to make them accessible to the general community. Overall, the new festival promises to be engaging, enlightening, and educational.

In perusing the events schedule, however, I’ve found what seems to me a disappointing oversight in the content. As the festival is hosted by NYLA, the emphasis on music and dance-related material makes sense and I’d happily attend any of the advertised panels, performances, or discussions. But I can’t help but yearn for an event—just one—dedicated to the exploring the relationship between writing and health. Sacks is a prolific writer who, if my experience is any benchmark, has had a profound influence on writers everywhere. Through his many medically inclined but exceptionally readable books, Sacks has proven that reflective personal narrative and detailed, informative scientific prose are not mutually exclusive.

Yet, based on the information made available so far, only one of the festival’s events will deal directly with Sacks the writer, but not from the perspective of the mind-body connection. The moderated panel “Sacks the Writer: Process and Influence,” will feature two of the doctor’s editors and two fellow writers discussing the lasting impact of Sacks’ twelve books and countless articles on the writing world. But Sacks himself, it seems, will not speak and the connection between the writing process and mental and physical health won’t necessarily be explored.

As someone who began writing at a very young age, I believe quite strongly in the cathartic power of the written word, of journaling, of crafting a pro-con list before making a difficult decision. Research has confirmed the positive effects of writing (both creative writing like poetry and autobiographical writing) on patients in both mental and physical distress, and therapeutic writing workshops are interestingly beginning to gain popularity even as talk therapy is on the decline.

If the first Live Arts festival is going to explore Sacks’ contribution to our understanding of the connection between art and health, I think it would be incredibly enlightening to hear the doctor speak about the impact writing has had on his well-being. I imagine Sacks’ day-to-day life must often be excessively stressful. A large portion of his medical career has been spent working with patients in the direst circumstances—patients with debilitating disabilities and little will to live. Sacks chronicles these interactions beautifully in his essays and books but rarely directly confronts his own emotional state, and this reader can’t help but wonder if the doctor turner author has ever reflected on the role writing has played in his ability to sustain himself in such an emotionally and mentally straining field of work.

In a recent interview with The Daily Beast, Sacks told a reporter, “It infuriates me not to be able to write something that has popped into my mind.” To me, this indicates that Sacks does see writing as a calming activity, as I like to think most writers do. Adding a conversation about this connection, about the role of writing in the pursuance of greater overall well-being, to the Live Arts lineup could encourage continued conversation and awareness around the phenomenal impact writing can have on a person’s emotional, mental and physical health. Like dancing, playing an instrument, or composing a song, writing is an inherently creative and active process that can offer emotional relief and foster greater self-awareness. Taking a little time out of each day to reflect, in writing, on your emotional state can help you heal after a traumatic event, serve as an outlet for working out minor frustrations without falling victim to needless stressors, or allow you to celebrate and preserve positive experiences. And while I’m sure Oliver Sacks would agree, I nevertheless think the greater Live Arts audience could benefit from hearing the doctor’s experiences with writing as a form of catharsis.

Just a thought.

– Jean-Ann Kubler

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