Why Do I Write II

Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human condition.

Graham Greene

It is widely believed that writing about traumatic and emotional events can reduce the distress they give rise to. Indeed, the authors of the passages quoted in my Commonplace Book often mentioned its therapeutic benefits in explaining why they wrote.

In Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, James Pennebaker marshals an impressive array evidence to show that writing about emotional experiences can have the same positive effects on physical and mental heath as discussing them with a trained therapist.

In an early study, for example, Pennebaker reports that the spouses of individuals who committed suicide reported having fewer health problems when they spoke to others about this traumatic event than those who did not. Indeed spouses who did not talk about their partner’s death experienced higher levels of anxiety, depression and insomnia. According to Pennebaker, suppressing the expression of upsetting events is harmful and over a period of time becomes a serious health risk. In contrast, facing them squarely by talking and writing about them has the opposite effect.

How does writing accomplish this? In trying to answer this question Pennebaker reflects on his own experiences: In writing about upsetting events, for example, I often came to a new understanding of the emotional events themselves. Problems that had seemed overwhelming became more circumscribed and manageable after I saw them on paper. In some way, writing about my haunting experiences helped to resolve them.

A good many writers expressed themselves similarly:

One writes to keep going, to keep oneself from going mad...to live through the next day or two. Harold Bloom

If one was fairly content, why in the name of God would one want to go through the discipline and scariness of sitting down to write 90,000 words...Writing makes you lonely because you have to exile yourself. But deeper than that is an inborn native loneliness, a spiritual void that words, for some reason, help fill. Edna O’Brien

My own reasons for writing, for setting down the story, are to a large extent selfish. With each story--and by story I mean anything I write--I am trying simply to work something out for myself. You, the reader, play a part here: this is a private matter, as I write about the things that disturb me, the things that won't let me alone, the things that are eating slowly into my brain at 3 in the morning, the things that unbalance my world. Roxana Robinson

I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy. Orhan Pamuk

One thing I know for sure is that if I did not write these characters, these stories, I would be much less happy and probably much less normal. Writing allows me to explore situations that are impossible for me to explore in my life. And yet they are very active parts in me. Emotionally I am an extreme person and writing makes it possible for me to go on. David Grossman

I would write to forget, to get rid of sad moments. Once they were written down, they were gone. Jean Rhys

To take issue with these writers, as well as Pennebaker, I believe we are probably deluding ourselves by thinking we can put our emotional problems behind us by simply writing about them. Long ago we learned to be skeptical of the claims of the "insight" theories of psychotherapy. Awareness is not sufficient to cure. Similarly, the evidence on writing therapy suggests considerable caution about accepting its various claims of success.

Well before I ever heard of "writing therapy" I wrote in my journal. I know that I am much more likely to write there when things are not going well. But I also know that no matter how much I write or how much truth there is in what I write, I do not thereby put the problems behind me. I may feel a little better after I compose the passages, but only for the moment.

Yes, eventually the problems disappear. However, I realize that this occurs for reasons that have very little, if anything, to do with the fact that I may have written about them one day.