In 2015-2017 an All-Party Parliamentary Group found that engaging in the arts is good for your mental health, and there has been widespread research since the 1980s on the value of expressive writing in helping to heal trauma. Writing groups exist now in prisons, in care homes, in hospices, as well as the educational establishments where you might more readily expect to find them. And in therapy, creative writing can be a powerful tool.
As well as being a writer, I trained a few years ago as a hypnotherapist and counsellor. Although I haven’t always consciously used writing “as therapy”, in recent years I’ve come to personally appreciate its benefits in that respect. So I brought together my two interests, writing and self-development, and now run classes in writing for wellbeing in a couple of different settings.
Why writing for wellbeing?
Writing is relatively accessible, inexpensive, and requires very few tools. It can enable us to order our thoughts (how many of us derive satisfaction from making a list?), view our experiences in a new, possibly more detached and rational way, or give us a safe opportunity to vent difficult emotions like anger without anyone else necessarily being affected. There seems to be a physiological effect on people who write therapeutically, too; studies have found that participants who regularly engage in expressive writing make fewer visits to their doctors.
So given all the apparent benefits, why don’t more people write?
Common fears and barriers:
o “I can’t spell / what I write won’t be good enough”. A creative writing for wellbeing exercise should be focused first and foremost on self-expression, with no expectation of great literary merit, or even spelling and grammar. There is no right or wrong way to do it, no red pen or grade scheme. Good writing is subjective, anyway. Think of the best book you’ve ever read, the most widely-acclaimed prize-winning novel you can think of and look it up on Amazon – there will be plenty of one-star reviews! And while we’re on the subject, that brilliant book or poem didn’t fall out of the author’s head fully-formed; it started as a few words on a page – and most of us can muster that – and went through many iterations and months or years of work before it became ‘good enough’.
o “What will other people think?” Nobody else needs to see or hear what you write, unless you choose to share it with them. You can put it away somewhere safe, read it to someone you trust or send it to them to read, or you can destroy it. Sometimes the act of whatever you do with the writing later can be almost as therapeutic as the writing itself.
o “I might uncover something painful if I start to write about emotions”. Tread lightly. There is therapeutic benefit in writing just for fun, in being playful for its own sake. Even if you want to write about difficult feelings or experiences, the chances are your own protective subconscious mind will only let you write about what you feel ready to address. Don’t use creative writing to try to ‘uncover’ things you think might be repressed; work with issues you are aware of in the here and now. And if something feels too difficult to write about – don’t!
How to start: free writing
The simplest way to start is just to start. A fixed period of time can be helpful; try 5 minutes to begin with, and maybe 10 minutes next time. The only rule with free writing is you must write for the whole period and you mustn’t stop. You write anything and everything that comes to mind, it doesn’t have to ‘make sense’, it doesn’t have to be true but it doesn’t have to be fiction either, it can be anything. If you get stuck you can just write ‘I don’t know what to write’. The idea is to keep the pen moving and get your writing brain warmed up. It can sometimes be quite surprising what emerges.
Some exercises to try:
- Free writing with a prompt: set a timer as above and complete the following phrases: ‘I am…I think…I want…If only…What if…’
- Reflective writing – for gratitude: make a list of things you are grateful for, under 3 headings: the wide world, your surroundings, yourself. As an example you might choose ‘sunshine’ or ‘the internet’ (!) under list one, list two would be more about the things and people in your immediate life e.g. family, pets, something in your home that you’re thankful for. List three is about YOU so maybe there are things you are grateful for that are physical (like your heart that beats, your feet that carry you around) or in your personality (e.g. your sense of humour).
- Try to put at least 5 things in each list.
- Choose one, from any of the lists, and write a letter to it / them saying thank you and telling them why.
- Creative writing – for fun: write the letters of the alphabet down the left and side of the page. Go down the list and quickly write a word (the first one that comes to mind) beginning with each letter. Write a story including every single word. It’s up to you if you have to include them in order! Sometimes this works best if you set a timer e.g. 10 or 15 minutes – and try to get to Z.
Above all, try to enjoy the process and if you have a go at any of these prompts, feel free to tell me about it in the comments.
(photo credit: helloimnik, Unsplash)