The benefits of writing go far beyond building up your vocabulary.
No matter the quality of your prose, the act of writing itself leads to strong physical and mental health benefits, like long-term improvements in mood, stress levels and depressive symptoms. In a 2005 study on the emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing, researchers found that just 15 to 20 minutes of writing three to five times over the course of the four-month study was enough to make a difference.
By writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events, participants were significantly more likely to have fewer illnesses and be less affected by trauma. Participants ultimately spent less time in the hospital, enjoyed lower blood pressure and had better liver functionality than their counterparts.
It turns out writing can make physical wounds heal faster as well. In 2013, New Zealand researchersmonitored the recovery of wounds from medically necessary biopsies on 49 healthy adults. The adults wrote about their thoughts and feelings for just 20 minutes, three days in a row, two weeks before the biopsy. Eleven days later, 76% of the group that wrote had fully healed. Fifty-eight percent of the control group had not recovered. The study concluded that writing about distressing events helped participants make sense of the events and reduce distress.
Even those who suffer from specific diseases can improve their health through writing. Studies have shown that people with asthma who write have fewer attacks than those who don’t; AIDS patients who write have higher T-cell counts. Cancer patients who write have more optimistic perspectives and improved quality of life.
So what is it about writing that makes it so great for you?
James W. Pennebaker has been conducting research on writing to heal for years at the University of Texas at Austin. “When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experience improved health,” Pennebaker writes. “They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function.”
Why? Pennebaker believes this act of expressive writing allows people to take a step back and evaluate their lives. Instead of obsessing unhealthily over an event, they can focus on moving forward. By doing so, stress levels go down and health correspondingly goes up.
You don’t have to be a serious novelist or constantly reflecting on your life’s most traumatic moments to get these great benefits. Even blogging or journaling is enough to see results. One study found that bloggingmight trigger dopamine release, similar to the effect from running or listening to music.
From long-term health improvements to short-term benefits like sleeping better, it’s official: Writers are doing something right.
In my poetry workshop, we started this semester by talking, as we always do, about what poetry does for us as human beings — and how and why it does it. We talked about how poetry works in small, beautiful, and reflective moments that reflect back upon our lives and ourselves, helping us to understand who we are and who we have been, helping us to remember. A poem compresses a moment in time into a substance, diamond-like, that lasts as long as people can read.
This idea, of course, is not my own. It’s one of the most ancient ideas we have about poetry, an idea that poets from Sappho to Keats to Dickinson have set into the intricate setting of their language. It’s an idea I am most familiar with from Shakespeare’s sonnets, and as I talked with my class, my mind is turned, as my mind has been turning all semester, to the teacher who led me to understand the sonnet, who spoke so eloquently about poetry, about how it fails and succeeds and fails again at showing us who we are and who we fail to be. That teacher was Diann Blakely. I was seventeen when I took her class at the Sewanee Young Writers’ Conference, where I had showed up with my Nirvana CDs and teenage angst, hoping to find the answer to the question that shouted continuously in the back of my mind: what on earth am I going to do with the rest of my life?
In Diann’s class, I got my answer.
A few weeks ago, I opened up my inbox to an announcement I had long dreaded but nonetheless never quite prepared for: Diann had passed away. I received the news too late to attend her memorial service, and so I figured I would take this opportunity, in this digital space where the line between teacher and student is blurred, where we are all just writers working to find the best way for our words to say what we need to say, to memorialize her.
I began writing this by using dictation software, which changed “memorialize” to “memorial realize.” her. This feels fitting: when we memorialize well, we realize not only what we have lost but what we had. We walk beyond a recitation of our own pain and into the field of celebration of the person as a real human being, with all of the beautiful and terrible attributes that human beings share. We allow the dead to live not just as a memory but as the people that they were.
This is what I remember when I remember Diann.
I remember her oversize T-shirts, one printed with Courtney Loves’ tiara-topped face, one with a portrait of T.S. Eliot. I remember
her holding conferences while she finished her 30 minutes on an exercycle. I remember that I had never really seen the city of Birmingham, the city I called home, the city I drove into and out of every day for high school, until she described it as a “Dantescan pit.” I remember that her very first assignment required us to write a sonnet for which she had provided the end-words. I remember that one of those end-words was “bolster.” I remember her pronouncing, clearly and unapologetically, every single word in Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse.” I remember the way she pronounced the word “Harvard,” without any Rs. I remember the white lace shirt she found at an antique store, how she only posed for photographs in profile, preferably in conversation, in a construction meant to imply the candid; otherwise, the camera could take her soul. I remember riding in the passenger seat of her car up and down and up the difficult curves and turns of the Sewanee, and I remember telling her about the plans I had made for myself and my future. I was going to try to do this very difficult thing. I was going to try to be a writer. And in that car, she gave me the confidence I needed to believe that maybe I actually might be able to do this, someday, and that I was at least doing the best thing I could do for myself and for my work, which was to try.
I stop writing. I can hear her voice in my head. “Oh honey,” she says, “who is this woman you are writing about? It sounds like you’re eulogizing a saint, not poor little old me.” In honor of Diann, and what I’m pretty sure would be her wishes, I will say this: she was difficult, demanding, exacting, and in ways that sometimes felt dizzying. Though she was an expert practitioner of that particular brand of Southern manners that makes “bless your heart” an insult meant to carve straight into said heart, she could also, at times, be harsh. This sometimes extended to her comments on our work. I remember, distinctly, that once, after reading one of
my poems, she put her head in her hands, made an exasperated sound, then looked up to say, “Well, it’s a bunch of pretty images, but they just don’t mean anything.”
And this is the moment when perspective enters, which might explain why the faults of the dead die with them, because the living see these harsh moments as just that, a moment, one small moment in the middle of a life that is over, for all of us, far too soon.
In that moment, her comment shattered me. It continued to shatter me for several moments to come. But eventually, I realized that the lack of a gentle presentation didn’t make her words any less true. They were just a bunch of images, ones that I could no longer find pretty, because I knew for sure that she was right. There was nothing behind them.
And this is perhaps the most important thing that I learned from Diann: that we as writers and as human beings must continue striving, all of our lives, to make every part of our lives — every word, every letter, every capitalization and every punctuation mark — have a real and true meaning.
“Good Lord,” I hear her say. “Aren’t you finished? Haven’t you better things to do?” I realize that this is a very long entry, but it’s hard for me to finish it. I don’t want to end this because I don’t want to admit that Diann’s life has ended. And so I end with an invitation to begin, one from Seamus Heaney, Diann’s own beloved teacher and mentor, who says exactly what I think Diann would want for me to say:
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,
so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.
— Seamus Heaney, “Station Island” (Part XII), 1984
In my WRIT 4530 Fiction class we’ve been talking about characters lately. Or, rather, we’ve been talking about knowing characters. And by that, I don’t mean knowing their names, how they look, or what their motivations are – though those are all important things to keep in mind – but rather actually knowing their characters to the extent that they live and breathe off the page.
The exercise I like to give students is a simple walk through a grocery store. I don’t know why it ended up being that, but I suspect it has something to do with the mundanity of going each week to buy your food and goods. It’s not exciting stuff, for sure, even if you run across some of the more interesting and bizarre people in the aisles. It’s the stuff of every day.
My reasoning is this: if you know what your characters are going to buy, if you know their routines, if you know their habits and the way they see the world, then you’re bound to trust them as they walk through your stories. After all, it never works to shoehorn the actions you want your characters to take into a plot. A good story allows characters freedom to act and react according to their own internal logic and motivations. A good story should feel effortless, as if you’re recording your characters’ actions instead of directing them. It’s a subtle difference, but a huge one at the same time.
So here’s how it works – take your protagonist to the store. It doesn’t matter if it’s a grocery market, a Wal-Mart, a Lowe’s, or the farmer’s stand on Saturdays. Take them and let them free of your influence. Watch where they go. What they focus on. How they react to the people around them, what they buy, what they ignore. Gain a sense of who they are when you’re not moving them like a chess piece. By the time you put them in your story, it’s not going to be a challenge anymore to gauge their moves and decisions. It’s going to be just like it was when you took them to the store. You’re going to be watching them, from a safe distance, and their actions are going to be genuine and honest.