The Listening Page: Writing for Mental Health
Jane Moss on how writing can be a way to think, a way to let go, a way out of the dark.
Why do you write? I would say for a living, to convey information, to understand, and to be creative; but there is another answer I choose above all others. I write because I need to.
If I am unable to write because of time and other demands, I feel as if something vital to my wellbeing is missing. Given free reign I write poetry, memoir, fiction and – crucially – a journal. This is a simple notebook which I liken to a quiet room in which I can be my authentic self and in which I will be listened to. I write in it most days.
Another question: how does it feel when you write? If you write to deadlines and for assessment, your answer may be about pressure and anxiety. If you write electronically it may feel mechanical and detached. The screen tells you in fierce red underlines when something is wrong, which creates more pressure.
When we write for wellbeing we do not aim for perfection. Instead, we use pen and paper, writing in our own voice, feeling the connection to the page. Writing therapist Gillie Bolton puts it well:
In the UK writers and therapists use the written word in contexts as diverse as counselling, care homes, hospices, and prisons. The results can include reduced stress, increased self-confidence and resilience, improved mood, and relaxation. A body of practice developed in the past several decades by Bolton and colleagues is underpinned by the clinical research of James W. Pennebaker (Pennebaker 1990); trials in which one group of students wrote about a personally traumatic event focusing on the feelings associated with it, while another group wrote purely in terms of information; what happened and when. The emotional writers showed greater health improvements including lower blood pressure and reduced reliance on medication. Pennebaker concluded that writing can help overcome effects of trauma. By writing it down we begin to understand it and move beyond it.
Of course, it does not work for everyone, and it does not apply solely to trauma, but anyone can try it. All you need is a pen and paper and you can do it at any time of day or night. It need not take up much time; some of the most effective writing happens in short bursts. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron proposes morning pages, a quick burst of writing ‘about anything and everything that crosses your mind,’ (Cameron 1995).
Try this: write for three minutes in answer to the question, What’s going on? Write fast, without censoring yourself. Just go for it then stop and read what you have written. It might be a jumble of not-quite sentences; it does not matter, but pay attention to how you have answered the question. If something seems important or surprising, circle it. Give yourself another 5 minutes to delve into it. Look after yourself while you do this and remember, you can put the pen down if it leads you somewhere you would rather not go. You can keep this or throw it away, whichever feels right. The act of screwing up the paper can be cathartic.
When you write like this you use the containment of writing from a prompt to a limited time; useful techniques for journal writing because they get the pen moving. If you feel you have no time for yourself, look at how much you can write in just a few minutes.
Lists work well. Try these:
- Ten things I enjoy. If something that takes up a lot of your time is missing from your list, ask yourself if you could drop it.
- Ten answers to the question ‘What do I need right now?’ Choose one and write about what it means to you. If you do not have it, how could you get it? This can be the start of positive change.
- Ten things that are helping me. This is useful when it feels as if nothing is going right. List specifics: chocolate, your best friend, staying in bed. Choose something from your list and write it a thank you letter. You won’t send it, but writing about gratitude feels cheering.
If someone/thing upsets or angers you, but you cannot talk to them/it, write an unsent letter. This is a powerful means of getting things off your chest. Again, you won’t send this letter, but it will help you express what has upset you and move on from it. You can decide whether to shred, bury, burn or toss your letter out to sea. Whatever you do, notice the sense of letting go that can attend this sort of writing.
In a journal no one sees what you write unless you choose to share it. No one judges the writing; it is for you alone. If you are receiving counselling, or if you have support from a close friend or family members, your journal can help you explore things you might talk about. I think of the page as a friend who always listens, and the pen as the means to say what needs to be said, no matter how surprising or off the wall.
If you want to know more, visit these resources: www.lapidus.org.uk is the UK network for writers with an interest in writing for health and wellbeing, with regional groups including one that meets regularly in Cornwall; www.gilliebolton.com, advice and publications by the UK’s leading expert on writing for wellbeing; www.orchardfoundation.co.uk for short courses, coaching and mentoring.
Bolton, G., (1999). The Therapeutic Potential of Creative Writing. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Cameron, J., (1995). The Artists’s Way. London: Random House.
Pennebaker, James W., (1990, rev 1997). Opening Up: the Healing Power of Expressing Emotions. New York: Guilford Press.
by Jane Moss