There has seemingly always been a link between people’s lifestyles and creative expression. So many artists of all genres have said that their best work has come from difficult experiences and Lee and I discovered that we started writing following specific events in our lives. It appears that there is an inexorable link between the two leaving me wondering if you could successfully paint, write music, or write a novel with very few life experiences. I’m sure it is, as all of us have at our disposal, our imagination, and because of our imagination, we can at least guess what some of the worst traumas are like.
Stress, trauma, and unexpected life developments such as a cancer diagnosis, a car accident, a layoff at work, a bereavement, or a breakup can throw people off stride emotionally and mentally. Writing about thoughts and feelings that arise from a traumatic or stressful life experience, called expressive writing, helps individuals deal with it.
Many well-known authors had troublesome lives, and there is little doubt, if you read their work that this is reflected in what they offer.
Virginia Woolf’s depression, Oscar Wilde having to deal with falling in love with other men in a day and age, when homosexuality was illegal and vilified. And Charlotte Brontë, who believed that, after the death of her sisters, they came to haunt her.
So many parts of Dickens’ novels are full of darkness, and a lot of this came from his life experiences. During childhood, his family was in extreme debt and poverty. He took the job at a blacking factory, and later described the work:
‘No words can express the secret agony of my soul’ and described the ‘grief and humiliation’ he felt. Later in life, he lost his sister and brother and then saw his father go to debtor’s prison. Later he witnessed the death of a daughter and a son and had a troubled relationship with his other children.
Chandrayan Gupta, a crime writer has this to say:
‘Now, I’m a published author of two crime thriller novels, and I can state with complete honesty that I wouldn’t be here right now were it not for them. I wrote them during a particularly dark time in my life. They helped me heal and grow. They helped me get relief from the extreme pain I was feeling.’
Jamie Mayes a writer and education consultant tells of how he believed divine intervention saved him from suicide:
‘God spoke to me so clearly it was as if He was in the kitchen with me. He said three simple words, Write about it… it took me a minute to compose myself, but I dried my face, put the knife in the sink and went to my bedroom. I found my school notebook and started writing words on paper.
I began writing paragraphs about my feelings and the anger with my life and my situation...the more I wrote the more I was able to release the pain that I felt.’
Crime author Chris Whittaker tells of how writing saved his life:
‘The mugger wasn’t particularly big, and I didn’t particularly want to give him my phone..he stabbed me a couple of times, in the side; I still have the scars. And then he lifted the knife up and aimed for the centre of my chest. I grabbed his hand. He dropped the knife. I dropped my phone. He picked up both and ran off. I stood there bleeding until he was gone.
I stopped sleeping. I stopped eating. I so desperately wanted to shrug it off and move on…even now, it’s hard to put into words just how bad it was. I stood in front of a mirror and didn’t recognise myself.’
Then Chris started writing down his thoughts:
‘I started drinking and taking drugs – often alone – because it made me feel nothing for a while. I didn’t know how to cope with what had happened, or how to ask for help. I didn’t even want to ask for help. I just wanted to die...but that night, for the first time in close to a year, I properly slept. The next morning, I woke up and wrote some more. It wasn’t a quick fix, magic pill-type solution. But the more I wrote, the better I felt.
“I’m going to be a stockbroker,” I announced to my brother…And then I lost a million pounds.
But…writing saved me. It helped when nothing else could. It grounded me, even on our honeymoon I would sit up writing when my wife thought I was sleeping.
I started out simply keeping a diary of the way I was feeling. From there I revisited the past, the trauma of being attacked. Only this time I changed the people involved to fictional characters and changed the outcome. I’d close my eyes and wring out every detail from that day, from the trees I could see, to the colour of the houses beside me. I worked and reworked the scene obsessively until each sentence carried me back. I suppose it gave me a level of control I didn’t have at the time.
In Spain, I wrote every minute of every day. Writing turned into this crazy, maddening pursuit to find the perfect story, the perfect paragraph, the perfect word. And, though I didn’t know it at the time, the years of practice had given me a good foundation to create a story. On our return to London, my debut novel, Tall Oaks, was plucked from the slush pile and I landed a publishing deal. The book was shortlisted for a Crime Writers’ Association Dagger. I went to a fancy award ceremony and was up against bestsellers. To my amazement, I won.’
The prevailing theory behind this phenomenon is that writing simply might help people overcome emotional inhibition. James Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, studied the impact of a certain kind of writing on mental health in 1986. Since then, over 200 research studies have reported that “emotional writing” can improve people’s physical and emotional health and now it is an established psychological norm.
The act of thinking about an experience, as well as expressing emotions, seems to be important. In this way, writing helps people to organize thoughts and give meaning to a traumatic experience. When people open up privately about a traumatic event, they are more likely to talk with others about it, suggesting that writing leads indirectly to reaching out for social support that can aid healing.
There is little doubt that the arts are a form of escapism as well as a form of expression. It is that other world into which we go to get away from all sorts of things from the deepest traumas to everyday stresses. I suppose a caveat that would go along with encouraging such practices is that you must balance it with real life and deal with those problems either in a time-honoured and recommended way or by seeking professional help. It is worth adding too that if you have suffered any type of violent trauma, the answer may not be writing about violence unless you are convinced that it is indeed cathartic. And, if you do, make sure the timing is right. Too soon may well be too dangerous.
And there is always a chance that your writings/book could become popularly read, which may be followed by interviews and constant probing. If your work relieves some of your trauma, you may find this difficult to talk about as interest in your work grows.
Nevertheless, writing is not only good for your mental health, there is no doubt that is a good way of healing after a tragic event or trauma.
If you wish to talk to someone about your mental health try:
and if you are having suicidal thoughts: NHS Suicidal Thoughts