I have this quote from Ben Okri pinned up next to my desk. From being quite young I’ve used fiction as a place to find strength and understanding. Books have made me feel like I’m not the only person to ever go through something and at different times of my life different stories have resonated with me. From wanting to be Nancy Blackett from Swallows and Amazons when I was nine to reading and re-reading Jane Eyre when I was a teenager I’ve always felt that books have helped me find out who I was and who I wanted to be. As I got older I found a role model in Harriet Vane in Dorothy L Sayer’s novels who taught me that you can survive terrible circumstances (although fortunately I’ve not had to endure being wrongfully tried for killing my lover) and comfort from Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You after being seriously ill.
To be honest I’ve always treated my fiction addiction as a bit of a guilty secret but I’ve now started to realise that not only am I not the only one who finds understanding in the pages of a book but that it can actually be good for you. Recent research has shown that reading for pleasure can “increase empathy, improve relationships with others, reduce the symptoms of depression and the risk of dementia, and improve wellbeing throughout life.” The NHS is now prescribing books for adults and young people with mental health issues and for people with dementia and their carers with the selected books available in surgeries and libraries.
Then a couple of weeks ago I went to a conference called ‘Storyknowing’ which made me see that stories are a far more powerful tool than I’d ever realised. Storyknowing was about storytelling and adolescent mental health. Storytellers, researchers and people who work with young people came from all over the country to talk about their experiences of using stories to help young people. A storyteller from Glasgow talked about a project which used stories and character creation with a group of persistent young offenders with the purpose of helping them to realise that they can change their lives and escape from the cycle of offending. Other people talked about writing memoirs about adolescent trauma and how traditional stories and folk tales can forge connections within a group of people suffering from mental health issues.
I don’t mind admitting that some days I don’t feel emotionally strong enough for realism, for literature that challenges and confronts. I get enough of the real world from my day job and watching the news. I want a book that allows me to escape from all of that because all too soon I’ll have to put it down and face the realities of life again. But it turns out that when my Mum said ‘all of that reading isn’t going to do you any good’ she wasn’t right. Stories can give us the strength to face the challenges that life throws at us. And if readers find something like that in my books then I’ve done my job well and I’ve reckon that’s more important than great sales rankings (although let’s be honest, they would be nice too!)
If you’d like to read more about the benefits of reading for pleasure click here.
This post is brought to you by Alys West.