I’d been writing and publishing for twenty years when I was brought to a juddering halt by depression. That was ten years ago, and through my recovery I have discovered a different side to writing which has helped me discover different aspects to myself.
I am not the first to posit the healing powers of writing and words. We could go back through the centuries and the human use of charms, spells and prayer (Mazza, 2003). In more recent years, experiment, research and experience have come together to give a grounding to the idea of writing as a therapy (Smyth & Pennebaker, 2008; Nicholls, 2009; Evans, 2011). For those interested in this way of working there is a national organisation www.Lapidus.org.uk
Personally, it took a while for me to gather enough of my resources to be able to write for publication again. I spent years writing for myself, exploring aspects of me, my experiences, my relationships and my story. It may sound self-indulgent, but it was also my life saver. In addition, during this time, I had therapy and trained as a counsellor. All of this, I believe, has fed into the writing which I now choose to share with an audience, it has added layers and textures which were not there before.
I am struck by writers more famous than me who have also used writing to ease them through emotional turmoil. Colm Tóibín explains his task in writing his recent novel Nora Webster (Penguin, 2015), was one of working out the truth of what had happened when his father died. ‘You’re pulling this out of yourself. This is sometimes very difficult material.’ But ‘it’s an anchor, in a way, all this pleasure [I experience] would mean nothing if this pain, if this working out the pain wasn’t there and I wasn’t writing and I wasn’t doing it.’ (Tóibín, 2016.)
Jackie Kay says that it is not just in the writing, but in the crafting that the healing can be found. When she was asked how she got through her difficult encounter with her birth father (as described in her novel Red Dust Road, Picador, 2011) she replied, ‘By writing. … By finding some way of crafting an experience, constructing a structure to create a door to let other people in so they can walk into your experience and call it theirs and in the business of doing this in itself gives you somewhere to go with it. It’s almost like telling a story back to yourself. Often the more traumatised we are, the more we’ll tell the story or else we’ll be completely silent. Writing is one of the ways of expressing the inexpressible.’ (Kay, 2016.)
When I came to write my first novel for publication (The Art of the Imperfect, long-listed for the Crime Writers Association debut novel award, 2015 https://goo.gl/JrGat2) I wanted to write about my journey through depression in a way that would both express something for myself and open it up to others. In order to do so, one of the techniques I used was to show the mismatch between the external ‘reality’ and the internal monologue of the character Hannah. Some readers have said they have found this disturbing and uncomfortable, others have said how it echoed their own experiences.
I live with depression. I still write every day in a journal. Some of what I write is about dealing with my emotional landscape and existence. I wouldn’t share what I write in my journal in its raw state. However, I do believe it gives me a greater understanding of what it is to be human which can augment the writing I do for publication.
This post is brought to you by Kate Evans.
Evans, K. (2011). ‘The Chrysalis and the Butterfly: A phenomenological study of one person’s writing journey.’ Journal of Applied Arts & Health 2:2, 173-186.
Kay, J. (2016.) Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 28th October. Interviewer: Kirsty Young. Producer: Cathy Drysdale.
Mazza, N. (2003). Poetry Therapy. Theory & Practice. Routledge, New York & London.
Nicholls, S. (2009). ‘Beyond Expressive Writing: evolving models of developmental creative writing.’ Journal of Health Psychology 14(2), 171-180.
Smyth, J.M., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2008). Exploring the boundary conditions of expressive writing: In search of the right recipe. British Journal of Health Psychology 13, 1-7.
Tóibín, C. (2016.) Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 8th January. Interviewer: Kirsty Young. Producer: Christine Pawlowsky