Writing as Therapy
By Richard P. Holm, MD
During the South Dakota Festival of Books, I listened to a group of five successful novelists discussing the art of writing and what they gained from creating their works. They all seemed to agree with journalist Malcolm Gladwell who said that it takes some talent, but more importantly, about 10,000 hours of practice to become good at anything. They each also said that writing has given them joy, humor, an understanding about life, and a sense of meaning.
Hearing all this, I reflected on how much room I have for improvement in my own writing. On the other hand, I realized my compositions are not for a novel but for self-help, and the goal of my latest book, Life’s Final Season, is to help people during their aging and dying process. As opposed to a novel, my writing has a different purpose. I also thought of how therapeutic my own writing practice has been for me since my cancer diagnosis.
There is a lot out there about writing as therapy. Orthopedic surgeon Dr. David Hanscom, in his book Back in Control, provides for us a writing method to help people in chronic pain. He advises those in pain to write down any random thoughts for ten to thirty minutes once or twice a day for at least several months. Hanscom reports the theory that when pain becomes chronic, the signals change from damage pain activity in one part of the brain to an emotional (fear and anxiety) response in a different part of the brain. Hanscom asserts that the daily writing exercise truly helps people break the pain cycle when nothing else helps.
Professor Dr. Gillie Bolton also recommends a daily writing program for chronic pain. She says not to worry about grammar, style, or spelling. Dr. Bolton advises starting by unloading and dumping negative thoughts, followed with expressive and explorative writing about any topic. She suggests that we focus on the writing without distraction, finding time to do it once or twice daily, and doing it for yourself (not others). Her contention: writing helps us illuminate our own suppressed feelings, thereby helping us deal with chronic pain, depression, and other miseries of life.
I truly hope my book helps caregivers and people who are aging and dying, but my writing has had the added benefit of helping me cope with a deadly diagnosis. A daily writing exercise may just help you too.
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