Writing and Emotional Health

I have been told on multiple occasions (by writerly friends, my mother the editor, and one or two therapists, for a start) that I process quite a lot of what I feel or go through via my writing.

It’s a familiar thought now, and it makes me happy. It also makes me feel better at times about those days I spend five hours to get a paragraph written but I just need to write and can do nothing else. But at first it made me . . . wonder, a little.

Like. . . What does that mean? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? It seems like it is good for me, but is it bad for my writing?

Honestly, I don’t think it is at all, although there are certainly some pieces of writing that helped me deal with something stressful, angering, or hurtful in my life which I wrote just to write, to get out or process, and would never try and polish up for public consumption. Some things belong in the depths of one’s hard drive (and occasionally shared with friends, for . . . reasons).

And as far as being good for me? Oh, absolutely!

I’m an introvert. I have anxiety issues, and have struggled for over two-thirds of my life with depression. I over-analyse and internalise and fret.

I one hundred percent believe it when I say that beginning to write, to really try with my writing, is one of the best decisions I ever made. (Even if it was a spur of the moment leap into deep water – yay, NaNoWriMo! – and has lead me into a fair bit of crazy on its own.)

Now, I never really set out to channel my feelings into my writing – not in this way, at least! – it wasn’t an intention particularly, it just . . . happened naturally. It came naturally to me to do so as I began writing fiction more seriously and with more focus. Over the years since I started writing every day, however, I have grown more able to recognise, at least at times, when I am.

I know that using writing as an outlet for emotions and thoughts is a great thing (at least so I can say for myself, and I hear similar things from many others) and . . . I strongly believe that it can make stories better too, not just writers.

Sometimes I channel specifically what I am facing, what is upsetting me perhaps very deeply, into a story – though if it is severe enough, I may filter it through at least one lens even so, offering one distorting level more of distance.

For example, a story I wrote one evening after returning home alone – having ridden along in an ambulance with my mother to the emergency room and spent hours waiting there with no idea what was going on with her somewhere away from me in the warren of triage rooms. I wrote a story set in an emergency room waiting room – but not a girl waiting for her mother, filtering my anxiety even as I let it be channelled into the words.

And my story? It had a happier resolution. The patient was severely injured, but coherent, and could soon go home. My mother would remain at the hospital for I knew not how long, I had been told, before my brother finally ferried me home.

The main character in the story was waiting with someone else to support him, as well, giving it a less traumatic cast, as I had more than half-wished I’d had someone else with me through the wee hours I spent alone in that tiny waiting room among the triage rooms listening to someone screaming about having been shot, and another woman cursing about her withdrawals. (Both features that certainly did not make it into my story, even twisted or altered. They would have . . . soured the scene and the primary focus was the emotion, not the setting. I pick and choose when I interpret scenes so strongly into stories; not all details are necessary and some pare away from the emotion of the scene rather than add to it.)

While that is a very evocative example (I had to pause for a while to collect myself from the memories thinking over that story brought back) it is certainly not to say I never do the same with happier things – I definitely have and I do not infrequently, really. Something that makes me happy may inspire me to write a story about a character with similar feelings; novels may acquire scenes that embody my joys and passions. On both sides of the emotional cast – we’ll simplify and sort them simply as negative and positive – writing can feel much more real with the addition.

But when I am upset, or angry, or hurting, particularly, these are emotions that I can both work through and distance myself from, to an extent, by using my writing to channel them. Sometimes even right there in the moment, as I am suffering through whatever flavour of emotional distress it is, plotting out details for a story, for inflicting something similar upon a character, for writing through the same pain . . . that can make it easier for me to bear. It is almost just part of being a writer, for me.

“I watched my life as if it were happening to someone else. My son died. And I was hurt, but I watched my hurt, and even relished it, a little, for now I could write a real death, a true loss. My heart was broken by my dark lady, and I wept, in my room, alone; but while I wept, somewhere inside I smiled.”
~Neil Gaiman (Sandman)

All of that said . . . let me not forget to mention that there’s a flipside to that.

As I was taught particularly by my time in the world of fanfiction (not that I’ve abandoned that realm now, of course; far from it, I assure you) it can be ever so wonderfully calming to retreat from a painful or upsetting world into fiction that sits firmly in the H/C or WAFF genres. (That’s hurt/comfort, wherein your character(s) get a painful walloping of various kinds or strengths, and then get it made all better, or Warm And Fuzzy Fic, which is exactly what it sounds like – warm, fuzzy, feel-good fluff, pretty much. The two are not mutually exclusive, though the purest example of the WAFF genre has no ‘hurt’ in it, even prefixing a ‘make it all better’.)

Reading those kinds of stories is a well-known salve for a bad day in any fandom, of course, but writing such stories can be an even more excellent distraction from whatever emotional issues one might dealing with in the moment. Honestly I often find when I finish, even if I haven’t completed the entire story in that first sitting, that the trouble I had been dealing with somehow . . . eased a bit while I was focusing on writing, perhaps even on channelling my emotional stress into the story – though in a different light than I’ve already discussed.

Personally, I tend to prefer the hurt/comfort arena – it gives me a chance to connect the writing further with whatever I am feeling, when something fluffier from the outset can be hard to get into enough to write, in certain frames of mind. And then, having hurt my character(s) enough to have that connection, I get to fix it, the way I can’t (or can’t immediately) fix my own problems.

My fluffy stories can turn out to be a degree more touching, more emotional, and easier to connect to when they were written in a situation like this, rather than from a decision to write something fluffy. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that; I do it pretty often for no reason beyond ‘I want to write fluff’ or ‘I have this sweet idea’.)

I find both applications of using my own emotions, channelling them into my writing via recontextualising or reversing, very helpful both for myself, for emotional health, and to crafting good and emotionally grounding stories.

In short? Writing keeps me sane. (Or, as I prefer to say, a comfortable and mostly manageable kind of insanity.) What about you?

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