For the sake of variety, I had hoped that I wouldn’t start this final blog entry of the semester with a personal anecdote, as I’ve done in many of my past posts. But the reason I even considered the topic I decided to write about here is quite personal.
Over the last few months I’ve been dealing with the serious illness of someone in my immediate family. Something that has struck me in going through this experience has been the extent to which the act of communicating can be a trigger for emotional release. I’m thinking of “communicating” here fairly narrowly as being on the outgoing or receiving end of verbal or written communication. What I’m talking about is how you might be more or less holding it together, emotionally speaking, until you talk to someone about what’s going on or read the supportive words of dear friends. At least that has been my recent experience. What I haven’t tried out is the potentially therapeutic outlet that writing about difficult experiences appears to offer a lot of people.
I think there’s a general notion in our culture that for a lot of professional writers, putting pen to paper offers them a crucial emotional vent (like music for musicians, painting for visual artists, etc.—though I think most people would exclude academics and journalists from this group). I’d imagine that people who practice regular journaling might affirm that the emotional benefits of writing about one’s personal travails are in fact available to the wider public. Personally, I haven’t practiced the type of “expressive” writing that I think could yield such benefits. For the better part of ten years I’ve focused almost exclusively on the research-based writing that is standard in grad school, neglecting most other literary modes. I’ve been thinking about the therapeutic value of writing recently as I’ve come across memoirs by people who have gone through serious illness and as I started reading a friend’s blog dedicated to her own health issues. So, for this post I figured I’d do a quick web search for “writing therapy” to see what the popular wisdom of the internet has to say about it. Here’s some of what I turned up:
Psychologist James Pennebaker appears to have done important research that sought to investigate the positive effects of expressive writing. In a widely cited article published in 1997, he compared the long-term effects on a group of subjects who wrote extensively about traumatic events to a control group that wrote about “superficial” topics. According to one assessment:
If you followed the people in these studies [who wrote about personal trauma] over time, they reported fewer illnesses, they went to the doctor less often, and they suffered fewer symptoms of depression in the future. They were less likely to miss work and school, and their performance at work went up. These effects lasted for months and years after writing.
A 2008 study on cancer patients who were involved in an expressive writing program found that for a sizable percentage of them writing about their illness brought about some improvement in their quality of life. On a more anecdotal level, a search for the tag “writing therapy” on The Huffington Post brings up a number of interesting articles describing different people’s experiences with using writing as a tool to overcome some sort of difficult experience.
Since the rise of the internet age, blogs have become the preferred medium for people of all stripes to share their personal turmoil. By 2005, a Washington Post article reported that blogs combined the benefits of writing about one’s problems with the possibility of forming virtual communities. An AOL study cited in the piece indicated that “nearly half of bloggers consider it a form of therapy.” Unsurprisingly, blogs about people’s experiences with serious illness—written by themselves or by their relatives—make up a sizable portion of the blogosphere. Early on, hospitals began featuring patient blog postings on their websites, apparently recognizing both the therapeutic value to patients but also their marketing potential. Over the last decade, there have been several efforts to scientifically explain the potential benefits of blogging. A recent study on teenage blogging concluded:
the engagement with an online community allowed by the blog format made it more effective in relieving the writer’s social distress than a private diary would be.
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In the process of writing several drafts of this post I wrestled with whether or not I wanted to test out some of the ideas outlined above by writing something more confessional. That didn’t feel like a risk I was ready to take yet. But in versions in which I specified up front the “illness” (cancer) and the “someone” (my mom), I was again caught off guard by the emotional power that merely typing characters into a word-processor can effect. I probably won’t start up a blog, but I may do well to practice more of the low-stakes writing us peddlers of Writing Across the Curriculum philosophy tend to preach.