Tag Archives: Oliver Burkeman

Writing and wellbeing

Writing makes you feel better?

I have been thinking about writing for wellbeing recently. This is because my writers group is organising a writing festival. We have been fortunate in gaining adequate funding from various bodies, including the Arts Council Lottery Fund, some local council community funds and from the Network of Wellbeing. 

Applications to all our funders included our two aims which reflect the value we attach to writing for everyone: 

  1. promote the participation of writers of all experiences ages and diversity in a range of writing activities with other people.
  2.  provide opportunities to gain experience and confidence in writing and creativity, reinforced through interaction and celebration with professional and other writers.

WRITE NOW TOTNES! Festival

We want to attract to the festival people who don’t see themselves as writers, who are not confident as writers or who could be helped by the writing process. We are encouraging them to engage with writing, through workshops, performance events, exhibitions and the opportunity to meet with other writers. Our group offers an on-going, permanent and social connection through writing.

The restorative aspects of writing 

As writers we spend much of our time thinking about writing for publication. While it is great to write for publication writing for oneself is also a valid activity. It may not be a different activity of course. 

Writing for publication has an intention outside and beyond the process of writing. In restorative writing the process is more important than the output. There is a body of research that supports writing as good for wellbeing, among people of all ages. For example, one team found that a very small amount of writing has a swift outcome:

Writing about personal experiences in an emotional way for as little as 15 minutes over the course of three days brings about improvements in mental and physical health. [James W Pennebaker & Janel D Seagel (1999) Forming a story: the health benefits of Narrative, in Journal of Clinical Psychology, Vol 55 (10).] 

So how does writing help? What does it mean to write for wellbeing?

Journaling and Morning Pages

Many people, and they would not necessarily see themselves primarily as writers, know the value of writing frequently. Many suggest undertaking writing every day.

To unlock their creative capacities, many writers and artists follow Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, in which she describes the daily act of writing Morning Pages. 

Here’s a quick guide. Morning Pages are done first thing every day, in long hand, over 3 pages of A4. Write whatever is in your head, on your mind: worries, plans irritations, fury everything. You keep on for three pages and then stop. You don’t have to reread them. Here’s Oliver Burkeman describing the effects of writing Morning Pages after some years of resistance:

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised at how powerful Morning Pages proved, from day one, at calming anxieties, producing insights and resolving dilemmas. After all, the psychological benefits of externalising thoughts via journaling are well-established,  … Crucially Morning Pages are private. [Oliver Burkeman does it every morning. You should, too. Guardian4.10.2014]

Form of writing

The benefits of writing about stressful events appear to come from, at the most basic level, avoiding supressing negative feelings, and relief from the stress of the events. More positively stress can be reduced by writing about experiences, such as serious illness.

By writing, you put some structure and organisation to those anxious feelings. It helps you get past them. [Pennebaker in the Journal of American Medical Association 281 (14)].

Another researcher stresses how writing about upsetting events is most beneficial when people focus on finding meaning because this allows them to develop greater awareness of positive aspects of a stressful event. 

The value of writing within a group: The Write to Life Group

I have seen how writing with the support of others can be very beneficial. The group I am thinking of often publishes and performs their work. This is theWrite to Life Group, run by Sheila Hayman for the organisation Freedom from Torture. Members of the group are survivors of torture, supported by writing mentors. 

I have attended performances of their plays, read poetry written by members of the group, and support the group financially in a small way. Recently they performed their work called Pawns, Princesses and Poets, based round objects at the V&A Museum. One member of the group is Hasani. 

A certain writer once remarked that, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ Having gone through a terrible experience in my country of birth because of my political views, I left it for the UK. Through the ‘Write to Life’ group I have found a place that helps me to free myself from the turmoil inside.

I have written about the group, its members and successes on this blog. 

Souvenirs Writing and Home (April 2013)

Dear Jade, a letter to Jade Amoli-Jackson, author of Moving a Country (September 2013)

Souvenirs (May 2016)

Lost and Found in Exile (September 2016)

6 Things I learned from my Freedom from Torture Challenge, a project to raise awareness about refugees and literature and to raise money  (September 2017)

Wellbeing, Writing and the Writing Festival

My enthusiasm for encouraging people to better mental health and wellbeing through writing is loud and clear as I try to encourage people to join our festival WRITE NOW TOTNES! in three weeks’ time. Give it a try!

Picture Credits:

Handwriting with Pen: Visual Hunt Nfoka on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA and Crayons and Woman with tea: Visual Hunt 

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Filed under Freedom from Torture Challenge, Writing

Dear Diary, today I wrote …

Why are writers so often advised to keep a diary or journal? How can regular entries support your writing? I always wanted one of those 5-year diaries with a key, kept in a box or a slipcase, bound in padded faux leather, edged with gold. Instead, every Christmas I was given an adult’s one-year pocket diary, with rice-thin paper and four or five lines per day. They were often business gifts my father had received at work, so they bore the trademark of the company and details of relevant business organisations inside.

I diligently made entries for a few weeks: ‘went on a walk’, ‘snowed’, ‘went to see the Bennetts and played charades’, that kind of thing. Then around the time I went back to boarding school (mid-January) the entries would tail off. After all, every day was more or less the same. Got up, had breakfast, made my bed, did English/Maths/Geography and Games. Rained.’ and so forth. It became boring to write, it is boring to read. But I was learning a useful skill: recording in words.

Writers’ diaries.

249 Jrnl of a novel

On writing courses I have been recommended to read writers’ diaries, specifically John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel from the time he was writing East of Eden. In this collection of letters you learn that Steinbeck was a keen amateur woodworker. He wrote in pencil and really did have a pencil sharpening routine as a prelude to his writing. He planned a fixed amount to write everyday and which scenes. It was all mapped out in advance. Nothing I read in his diary has any relevance to my writing, except it was often very hard work for Steinbeck as well.

Journal of a Novel by John Steinbeck, published by Penguin Classics. 192pp

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf kept diaries. They have been edited by her husband and published, with an eye to illuminating her writing practices. When I posted about To The Lighthouse as part of #Woolfalong recently I greatly enjoyed looking up the references to the novel in the diary. The entries cast light on her writing processes, what she saw as her innovations, how she felt she was dealing with the new approaches she was trying. Recommended!

A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Leonard Woolf, first published in 1953. One edition was published by Persephone Books in 2012. 372pp.

Reasons to keep a diary

I mentioned my desire for the locked 5-year diary. Two features of my thwarted wishes indicate important reasons to keep a diary:

  1. To make a record over time. I grew up to read a history degree. Perhaps you can see the connection.
  2. To have a secret or at least a private place. An interesting piece in the New Yorker in March referred to the importance of diaries as secret places in a review of What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi: Black Women Writers and the Secret Space of Diaries by Morgan Jenkins.

And I can think of a number of other reasons why I still do have a journal of sorts:

3. As I indicated above, it is a place to make sense of the world through words.

4. It’s a place to make sense of my writing through reflection, comments, experiments, notes, mistakes.

249 deardiary

I have a daily weekday routine of getting up, making coffee and writing two A4 pages by hand, intending to focus on my writing. But it often turns out to be a reflection on activities of the previous day: a play, an exhibition, a conversation, a walk, a book or a dilemma not connected to writing. How is it helping my writing? Perhaps it just gets my writing mojo going. A way to loosen the ligaments, to use Virginia Woolf’s phrase (April 20th 1919, p13).

The benefits according to others

Writing about traumatic experiences and the associated emotions for 20 minutes a day speeds up the healing of wounds, it is claimed. Research on this was reported by Oliver Burkeman in his Guardian Blog in July 2013.

Michael Palin has an instrumental reason for keeping his diaries: a record of his days, helping him remember things he would otherwise have forgotten. But he also has this to say

I’ve tried to approach each morning’s entry as a story of the day that’s just passed, without limits and without self-censorship. And composing a story a day is not a bad discipline for any would-be writer. (The Guardian, Do Something supplement, September 2015.)

Journaling to help learning

249 blank pages

I think the most useful aspect of my regular writing is that it is part of my reflective process. I record my successes – a story completed and entered for a competition; the MS of The New Age of Ageing sent to the publishers; a target number of words achieved and so on. I record my frustrations. Periodically I review the pages of my journal, focusing on what I did, and what I learned from my actions. And sometimes I plan what I will do in future in the light of this learning.

On my tbr pile

What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Diary of a Notable Woman by Jean Lucey Pratt

Journals of Sylvia Plath

Over to you

How does writing a journal help your writing? Are there any journals by writers that have influenced your writing?

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Filed under Learning, Reading, Virginia Woolf, Writing