This week marks the birthday of two of my favorite writers, Edna St. Vincent Milay (born 2/22/1892) and Anais Nin (born 2/21/1903). I appreciate Milay for her combination of free spirit and dedication to the sonnet as a poetic form. Likewise, I admire Nin’s openness to ambivalence and ability to articulate her experience in her diaries.
I’ve kept a diary for almost ten years. Daily journal writing is not only the foundation of all my writing, but is an essential component of my spiritual practice and my mental health and well-being.
Before I participated in my first creative writing class, I took up writing as part of a treatment plan for PTSD. Each week, my therapist asked me to write down my traumatic experiences. Between appointments I would read what I had written aloud to myself; at our weekly session I read the description to my therapist.
Reading and writing is especially effective for treating PTSD, because memory of traumatic events becomes associated with the deactivation of the speech center in the brain. Through intentionally processing these experiences using language, we alter how the brain deals with them and lesson the negative impact on the psyche.
A few years after this therapy I became involved with creative writing workshops. Between weekly meetings the writer would work on a story, often reading several drafts over and over again as the story was revised. At the workshop, the writer read the story aloud to the group and received feedback. The process was almost identical to that used by the therapist.
The function of a writing workshop is not intentionally therapeutic, nor should it be confused with therapy, but the benefits are there nonetheless. Anyone who needs a therapist, including writers, should see a qualified therapist. But as writers we can’t forget the psychological and spiritual implications of our process.
What I write in my diary is never intended for any other reader besides myself. In fact, I generally throw the journals out when I’ve filled them. I value the activity of turning my thoughts into language over the product. When I am writing a story or poem, the inverse is true. Of course, these distinctions are only a matter of emphasis; process and product are inseparable.
David Servan-Schreiber, a psychiatrist and writer for Ode Magazine, explains some of the benefits of therapeutic writing. (http://www.odemagazine.com/doc/73/upside-of-writing/ )
An article in the same issue of Ode Magazine describes the corollary to writing as therapy: bibliotherapy. (http://www.odemagazine.com/doc/73/reading-writing-revelation/ ) Doctors use reading for pain management, and psychologists use bibliotherapy to effectively treat conditions ranging from depression to obesity to borderline personality disorder.
Psychologist Michael Duda prescribes a range of texts based on “intuition and knowledge of human nature.” He explains, “The reader is the creator of his or her inner tableau. The imagery is individual and subjective but authentic, as well since reading always happens against the backdrop of existential experiences.”
As a therapeutic tool, Duda asks his clients not to analyze the texts, but to express their emotional response. A similar injunction was given by John Daido Roshi for an exercise where artists and audience established a profound two-way connection. The feedback for the artist was unique and invaluable, the experience for the audience enriching and expressive.
Canadian researchers have found that reading, in general, contributes to Cognitive Reserve (CR), “the brains ability to protect itself and adapt to physical damage.” CR helps us cope with damage to the brain from Alzheimers, stroke, and trauma.
All of this research recalls one of my favorite quotes from Kamala Markandaya’s Nectar in a Sieve:
It was my father who taught me to read and write. People said he did it because he wanted his children to be one cut above the rest; perhaps so, but I am certain that he also knew it would be a solace to me in affliction, a joy amid tranquility… “Practice hard,” he would say, watching me busy with slate and pencil. “For who knows what dowry there will be for you when you are ready!”
Literacy is indeed a valuable dowry, a solace and a joy, an investment that pays off many times over. This is why my favorite gift, to give or receive, is a book.