DH Lawrence famously observed that "one sheds one's sicknesses in books", which in his case was demonstrably true. But for the rest of us, what is the relationship between writing and wellbeing?
Last week, I delivered a presentation at Reminiscence Network East’s annual conference, on the subject of Creative Writing and Dementia. My literature research into this area had been inspired by Writing Home, a project I am currently involved with which takes place between May and July this year and is a partnership between Essex County Council and Essex Dementia Care. Writing Home explores the impacts of creative writing and reminiscence on the wellbeing of people with early stage dementia who already meet regularly to enjoy other social, arts and crafts activities.
For the past year or so, I have also been facilitating a series of monthly writing workshops alongside a storyteller and an audio artist at a hospice in Essex, as part of a Creative Hub. In this setting, and with the trust that is gained by meeting a group of people regularly over months, the vital role writing can play in an individual’s life has become evident. Through the act of writing and sharing their stories, some participants have found a way of reflecting on the value of their lives up to this point, and of leaving a poignant and lasting legacy to future generations of their family, stories that might otherwise never have seen the light of day.
I have also been working recently with a Bereavement Service, bringing bereaved people together within a safe and supportive environment to write down and then share some of their resonant memories, feelings and thoughts, prompted by a range of writing exercises. The results that emerge – invariably highly charged and emotive – are sometimes breathtakingly powerful in their honesty and simplicity, a reminder that all stories start, according to WB Yeats in The Circus Animals' Desertion, "in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”.
For anyone who would like to find out more about the field of therapeutic writing, I would recommend reading some of the many excellent titles published by specialist imprint Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Bloomsbury also publishes a range of titles in this area, including the transformational Writing Your Self by Myra Schneider and John Killick.
For people wishing to explore this subject further and perhaps to link up with fellow practitioners in their region, I would strongly recommend joining the ‘words for wellbeing’ organisation Lapidus. As well as an informative journal, it has a lively Facebook forum and will help bring you up to speed on current events, activities and best practice in this challenging and highly rewarding field.
The National Association of Writers in Education also offers occasional courses in writing and wellbeing and is well worth looking up, particularly if you also have an interest (as the name suggests!) in working as a writer within an educational context.
On a personal note, whenever I am able to write in a regular and sustained way I find that I am on better terms with myself. The writing becomes rewarding in its own right; process rather than product, journey rather than destination. It can even have a spiritual dimension, as adherents of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way will attest. The alternative, as Dorothea Brande notes in her inspirational writing guide Becoming a Writer, is to drop back "into a life with no creative outlet, unhappy, thwarted, and restless".
Perhaps this connection between writing and being on good terms with oneself is what Zadie Smith was driving at when she commented: “Good writing requires – no, demands – good being. I’m absolutely adamant on this point”.
What role does writing play in your life? Does it contribute to your sense of wellbeing?
Do let me know please, by replying to this post.
Andrew Burton is a freelance literature professional and arts marketer. He works with Essex Book Festival on writer development projects, with Essex County Council and others on creative writing projects for health and well being, and runs monthly theatre writing workshops at the University of Essex’s Lakeside Theatre, where he is an Associate Artist. For further information visit: www.andrewcburton.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @andyrooburton