What do you have to say?

There are times when writing is a struggle as I search for ideas and the right words to convey them.  Other times, when I have a compelling story I want to tell, the words just flow and the entire process seems so easy. Having a chance to tell our stories can be incredibly cathartic, even if we don’t share them with anyone else.

I thought of this when I read a story by Chris Richards in the Washington Post this week about a program to help veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan write songs. The veterans work with professional songwriters in a workshop setting. They tell their stories, pulling together images and memories of their experiences, and the songwriters create a melody and work it into a song. The veterans find the experience to be very healing, giving them an outlet for expression that is hard to find anywhere else.

About 20 years ago, the writer Maxine Hong Kingston started a similar project in California for Vietnam War veterans (see her book, The Fifth Book of Peace). Theirs was strictly a writing workshop, not music, but the purpose was the same – giving the vets an opportunity to tell their stories, in a safe place, without judgment. Kingston began the process as a way of working out a loss of her own, and together with the veterans, found some peace along the way.

Some people keep diaries throughout their lives. Many of us had them as teenagers – an outlet for our angst, emotional ups and downs, and rants against our parents. But a journal devoted to a specific topic or purpose can be a helpful tool in dealing with stress, whether it’s everyday stress or the more intense stress caused by wartime experiences.

James Pennebaker, a professor at the University of Texas, is a leading researcher and proponent of the idea of “writing to heal”. He believes that expressing our emotions makes us healthier and helps prevent many of the chronic diseases that befall so many people in modern society. For a lot of people, writing is the best (maybe the only) way that they can do that. Dr. Pennebaker has written a book about this process (Writing to Heal: A guided journal for recovering from trauma and emotional upheaval) and conducts workshops (one will be held at the Duke Integrative Medicine Center in March).

Gratitude journals are another, somewhat more indirect, way to help relieve stress. I’ve written before about the research showing that people who regularly remind themselves of what they are grateful for tend to be more satisfied with their lives and to experience less stress. Gratitude journals have also been used with veterans and others who experience Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, with promising results.

Whether or not you have had a traumatic experience, writing can still benefit you. In this age of truncated communications like email, Twitter and Facebook, it can be quite satisfying to sit down and express your thoughts and feelings without anyone cutting you off or limiting your characters. A journal can be a place to try out ideas, explore emotions and practice that difficult conversation you need to have with someone. Often, writing can be as mood-lightening as talking with a close friend. I suspect this is the reason why the memoir has become such a popular genre in recent years. Everyone has a story to tell, and wants to tell it if given an opportunity. But we are not very good at remembering emotions accurately after time has gone by, so it’s important to write down how you feel now. Start telling your story  – your audience can be as wide as the Internet or as small as a little notebook sitting by your bed.

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