Friday, March 7, 2008

The thing that writing does

"Some magazine was asking writers what they would have become if they hadn't become a writer, and I said that I would have been stabbed to death in the parking lot outside a bar in Florida at 24, or something like that. I really believe that, actually. I think writing saved my life." -- Russell Banks

What is it about writing that heals us? How does it not only fix our ailments, but make us think better? As a student who has worked across the fields of medicine, policy, youth programming, and not least of all, creative writing, I'm interested in the intersection point of these areas, and I hope I'm not forcing them together. Yet I can't help but notice the similarities in writers' experiences with writing, and patients with mood disorders who have improved health outcomes after writing. In Tal Ben-Shahar's Positive Psychology at Harvard College, which consistently attracts hundreds of students, he argues that the act of writing down our negative perceptions of reality will improve emotional well-being. He emphasizes that writing, not talking or thinking, will cause one to be more realistic and objective. A large part of the class is based on research papers that validate the theory, which is also the backbone for some of the most effective therapies out there. This writing that patients do is often done through some kind of psychological intervention, whether it is journaling, individual therapy, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT actually seems the most akin to writing to me, as the premise is that we will distort our perceptions of reality all the way until we actually write the event down. It is once we have the event on paper that we can stand back objectively and avoid magnifying the errors we've made, and learn to view reality head on. Writing sets us free, but how? The mechanism, or as epidemiologists would call it, the "black box," remains elusive. One revered writer said of her reasons, "I don't know why, and I hope I never find out."

So who cares? Why is academic thesis on a grub street blog? Along with nearly a dozen other dedicated writers, I help run Grub Street's Young Adult Writer's Program (YAWP), whose mission is to recruit high schoolers from all over Massachusetts, regardless of race, income, or ethnicity, to come together once a month and write and share work for 4 hours. Our alums have gone on to publish columns and short stories, while others go onto creative writing programs at Brandeis and Sarah Lawrence. Concurrent to this mission is to have our teachers come into schools and teach kids about the transformative power of creative writing. We wouldn't have used the term "transformative" if we didn't mean it. Recruiting students from nearly a hundred different high schools all over New England, I've seen kids from some tough neighborhoods come in and treat YAWP as though it were a sanctuary, and it kind of is. I know that the act of writing makes these kids feel better, but I can't run a randomized control trial to prove it. Hopefully, though, more evidence on the positive effects of writing will accumulate (what is the cost versus benefit of being more thoughtful about yourself?), more caregivers and community leaders will notice it, and hopefully we will see even more writers reach out to the ailing.

--William Rafelson

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