As I push back in my favorite armchair and read, I begin to hear the words rustling across the page in full surround sound:
‘Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence – this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word “woods.”’
Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,
are letters up to no good,
clutches of clauses so subordinate
they’ll never let her get away.’
So begins “The Joy of Writing”, a beautiful, evocative, lyrical poem by the Polish poet and essayist Wisława Szymborska who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1996.
Reading has always given me delight and joy. Other than the numerous technical reports, journal articles and proposals I wrote during my 40-year engineering career, however, writing has come to me only in the past five years. I find myself increasingly drawn to it for the pleasure, comfort, and joy it brings. Do others also find joy in writing? I wondered. Szymborska’s poem is to me proof positive that many indeed do.
Writing does much more for us than bring pleasure. An abundance of research supports the notion that it’s a very effective learning tool, helping students grasp, organize, and integrate prior knowledge with new concepts. It encourages active thinking and permits an exploration of ideas. Well before I began my engineering career – when I was a student in high school – I realized that I had not understood something well unless I could write clearly about it. To this day, writing helps me think.
Writing is also an instrument of power; one of the best weapons available to anyone seeking to further a cause. Who hasn’t heard the 19th-century adage ‘The pen is mightier than the sword?’ History is replete with examples. Books can move nations. From Kabir Das to Rabindranath Tagore, from Shakespeare to R.K. Narayan, authors have left indelible imprints on our hearts and minds. Their words lay in wait to pounce on us, as Szymborska says, and once we’re in their grasp, they never let us get away.
I’m writing this article to suggest that you, dear reader, can exercise a different kind of power through writing if you choose – by wielding it as an instrument to heal yourself. Writing can be therapeutic. Research by Dr. James Pennebaker and his colleagues at the University of Austin shows that writing about important 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. Their paper in the Journal of Clinical Psychology shows how “this finding has been replicated across age, gender, culture, social class, and personality type.”
In her article “Writing is Therapy,” Kate Hurley describes other research that suggests writing can improve physical wellbeing by boosting immune functioning as well as mood in patients with HIV/AIDS, asthma, and arthritis. She cites research that shows biopsy wounds heal more quickly in patients who keep a journal. The concept is simple, explains Leona Brits: just write whatever goes in your mind, with no filters or judgments. “Don’t think if it’s wrong or right, if it’s nice or rude, or if you should be ashamed. Don’t use your mind, write from your heart!”
The use of writing to ease grief and loss is a well-known and popular tool. Books, how-to guides, and workshops abound. Harvard University’s Health Beat suggests just letting go and recording your thoughts and feelings, beginning with writing for 15 to 30 minutes a day for three to four days. They describe research that such writing has stronger effects over longer periods of time in helping individuals cope with grief.
Researchers have also identified the great social, psychological, and physical health benefits that come from giving thanks, especially in these troubled times, by keeping a gratitude journal; a practice as simple as writing one sentence each about five things you’ve experienced in the past week for which you feel grateful. These benefits “include better sleep, fewer symptoms of illness, and more happiness among adults and kids alike.”
Writing can be for everyone. You can write for yourself – to understand yourself better; to clear your mind or get something off your chest. Write to share your stories with friends or leave a legacy for your children or grandchildren. You can write for a multitude of reasons. You don’t have to write the next bestseller or elegant argument or cutting opinion piece in a national newspaper. Some of my friends tell me that they can’t write, that they are afraid and unwilling to give it a try. My response to them is: if you can tell a story, you can write. If you can remember something from your past, you can write.
Pick up that pen or sit down at that keyboard. Don’t worry about your grammar, punctuation, spelling, or style.
Just write! It’s good for you!
Mukund Acharya is a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area established to advocate for healthy aging within the South Asian community.
Sukham Blog – This is a monthly column focused on health and wellbeing.