Writing Stories – My Own Experiences

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I have focused a lot on art for therapy on this blog, but have mentioned less on writing for therapy. I have mentioned that keeping a journal or writing stories are good for stress and for healing, and they are. Keeping a journal can be easier than writing stories in many ways, but in others, it can be much harder. When you write in a journal, you are writing facts and your emotions directly onto the page. You are summarizing your day and exploring your experiences, and that can be simultaneously painful and cathartic. When you write a story, however, you are generally putting a character in place and forcing the character through experiences that they adapt to and learn from. This gives a larger, overall view, and also allows for distance between the person writing and the experiences being written about.

Writing stories can be even more challenging in other ways, too. If the author has an intention for their stories to be read by others, then grammar, narrative voice, and all of the other aspects of story writing come into play, which requires knowledge, education, and a situation of constant learning. Even after writing for years, the author will be learning new things to make their stories better for a reader.

For instance, today, I discovered that my stories have issues with passive voice, and I found out that bringing my stories from past tense into present tense helps me eliminate passive voice – as well as helping me to pare down details to only what is necessary for each moment in the story. Now I have to do this to the whole book, and after I am done, I have to decide whether I want to bring the story back into past tense afterward, or leave it in present tense and possibly even make present tense my default writing choice – which might help me to avoid the passive voice and heavy detail pitfalls in the first place.

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Learning and editing does not end once the grammar of a story is perfect. I once thought that was all that was really needed to make a story good enough, and I have long since found that assumption to be almost laughably wrong. There are so many aspects that make a story work, and each aspect must be adhered to. I have found that writing groups on social media are very helpful – for me, they are even more helpful than creative writing college courses, in that sometimes you are dealing with successful authors, and that you can access them for much longer periods of time than a college semester.

In these groups, the feedback is from other writers who are all trying to do the same things as you are, and have as much – and in some cases, more – experience in crafting stories as you do. There are writers there who are at all different levels of learning and crafting, from those who still haven’t written anything and are still just contemplating the idea of writing to those who have written dozens of books – and they all help each other.

You can have your writing read and critiqued, you can get feedback on how to work on syntax or change the dynamics of a paragraph, or you can get ideas for character-building, plot creation, how to create a story outline before you begin writing, and so on. You can find advice as to when to begin editing, how to get an editor, how to write a query letter to an agent or a publisher, or how to self publish. People in these groups will even help you pick character names and attributes, give you ideas for special powers, give you ideas for how to have your character overcome an obstacle, and show you examples of fiction in the genre in which you have chosen to write.

The assistance of fellow writers is possibly the writer’s most valuable asset. Progress in this craft can be slow and even frustrating at times, but some aspects can also be quick and very rewarding. Many authors are also writing for stress, or to share their story with the world. Some are just writing for the love of writing. Some are writing with an intention to help others who may be experiencing things they’ve lived through before, and still others are writing self-help books for people who want to be successful authors. There is variety, from fiction writers, to nonfiction writers, to poetry writers, children’s book writers, bloggers, article writers, and everything in between. This means there is a niche for everyone.

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Most people understand what they are getting into when beginning a diary, but few people understand what they are getting into when beginning to write stories. I remember when I began. I thought the writing of the story was the hardest part. Tapping into creativity and making a full story was difficult. Writing without stopping to go back and edit after every chapter was hard. I butchered my stories before they were much more than begun. And then I joined a writers group on Facebook. There, I met someone who recommended an audio-book by the famous author, Stephen King, called On Writing, which was his direct advice to aspiring authors.

I learned two things that changed everything for me from that book. Number one was not to stop to edit while writing – just keep going and don’t look back until it’s done. Number two was to wait after finishing a story for about six weeks before going back to edit, so that there would be distance between myself and my story and I could look at it more objectively when editing instead of being immersed in it while editing. This allows the writer to see more of the flaws in the writing and correct them.

This advice is what finally allowed me to finish writing my first entire book – and what a book! I wrote a novel that was 89,000 words long in rough draft. I skipped a lot of details and scenes when writing it, so my first revisions to the story (after my six week wait) were to flesh out those scenes, add dialogue, and so on. This brought the book’s word count up to 169,000 words. My editor and I are now working on breaking that enormous Lord-of-the-Rings-for-teenage-girls style book down into four or five smaller books.

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Teenage Fantasy Genre

Little did I know when I started how much time would be spent in revising this story. It has now been over two years since I wrote it, and I am still working on it. Of course, my book was enormous, so that is different from a short story writer, and possibly the length of time working on it is a result as much of length as of learning new things to make it better. Still, I had no idea how much I would learn, or what kind of journey I was embarking on, just in writing a story. Most people who write don’t know when they begin, either.

This project, even though it is written in the teenage fantasy genre, has been very healing for me. I kept a journal all growing up and well into my twenties, but there came a point where I was no longer gaining relief from it. The story projects I have undertaken, however, provide a different kind of release – different yet still satisfying. They allow me to live out daydreams while hoping one day to inspire young people do to the same, through the books I hope to one day publish.

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A young king, in make believe – a childish innocence of a kind I attempt to capture in my work.

One of the most important things to remember as a person who has high stress levels is not to overwhelm myself. I do not give myself deadlines – I believe that giving yourself unnecessary deadlines leads to anxiety and stress and is counterproductive to the exercise. I do not allow myself to be spread too thin – I believe that if I am trying to do too many things at once, I will add stress instead of relieving it. For this reason, I do not work on multiple stories at a time, or do heavy research while writing – research either comes before writing or during revisions after writing, but I do not interrupt the writing to go on an internet goose chase. Most of all, I certainly do not start looking for a publisher or allowing myself to stress out over what comes next while I am still writing and revising the story.

While I am writing and revising, the story is my focus, and only the story. Not what comes after, or anything else. This means that the writing and the process of writing brings me a feeling of peace and well-being rather than adding stresses to my life. I can fully fall into my story while working on it, and each time is a bit of an escape into a fantasy land where I know how the story plays out and everything is both expected and understood – very unlike real life.

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Art and writing for therapy can be used in two ways. This is true for each. The first way, and often the place we all start, is to directly address something we have experienced. For instance, we can paint a scary person in the dark after we were assaulted, or we can write about what happened to us. This method offers a direct, yet often painful process to healing that really works. The second way, and often a place we gradually move into, is to provide ourselves a means of escape from stress. For instance, we can paint a peaceful meadow or flowers and forget about the darkness in our lives for a while, or we can write a fantasy or daydream story and lose ourselves in it like we would with reading a good book. This method is less effective for tackling trauma, but more effective for finding peace and tranquility in life.

Some people do both approaches. One painting will be darkness and another will be peaceful, and the painter alternates between them, or the painter includes in individual paintings the contrast between the two in some kind of metaphysical representation. In a previous post on this blog about starting tips, I recommended doing both – I recommend tackling the hard stuff first and then following up with something lighter so that you are not left in a dark mood.

I fully transitioned over from writing and painting my darkness to writing and painting what I enjoy. It has taken me half a lifetime to do that, but that is where I am at, now. I discovered at an early age that reading for pleasure is an escape from the trials and tribulations of life. In writing my own stories, that escape is even more heightened, because I am creating the story as I experience it in my imagination. I have also found in my life that everyone needs ways to escape the stresses of the world – not merely people who have emotional baggage or damage. Many people do this by watching movies or tv series, these days. My preferred method is still in art and writing, though, because I am now fully attuned to the creative aspect of this kind of escape.

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Finding ways to be more carefree and allowing yourself to dream can lead to a happier existence.

I hope that this blog post has been useful – I truly love the idea of helping others get into art or writing for therapy – knowledge is helpful for growth, and I would like to share mine in the hopes that it might encourage others. With all of the darkness that comes with life, and all of the stresses of politics, violence, and war that exist in our world, we need light to balance that out, and there are ways to seek light out and bring it into ourselves. For me, art and writing have done this, and I continually use them to maintain the light in my life.

Allowing ourselves to dream gives us the ability to grow, and for me, writing children’s stories and teen fantasy fiction allows me to re-embrace the childhood innocence once left behind, all over again. This makes me a happier person than I once was, and I have grown so much over the years as a direct result of it.

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Find your ways to smile whenever you can. For me, writing is one of those ways.

Digital Narrative: How I Use Art for Therapy

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This is how I begin: I wake up. I know I want to paint today – I planned on it, more often than not. I direct my mind, to prepare for the act of painting – I seek out sources of inspiration as a form of psychological preparation. I look outside. See the peace of nature, try to feel it. Take that into myself, and feel how it inspires me. Or I look at other artwork and photos, and envision something I would like to paint.  I let them inspire me. I hold that inspiration and feed it – I let it grow inside myself. Once I feel as though I might burst with it, it is time to sit down and paint.

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Angela Gives Miranda Her Quest D

I always try to remember to maintain my child-like innocence, and allow myself to dream. I do not allow myself to think serious thoughts. I imagine a world that is an ideal dream-world. I hold that inspiration while I pour out my paints. I decide on the colors I want to use, and the details of my subject – whether the bunny will be pink or blue, whether Alice will be a child or a teenager – will her dress be white? Pink? Blue?

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Bird in Snow

I plan out my scene – will there be a landscape that expresses the quiet peace of the forest? Or perhaps smooth and shiny hills and crests that gleam and express continuity, flow, unity, and dreaminess? Will there be animals? I find that animals add a peace that is not possible without them in the work.

Dusk in Crimson After Mucha DS

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Pink Floral Bushes at Sunset

By this point, my head is full of flower-full landscapes, sunsets, tree-swings, and in any color I like, and I am fully in the dream. Nothing else matters right now – nothing outside the painting. Even copying the works of a master artist with a deliberate variation such as in monochromatic alizarin crimson will bring my heart its peace. It all works, it’s all dreaming.

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Blue Fairy Closer In

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And when I am done, there will be peace, rest, and contentment in my spirit. I may also feel frazzled or annoyed because the work did not turn out the way I had envisioned it, but that will pass. And the effect of a few hours or even a day away from the stresses of daily life will have given me the rest I needed. Even with annoyance, the art did its work. Remember that, when you try it. Annoyance with results does not equal lack of effectiveness as a therapy.

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Later, I will look at it, and remember the feeling of the original inspirational idea. Looking at the work will give me a peaceful and dreamy feeling. And I will remember why I painted it to begin with – to give my soul a rest from the toils and trials of life. Now you try… I know you can do it. And remember, your first tries may not be all you want them to be – art takes practice and patience. Be patient with yourself, and try to love yourself. Each of us takes work to get better – it is a journey, and we are all on it.

 

Below are two self portraits I have done of myself in watercolors. For a little additional information, I rarely ever paint or draw without going through the process I have described in this post. I did so quite often when I was younger, and spontaneously painted or drew free-hand as the compulsion took me. However, I have found that finding photos to reference is often the catalyst to get me into the mood to paint when I otherwise wouldn’t be able to access the right mindset. Referencing photos means looking at photos while you paint and trying to capture the essence of the image in your art. I also make art even when I am in a great mood and not just when unhappy, stressed, or upset – sometimes we don’t realize we need a break from life until we take one, and painting and making art can be a preventative as well as a remedy for stress.

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Also for the sake of interest, below is a slideshow of a few in-process photos of some of the paintings and drawings I did, for a peek behind the finished works. This way, you can see something of how they were created. Regarding the unicorn drawing in this slideshow, it is unfinished – I have not decided whether to use colored pencils or paint on it to finish it, yet. That drawing, along with the owl painting, were drawn/painted free-hand, with no reference material. Everything else referenced photographs either for setting aspects, for subject, or both.

 

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The artworks that I describe at the end of this post in the Artwork Credits were done while referencing photographs. I think the process of referencing photographs needs further mention and explanation, so I am going to do so, here, and explain why I prefer using reference photos over making free-hand art. Referencing photos can help you gain realism of shape in your drawing/painting, as well as light, shadow, and texture, and, in some cases, subject matter. Many famous artists use reference photos for their artwork. There are even some artists who believe that good art cannot be achieved free-hand, because the memory does not store every bit of information you need to create a realistic setting of light, shadow, and texture.

I have found that if I use reference photos, a larger percentage of my artwork turns out closer to what I had envisioned when I sat down to begin. That is not to say there are not good free-hand artworks out there – there most certainly are. And I’m certainly not against the concept – ninety percent of my art until I was in my thirties was all done free-hand. However, I think that, for me, if I don’t use a reference photo or two for the work, the results will be hit or miss in relation to my expectations. My art certainly improved, immensely, once I began referencing photos; and the improvement is overall – this choice increased my understanding of light, shape, shadow, placement, texture, perspective, color balance – the works.

 

Below is a slideshow of some of the better finished paintings and drawings that I have done:

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Artwork Credits: Each of the images in this post are my own work and photographed by me. Some of this art was done while referencing photographs found on Google (such as all of the horse images, and the bird image). Some others were done while referencing master painters. The woman in the red painting is based on the art piece, entitled “Dusk,” by Alphonse Mucha. The winter cottage scene (in the slideshow) is after Thomas Kinkade’s painting entitled “Winter Glow.” The two graphite drawings of children (one on horseback, one on the beach) were drawn from photographs of my aunt and uncle when they were children in the 1940s. The Princess Leia drawing in colored pencils was done while referencing a photo of Carrie Fisher after she performed in Star Wars – the background she sits in is all my own creation.

The Rita Hayworth (acrylics) painting was done while referencing a photo of her lying on pillows. The Vivien Leigh (acrylics) painting was done while referencing a scene of Scarlet O’Hara from Gone With the Wind. The horses (both the horses and mountains, in colored pencil, and the horses running, in oils) were done while referencing photos found on Google, both subject matter and setting. In the horses – mother and baby – in the forest (acrylics), two photos were referenced: a photo of a forest, and a photo of horses. The two girls in the night scene was painted while referencing a photo of the night sky with stars in it. An additional point of interest for that piece – it was painted with a book in mind – Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd. If you know the story, you will recognize the subject matter.

In the Alice drawing (ink and colored pencils), the tree was referenced from a scene in the classic Disney Alice in Wonderland cartoon. The rest of that drawing is free-hand, although the placement of Alice and the cat, Dinah, and the fact that I have Alice making a flower wreath are also inspired by the same Disney photo. I decided to age-progress both Alice and Dinah to deviate from the original image I was referencing. In the moon and galaxy charm pendant drawing (colored pencils), I referenced a photo of my own necklace on my kitchen tablecloth. In the flower garden drawing (pen and ink), a photo of a garden and a photo of a cottage were both referenced. In the horse and mouse sleeping in the forest drawing/painting (colored pencil and digital paint in GIMP), the horse was drawn while referencing a photo. 

Art Therapy Versus Writing Therapy – Which is More Effective?

Pen and Brush

By C. Lorraine Hall
September 8, 2017

 

There is much to be said about both art therapy and writing therapy, and both have their usefulness in helping people who have traumatic issues, stress, and/or anxiety. We who do art and writing therapy understand the ways in which they work to help us cope with our emotional overflow and tensions; however, the subject is still under heavy discussion in society.

In the abstract of their article, “The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature,” Heather L. Stuckey DEd and Jeremy Nobel MD, MPH say that “Although there is evidence that art-based interventions are effective in reducing adverse physiological and psychological outcomes, the extent to which these interventions enhance health status is largely unknown.”

However, in the abstract of Judith Pizarro’s article, “The Efficacy of Art and Writing Therapy Increasing Positive Mental Health Outcomes and Participant Retention After Exposure to Traumatic Experience,” she says that:

Research has shown that traumatic stress has negative effects on overall health and well-being. Traumatic exposure has been linked to higher rates of psychological and physical health problems. Writing about trauma or stress has been shown to improve health and reduce stress, but can negatively affect mood. The purpose of this study was to examine whether art therapy is as effective as writing therapy in improving psychological and health outcomes. Participants in the writing condition, but not the art therapy condition, showed a decrease in social dysfunction. However, participants who completed artwork reported more enjoyment, were more likely to continue with the study, and were more likely to recommend the study to family and friends. Future research could combine writing and art therapy to determine whether a mixed design would both improve health and maximize participant retention.

In this day and age, everyone is aware that stress can be debilitating, both to mental health and to physical health. Stress can be caused by everyday responsibilities and activities, from being a child in school and the expectations that go along with that, to being a teenager and dealing with overwhelming emotions and passions; from being a young adult, struggling to make it in the world, to being a parent, trying to provide for the children. There is job stress, there is home stress in relationships, and all sorts of other factors in life that can cause stress, as well.

For some people, on top of these natural stresses, which only change and alter but don’t ever go away as we age, there has sometimes been trauma. As Pizarro says, “parental psychopathology, substance abuse, death, divorce, and sexual or physical abuse are some of the ways that individuals are exposed to traumatic experience…”(2004). People need ways of coping with these issues, because there is emotional overflow from stress and trauma that can affect choices in life and behaviors such as outbursts of anger, violence, or self-destructive actions.

“The creative arts therapies, like art and writing therapy, have been shown to be effective in helping individuals recover from traumatic experience” (Pizarro). As Pizarro points out in her article, Vietnam war veterans have undergone art therapy in hospital settings for their post-traumatic stress issues, and hashing out a traumatic experience, when in a supportive setting, can help a person work through their trauma, preventing “further development of psychological disorganization and chronic mental health problems” (Pizarro). Evidence has been produced that shows that writing out past or even current traumas does benefit health and psychological issues. Writing therapy helps people develop coping skills while it reduces stress, thereby improving health.

Pizarro’s article covers an experiment and its results, which show that while art therapy is helpful to mental health and overall stress, writing therapy has a stronger effect than art therapy does, especially regarding decreasing social dysfunction in trauma sufferers. However, the act of writing out a traumatic event is more likely to leave negative mood and anxiety directly after writing, leading people to want to discontinue the therapy and/or not recommend it to others, whereas art therapy leaves the person in a better emotional mood, but is lacking the desired long-term effects that writing therapy gives. The two therapies affect people in very different ways.

To repeat, yes, art therapy works to help with stress and trauma, but writing therapy has long-lasting positive effects, especially on social dysfunction. If people are unwilling to use writing therapy because of the negative mood it leaves them in, however effective writing therapy may be, it ceases to be useful to people as a method for healing. Pizarro makes a suggestion that I fully and wholeheartedly agree with: that art and writing therapies could be combined, so that the person doing the therapy can benefit from the enjoyment of the art and the progress it brings them, as well as gaining the long-term benefits of the writing therapy. By creating a better balance to make effective therapy more enjoyable, the art therapy may make it easier for a person’s mood to re-stabilize after a writing therapy session’s depressing effect. In addition, it may provide something positive to look forward to while a person is actually engaged in the performance of the writing exercise.

 

 

References:

Heather L. Stuckey, Jeremy Nobel, “The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature”, American Journal of Public Health 100, no. 2 (February 1, 2010): pp. 254-263. DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2008.156497. PMID: 20019311. http://0-ajph.aphapublications.org.skyline.ucdenver.edu/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2008.156497

Judith Pizarro MA (2004) The Efficacy of Art and Writing Therapy: Increasing. Positive Mental Health Outcomes and Participant Retention After Exposure to Traumatic. Experience, Art Therapy, 21:1, 5-12, DOI: 10.1080/07421656.2004.10129327. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07421656.2004.10129327