How do we decide:
When is a shoe old?
When it’s worn in,
and nicely soft-soled?
Or is it when it’s
tattered and threadbare?
When its color
matches your head hair?
When is the time
of your shoes’ middle age?
When they’re broke-in
and your feet they assuage?
They still look nice,
and comfy, and fit…
They might be your favorites,
they’re loved, quite a bit.
Well, this, too, is life;
we are much like our shoes:
We’re not old ‘till frail,
battered, and bruised,
By the very air ‘round us;
air we enjoy;
When we’re far too mature
and refined to be coy.
Middle age is a cross
between comfort and fear;
A time when we long
to hold close what’s held dear.
And we look to the future,
and we feel some worry,
Our hearts are still big;
our sight’s not quite blurry.
We’ve gained qualities
of wisdom and hindsight;
We still look young,
but we’ve gained Grandma’s insight.
It’s a hard age to be,
but it’s also perfect:
In between young and old;
a time to reflect.
We’re far from worn out;
we’ve still got much wear left;
And we know what joy is,
and we know what is bereft.
We keep looking forward,
while we also look back,
And we seek our own place,
and we’ve learned our own knack.
Don’t forget where you are:
you’re not olden yet,
Those shoes still have
some good tread, I’ll bet.
And while the sun
glistens and shines,
You still have sparkle,
in all kinds of times.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here are some tips from personal experience that I would like to share here for others who wish to try writing to help deal with the stresses of daily life. Here, I tell what some people do (and which I have done, personally), and I give my method and advice, as well as telling in which ways each method might be beneficial for a less stressful life or for problem resolution. Please pay attention to the disclaimer at the end – I am no expert, and I only know what has worked for me. These things may be useful and helpful for others, and so I choose to share, but please do not fault me if they don’t work for you – each of us is a different person, and some things work for one person that do not work for another. Here are the ways in which I have used – and have known others to use – writing therapy:
Some people write only when they are having a bad day. If you are having a bad day, consider writing about your day and see if it helps. Writing may not be able to talk back to you or give you good advice, but it can reveal things you didn’t even realize you were thinking and help you arrive at ideas for solutions to the issues you have related to paper – if only by helping you understand the problem(s) a little better. If you feel up to it, afterward, perhaps write something that is lighter – what were the good points of your day? Did you notice anything beautiful?
Some people keep a journal of sorts and write something about their day, every day. This can be helpful especially on looking back to see your progression and growth over time, as well as helping you to release pressures and stresses as they occur in your life. This can help lead toward the resolution of problems, as writing about them forces the writer to examine these problems and the writer’s thoughts more closely. Consider writing something light after every session. This can help to balance out your emotions afterward so that you are not stuck in a gloomy state of mind. It doesn’t have to be anything all that great – maybe you saw a nice tree, or a pretty sunset, or a perfect flower bloom. Perhaps you saw the cutest dog while out on a walk. Just pick something more positive and write a paragraph about it – it will help you to avoid feeling like you are in a negative frame of mind afterward.
Some people simply write poetry. If you are looking to get out negative emotions, I suggest writing a poem about how you feel. But be sure to write something lighter-hearted afterward, or the gloom of writing the darkness will stay with you. Therefore, when you write one poem, perhaps make it a rule to write two – one dark, one light – to perk you up afterward.
Some people write stories. If you write a story in third-person (in other words, about someone who is not you) and you put this character through some of the things you have gone through and force them to resolve their issues, sometimes there will be a breakthrough of insight regarding how you can change your own outcomes. If nothing else, even without that insight, it is a way to release pent up frustrations while maintaining a certain amount of distance from it – as the character isn’t you, it doesn’t have to be your story.
Again, I recommend writing about something lighter afterward – perhaps a little blog post about your favorite foods, flowers, shopping items – whatever suits you. As with some other therapies, the quality of the story may not be the focus – the exercise, itself, is what does you good. By this reasoning, you would still have benefited from it even if you scrap the story afterward. With writing for therapy, it is the process that matters, not the outcome relating to what has been written, itself. So, you might not be the next J.K. Rowling – that’s okay. Don’t be hard on yourself. That is not the aim of this exercise. Besides, the more you do it, the more your skill at it will grow.
Some people write letters. These letters don’t have to ever leave your hand. You can shred them or burn them afterward (I suggest shredding over burning – I don’t want to be blamed for your house-fire), but the act of writing them out can help to release pent up frustration or anger at another person and get the passionate emotions out of the way. This makes it so that afterward, you can talk to the person about the thing that made you so upset in a calm and reasonable manner. The letter gives you more control over yourself, as you have essentially created and put to use a very effective emotional-release valve. Sometimes one letter is not enough, such as when you are extremely angry or upset. You may need to write several letters before you start to feel calm. Get it out. After you have written the letter(s), and before talking to the person who you have been angry at or upset with, expend some energy. Go for a walk, to the gym, out for a hike, or take a swim – something to blow off more steam and help you to find your center – your balance. Do not talk to the person until you know you can do so calmly. When you are ready, write a nice letter and treat it the same way you did the angry letter – shred it or burn it. This is not for them – as with the other forms of writing, here, these are for your eyes – these are for self-control and for releasing tension. And even a nice letter has an effect on the writer. The nice letter doesn’t have to be to the same person you wrote the angry letter to, but writing something positive will help you feel even better.
Some people make lists. They list all of the options for a particular problem they are struggling with. Sometimes, they even draw maps with the central issue in a circle in the middle and all of the options and possible repercussions of those options in circles that are tied to the center circle by lines. Another kind of map can look the same way, but have the desired outcome in the center and the obstacles to be eliminated in the surrounding bubbles. Either method can be useful for refining options, tackling obstacles, and helping with choice-making.
Lists can also be great for creating goals, not just for balancing and weighing pros and cons relating to a choice. If you make lists of goals, keep them where you can see them, and brainstorm for steps you can take to help you reach those goals. Focus on one at a time, and do not be discouraged by slow progress. Baby steps are the way many of us get through life, so try to be patient with yourself. Making lists can also help you get organized. If you are a person who feels that your life is messy, lists are a way that can help you focus. Try to make at least your end-focus positive, if you have included negative things you wish to get rid of in your lists.
Remember that these ways of dealing with problems should not feel like self-punishment or chastisement. Do not use them to beat yourself over the head for past mistakes or current ones. You deserve good things in life and to be happy, so in every way you can, make that the end goal. If you have issues with talking negatively to yourself during these exercises, keep a timer handy, time the exercise, and then spend the exact same amount of time afterward telling yourself good things – affirmations, and that you love yourself. Even if you don’t mean them at first, your soul needs to hear good things, and you will learn to mean them, through repetition.
You should not allow yourself to say negative things to yourself and cast judgments and then just leave it at that. While I would like to say to never say negative things to yourself, I understand that these things may be habit and hard to break – these things take time. Growth and healing take time. So if you find yourself doing this, be sure to follow up and balance those self-criticisms with positive things. List your strengths, look for the beauty that is in you. Work on limiting the number of negative things you say about yourself and increasing the number of positive things you can say to yourself. And remember that even slow progress is progress.
As you can see by all of the examples I have given, I highly suggest releasing negativity first and following up with something positive. This will help to prevent you from developing a dislike for writing. It is a useful tool to help maintain equilibrium and to help in healing, and if you develop a dislike for it, that is one less tool in your arsenal to help yourself. These are all my opinions, and I am not an expert, but I have been writing for stress relief for my entire teenage and adult life. Please take all advice here with a grain of salt, and I reiterate that I am not an expert. Still, these things may be helpful for some people. They are, and have been, for me.
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.
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