Sunday, January 8, 2012

Why Some Write

It's my last day of freedom before the semester begins. I am spending it in an odd state--I'm recovering from a cold, mulling over this short but tumultuous and wonderful break, and thinking about writing.

I've mentioned before that I teach writing. At the beginning of each semester, I spend a few days reviewing and updating syllabi. I think about assignments and readings that I might tweak or change entirely. I amp myself up, telling myself that this will be the semester where I reach them all. Repeatedly, I come back to the question, why write?

Woman journaling
Each semester, as I look out at the sea of mostly-new faces, my self-consciousness rears its little head. I imagine the wheels turning in the students' minds, churning out questions like, "Who do you think you are? Why do I need to be here? Why do I need to write?" Those are good questions for students to be asking. Especially the last one. In part, I think we all need to answer it for ourselves. If you can't find your own reasons for writing and are doing so only to earn a grade or please your boss, what you come up with is likely to be forced and a little empty. (Bloggers who feel pressured to post a certain amount of posts per week/month probably know a thing or two about that ;-)

Famous writers have pondered the question, too. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, William Faulkner said that we write "to help [a person] endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past." Yikes, Bill. Them's some lofty aims. David Mamet: "to lessen the unbearable disparity between the conscious and unconscious mind and so to achieve peace." OK, Dave. Wordy, but slightly more comprehensible.

After I began blogging and reading others' blogs, I noticed that I felt better about everything. Maybe we write to comfort each other.

The reasons for writing are probably limitless. Earlier in the week, while on vacation, I was reading Jonathan Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis (a great book--though not a quick read--for those interested in the science behind happiness). In it, he refers to Dr. James Pennebaker, who has devoted his life to proving that writing has the ability to improve both emotional and physical health. For 20 years, he has been completing studies in which he asks people to write for 15 minutes a day for four consecutive days about an emotionally painful experience. He then follows these individuals for two and six months, and some for up to 1.4 years. Compared to the control group, they have less depression, fewer doctor visits and physical problems, as well as positive behavioral indicators like increases in grades.

In a sense, the study suggests, the participants write to heal themselves.

What a powerful tool, this writing! Interesting stuff. I just thought I'd share that with you!


thedancingj said...

You know the first thing that pops into my head when I see that question, "Why do we write?" To communicate. Which is not as shallow and flip as I thought it was at first, because communication isn't limited to facts. If you use the words well enough, you can communicate a personal feeling, an understanding, an emotion... that's human connection on a deep level!

I was a total Rent-head in college and this makes me think of one of the songs:
"To days of inspiration, playing hooky, making something out of nothing,
The need to express, to communicate."

La said...

ah yes, right on point! writing is such a release, i don't know how i ever got through life before yoga and writing (regularly). no, seriously, how did we get by? :P

thanks for a good post! my writing is indeed one of my salvations.

hannahjustbreathe said...

Oh, I SO completely agree with Pennebaker's theory! I totally write to heal myself. It might not feel like healing at the time, but I know just getting the thoughts and images and words down is working some kind of magic.

Yolk E said...

Thanks for the comments, sweet peas!

Yes... writing always to communicate. It's what makes us human. And it can be so much more!