As someone with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, part of my ongoing therapy is to keep a log of distressing feelings and link them to the thought or event that triggered them. The physical act of writing them down helps to empty the brain and reduce their power. Nowadays, this is called therapeutic journaling. In my day, it was called “Dear Diary.” Expressing these feelings is like unburdening yourself to a good counsellor whose job is to listen without judgement.
My writing career began as a trainee journalist on Vancouver Island where I covered local events and small-town news stories. When I returned to the UK, I became a training consultant and wrote my own materials, some of which were published by Management Pocketbooks Ltd in the 1990s. On retirement, I needed something to occupy my over-active mind, so I decided to have a go at a novel, not realising that this was to bring its own mental health challenges which I shall mention shortly.
On the plus side, it meant I could indulge in fantasy for a few hours a day which took me away from the flashbacks of the original trauma and made me focus on characters of my own creation. Through writing the story, not only was I able to write from the inside out – my first novel was in the genre of domestic noir – I was able to work through some of my own issues, more so because having some distance between the events and writing the book provided me with the necessary objectivity.
A word of caution: writing painful memories, other than for personal reference, can be cathartic, but the end result – won’t necessarily be publishable.
A standard novel of around 80,000 words, from the first draft to the final edit takes about a year. Make no mistake, it is very hard work so it’s important to set a word or time limit for the day or week. It’s important to break a work of this size into bite-size chunks: a section or two, then take a twenty-minute break. Stretch, do a bit of gardening, or clean out the cupboards! This is especially true for people who class themselves as full-time writers.
Take walks, meet friends for coffee, have fun because it is so easy for the work-in-progress to take over your life to the extent it stops being beneficial to your mental health and starts to damage it. The isolation is one of the worst things so I limit my writing time to mornings only as that works for me. In the afternoons, I go out, swim, paint, dog walk or whatever takes my fancy.
A better way of writing for mental health is to focus on shorter pieces. Flash fiction is between 500 and 1,000 words and there are lots of openings for publication. Poetry or verse is a great way of letting your imagination run wild and you don’t have to follow any rules. There’s no stress involved as with a novel and if you have a website, you can make your work available to readers at no cost.
Recently, I was a judge for an acrostic competition. I’d never come across it before but now I play around with them when I have a few spare minutes. They are great fun.
A more recent addition to the writing world is blogging. I love it. It can be an opinion piece or sharing interesting information about where you live, your travels, pets, gardens, etc. I suggest keeping blogs under 1000 words and break up the text with pictures.
I’m working on a full-length memoir at the moment which I hope will help other people. It’s tough going but it’s a good way of processing life events and putting them into context. We often think we are alone in our struggle, so when we see a blog or an article from others, we feel supported and inspired to overcome our problems.
In life-writing, the main thing is to express feelings honestly and allow yourself time to explore the meanings of the words. Don’t get hung up on grammar or punctuation until you come to edit. Let it flow and don’t judge yourself.
“Writing about an emotionally charged subject or an unresolved trauma helps you put the event into perspective and give some structure and organization to those anxious feelings, which ultimately helps you get through it.” – James Pennebaker.
I don’t let anyone read a first draft or even a second one of any of my books, because I know I would lose confidence and feel dispirited if they turned their nose up at it. I don’t beat myself up if my first or tenth attempt is rubbish, but let it my writing flow like the river which ultimately finds its own way around the rocks and rubble.
The main thing is not to put yourself under any stress. It’s not the writing that’s the problem. If you are looking to be published, that’s when the hard work begins.
Angelena Boden. Author: ‘Edna’s Death Café’ and ‘Love Bytes Back’!