The first time I really remember experiencing joy from writing was when I was in elementary school. I was put into a writing workshop because I told too many lies in class (most notably my ability to perform a triple axel at the age of eight years old). My teacher thought I needed a creative outlet.
Humans have been telling stories for a very, very, long time. I’m talking 300,000 years kind of long. Think about a time when you aren’t telling a story, a narrative of some sort? Have you ever just sat there listing facts to someone? No, no one talks like that because that’s boring.
People tell stories to learn about one another, to understand the human condition and to make sense of our world. It’s that desire to be part of something larger than ourselves. Writing is an extension of this ancient tradition.
This is about telling your story, getting connected with yourself, and exploring what words can do for you. Each one of us has something to say and you don’t need to be a “writer” in order to say it.
Writing to learn
The brain longs to know more about itself and the person it is in charge of protecting (that’s you). Writing is nothing if not a personal expression of self. When you write you are usually participating in active learning, which requires more cognitive processing. Humans use writing to achieve higher cognitive transformations by enabling abstract and theoretical thinking in new and exciting ways.
The brain learns better in positive environments. According to neurologist Judy Willis, the brain can more readily pass information from the amygdala into the prefrontal cortex. That’s where your brain does its higher cognitive thinking and processing. The end result is that you are able to retain information for a longer period of time.
Though most of us probably use a computer to write, there are added benefits to writing by hand every-so-often. It can help improve your motor skills, idea composition, and expression.
“Pictures of the brain have illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory.”—Professor Virginia Berninger
Writing forces you to think about the subject more critically. Because writing is so personal, the connections you forge with the topic are deeper. It can help you cement a position on a topic (even when you think you didn’t have one). That can lead to ‘ah-ha’ moments,and those moments are the ones we are constantly in search of.
Do you remember how good it feels when you finally get something?
When all of a sudden something comes into clarity? That feeling is your brain releasing opium-like substances. When you grasp a new subject, your brain gets very happy. We crave knowledge because it is giving us a fix, and writing helps us access and understand this knowledge at a deeper cognitive level.
Exercise: Learning a new graphical language (math, chemistry, etc.) helps keep your mind active and create new connections as you age. If I am at a loss for how to begin the writing process I use writing prompts or literary websites for inspiration.
Here are some of my favorites:
I mean, it’s difficult to find a website with more acerbic wit and heart, but if you like McSweeney’s you should also check out The Believer.
This website has so much more beyond insight into the literary world, it is really just flipping fantastic.
Writing to explore
Do you know how good it feels to just start something, anything? The surge of energy we have behind this, that’s a real thing. You aren’t imagining that.
It is known as The Zeigarnik Effect, named after the psychologist who discovered it, Bluma Zeigarnik. A state of tension causes our brain to want to work more, when we don’t know an answer the brain keeps trying to figure one out.
“Don’t expose it to germs or daylight or gamma rays from Jupiter. Protect that fragile life-form.”
Okay, so you may not think of your writing as a life form, but he’s got a point. The act of discussing it takes away some of that fire and many find that they can never find it again. By discussing the story, the brain has already solved the issue.
Sure, you can talk your problems out and there is a great deal of merit in that, but try writing about them. See what happens when you give yourself, and your brain the freedom to leave some things open-ended. That puts the fire in your belly.
Exercise: Begin a story, any story, and just don’t finish it. Write as much or as little as you want.* If you don’t want to feel that kind of pressure, there’s also this resource which gives you one word from which to base a short story of:
*not recommended for work that you actually have to show other people.
Writing to recover
Recovering from a traumatic event or injury is far from easy. It takes a lot of time and the support of those around you. Writing expressively can speed up your recovery from these events. Expressive writing involves writing about your most personal, deep-rooted feelings, desires, and fears. This is you, writing about you, in your most true sense.
Writing this way helps your brain process feelings in a way that we don’t normally allow ourselves. It takes away some of the power that traumatic events have over us.
When a traumatic event happens we replay over and over again, there’s not beginning and no end. Just a cycle of trauma that is difficult for so many to break out of. Writing helps you to craft a story, to think through the event and start the process of regulating your emotions and coming to terms with the trauma. This allows us to gain perspective—to place these events in the proper context within our lives.
This kind of writing can reduce stress levels. Stress depresses your immune system which can hinder physical recovery from an injury. Dealing with the effects of stress involves a lot of brain power. This means that time spent dealing with stress isn’t spent learning or committing things to memory.
There are numerous other health related benefits associated with expressive writing including:
- lower blood pressure
- improved memory
- better mood
- increased functionality of the lungs
Exercise: Pick a topic that is very close to you, set aside 15-20 minutes and find a private and comfortable place to write. Then write uninterrupted for the entire 15-20 minutes. If you find this difficult, you can try using this website: writeforten. This has a built-in timer and field for you to write in, there now you are out of excuses.
Writing to reduce anxiety
I’m an anxious person. I crack my jaw 20,000 times a day because of this. If you have a job interview coming up that you are nervous about.
Research shows that students who wrote about their test anxiety, prior to taking the test, enabled them to perform better on the test itself. Again, this is writing helping us process life’s events more clearly and understand them within context.
If you can, keep a journal (in written or digital form, whatever feels more comfortable). Journaling helps to keep us mindful, living in the present. Yes, I know it sounds lame, but seriously these are just some of the benefits of journaling:
- Creates the same kind of brain patterns that we see in meditation.
- Expressing gratitude (even in writing) improves mood and outlook, it can even help you stay optimistic.
- Writing can help you more readily achieve goals by taking them out of the abstract and makes them more concrete.
Exercise: If you find yourself in a nervous state, no matter the reason, just take some time and write down what it is concerning you. Try keeping a journal, if that’s not your thing. Try writing down at least one thing a day that you are grateful for or happy about.
So you think you aren’t a writer? You are wrong. No one is going to be grading you on length or content here. This is, very simply, about connect to yourself. It’s about getting to know you in a way we don’t allow ourselves because we are really skeptical, cynical, bastards at times. If you can, put those feelings aside and just try it for ten minutes, hell try for 60 seconds.
The mind is such a wondrously large and unexplored space, we have so many stories and tales bottled up in inside of us. Writing those down, committing those to paper can help you solidify who you are, and help you unearth things about yourself that you didn’t know.
I write to understand myself better, to try and make sense of the world around me and to have fun. When I’m writing to connect, it’s not about what or how much I produce, it’s the simple act of doing it that makes me feel better.