The Psychology of Writing
“The role of a writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.” .Anaïs Nin.
As a journaling advocate who has been writing for over forty years, plenty of time to reflect on the psychology of writing.
I have found that there are many reasons why writers are compelled to the page, including having a story to tell and wanting to bridge the gap of loneliness. In order to sit down and put words on the page, writers must submerge themselves in a zone which ignites their creative energy and spirit. Sometimes this requires the simple act of closing an office door, making an escape to a writing retreat, or going to a local bookstore or café. In other cases, it might take a more profound removal from day-to-day life. Sometimes darkness is brought on or initiated by something real in the writer’s life.
According to Margaret Atwood, in her book, Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing, (2002), “Writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out into the light.”
The childhoods of writers are thought to have something to do with their chosen vocation. Although many are quite different, what they’ve often contained, were books and solitude. My own childhood had all the vital ingredient to being a lifetime writer. When I was a child, there were no films or theatres and the batteries in the radio always seemed to be dead. Yet, one thing that was forever present were books. I had a shelf above the desk in my room and there was also another big one in our living room.
I learned to read at an early age. My mother was an avid reader and inspired the same in me. Each week she took me to the public library and I’d leave with a stack of books reaching all the way up to my chin. Margaret Atwood also spent a lot of time reading as a child. “My mother liked quietness in children, and a child who is reading is very quiet,” she writes.
I’ve also been journaling since a young age. Journaling was the only place where I could visit myself and be alone with my thoughts as I tried to make sense out of the world around me. William Faulkner argued that there’s a more profound reason why writers write. “An artist,” he says “is a creature driven by demons. He has a dream. It anguishes himself so much he must get rid of it.” That’s why many of us working on longer projects can get by with very little sleep. The demons just won’t let us stop until they are satisfied and there’s no telling how long it will take them to be satisfied.
In many ways, writing and psychotherapy are both healing and could be thought of as a modern, guilt-free replacement for confession. This might be one reason so many people are drawn to writing memoirs and personal essays. Writing about real life experiences is like a snake shedding its skin and leaving a former self behind. It’s easier moving forward when the baggage from the past is dropped. The writer, Franz Kafka, summarized this idea beautifully by saying, “I write in order to shut my eyes.”
Writers who’ve been successfully treated for depression find their writing begins to flow again as their mood improves. Paradoxically, some find that the pull to the page is increased when they are feeling ‘under the weather.’
A few years back I had an illness which really affect me psychologically. I found myself slowly slipping into a depression. I tried battling my moods with herbs, exercise and diet management then opted to speak to my internist about an anti-depressant. After many questions he finally prescribed Wellbutrin.
I had never experienced writer’s block. I’d always had too many things to write about. Plus, I was the type of writer who could write anywhere, leaning against a tree, on a moving train or in my bed late at night. After a few weeks on the anti-depressant something horrible happened. It was as if my creativity had been leaked out of me, and it became worse each day. I sat for hours sitting at my desk staring at my computer screen, unable to pound out a single phrase or sentence. For me, this inability to write was scarier than the actual state of depression. As a result, I became more and more depressed and my inability to write brought me back to my doctor.
In the end, we agreed that writing lifted my depression more than anything else, so he discontinued the medications and sent me home to write. Everything has been fine since! Don’t get me wrong, anti-depressants agree with many people and perhaps we could have experimented with different types, but we decided to cease medication and if that worked.
Soon afterwards, I read an article in the New York Times Magazine written by a psychiatrist who herself was on anti-depressants and had a similar experience. She believed that sometimes the pills just flip a switch in the brain and that after taking an antidepressant for a while, the person can stay off it permanently. At least until another crisis in their life. It’s also a well-known phenomena that a little bit of torment drives writers and I wanted to take full advantage of that.
Soren Kiergegarrd describes what it is to be a poet: “A poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music….”
Joan Didion in her essay, “Why I Write,” says, “Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
As expressed by these exceptional writers, in essence, we write to know ourselves. Even our darkest—or unknown—thoughts, memories and fears can transform to reveal value and meaning to us. And with any luck, to others as well.
Diana Raab is a memoirist, essayist, poet and author of seven books and editor of two essays collections, including the latest, Writers and Their Notebooks (2010) with an introduction by Phillip Lopate. She is a journaling advocate and teaches in UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and in various conferences around the country. Her forthcoming book, Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey is forthcoming from Loving Healing Press in June 2010. Visit Diana Raab.