Archive for July 20th, 2011

Creative Writing comes from our ability to day-dream.  Through it we can practice our narrative competence – making sense of our own lives, our own fears, our own anxieties.  We can generate meaning and find re-assuring resolution.

As writers, as Freud said in his paper on Creative Writers and Day-dreaming (1907) we can make up imaginary worlds, take them seriously, invest them with huge emotion, enliven them with material from the world’ around us and keep these worlds separate from our own reality.

So what’s in it for doctors?  Why should they bother writing – creatively?

By developing an alternative world, you can process emotions you experience in the real world.  You can give your characters your own insecurities, your own feelings of powerlessness, your own sense of burnout.  You can express how these emotions act out in imagined situations based on the reality you live with – how bad news is broken, how guilt and fatigue feel.  You can put yourself in other people’s shoes.  And, from your own creative resources – as a humane and caring person – you can work out some better ways of handling matters, trying for the ‘happy ending’ – whatever that may entail.

The benefits are real if difficult to measure quantitatively.

You’ll be more easily able to see your patients as people, not medical cases, recognising and understanding their re-actions.  You’ll develop curiosity about what it’s like for them, for example, to hear the bad news you have to tell them.  And – because you understand them better – you may be able to adapt the way you tell them.

You’ll become a better communicator – even a better doctor – as a result.

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Unless you are writing exclusively for yourself – and I’m not sure how possible this is – you are not writing in a vacuum. You are writing for an audience.  That audience may be represented in indirect ways but an audience it remains.  For example, an editor represents the readers of his or her magazine or the buyers of his books.  And, as you write her memoirs, your great aunt Agatha will be sitting on your shoulder – probably tutting.

As a writer, you are – or should be – acutely aware of your audience.  And, when reading what you’ve written, your audience will be acutely aware of what’s in it for them.  To communicate with them successfully, you should be, too.

But, when writing up personal memoirs – whether as a series of anecdotes or a detailed auto-biography or a family history or even fictionalised as a first novel – you have to protect the feelings of people you know and love in a way that pure fiction usually does not.

Taking the extreme example of the First Novel – usually largely autobiographical – family and friends will paw over the text, hunting for mention of themselves.  At first reading, they will see little other than what they imagine – true or false – to be them.  And your saying ‘If the cap fits…’ will not help.

Similarly with Triumph over Tragedy personal stories for magazines, be cautious.  If you intend to write it yourself, consider how it will impact on all the other players in the ‘drama’.  Do they want their names, photographs, follies and fears all over a tabloid?  And don’t let someone else write it for you unless you absolutely trust them and you really don’t want to set pen to paper on the subject.

This begs the question: Why bother?

  • Some people get involved for the money.
  • Some people get involved because they want to help others.
  • Some people get involved for the therapeutic benefits of unloading.
  • Some people get involved for revenge, setting the record straight.

But writing up memoirs – as opposed to fictionalisation or journalism – has different, more personal, often more loving motives:

  • You may want to ‘remember’ someone in the most reverent way of which you are capable.
  • You may have been asked by ‘the family’ to be keeper of the collective sense of ‘Who we are’.
  • You may want to explore who you are through your own life-story.

You may also want to provide a record for future generations – an oral history transcribed into readable form. But you do not at this point know your audience and you cannot assume any knowledge of your life and times. This will influence what and how much detail you include.

And, even if you suspect your memoir will have a limited audience, you need to exercise diplomacy.  Great Aunt Agatha may be consigned to sitting on your shoulder.  But her other descendants and dependants – your siblings and cousins – may yet be extant. Include anecdotes with caution and – at times – at your peril.

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For centuries, creative writing has been accepted as beneficial to people with emotional problems. Aristotle described the cathartic effect of drama.  Shakespeare warned:  “Give sorrow words.  The grief that does not speak/ Whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break.” And twentieth century researchers began to seek an evidence base for this – hoping to establish a cornerstone for creative writing therapy.

However some of the findings have surprised even the already-converted.In independent studies, benefits of creative writing have proved certainly emotional and spiritual but also psychological and physical. (more…)

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