Did you know creative writing is one of the most powerful tools we have to create change in our lives? There are a lot of creative tools we can use if we’re feeling down, lost, anxious, depressed, or any of these other common daily moods that plague our life. But creative writing has been proven to be one of the most effective.
I know you’re probably thinking, “wait! But you are biased.”
Yes, that is true. I am. Writing is my go-to creative outlet, so of course I’m partial to it. But even if you don’t find yourself with the urge to pick up a pen and journal when you’re feeling down, it’s worth considering the benefits you might receive from giving it a shot.
Here are ten specific things research shows can be improved as we practice creative writing.
1. It Improves your mood
I picked up a tool from Julia Cameron years ago called Morning Pages, which is essentially the act of waking up each morning, a little before your alarm goes off, and recording the first 2-3 pages of thoughts that come into your brain. When I first started this practice, I was skeptical.
In fact, for the first few days, I mostly wrote about how worried I was that I was wasting my time.
But what I realized was that, regardless of whether or not my writing actually improved, it improved my mood. I was less likely to feel sluggish, out-of-sorts, self-critical and just generally down during the day. Julia Cameron says the reason for this is that we subconsciously get out the complaining, blaming, judging, and other attitudes that are self-defeating.
It’s like dumping out the garbage that jangles around in our subconscious mind before it has the chance to pollute our attitude that day.
And research confirms my experience.
Dr. James Pennebaker, a professor at University of Texas in Austin, has done a great deal of research trying to pin down the kind of impact creative writing can have on a person’s well-being. He writes about his findings in his book, Writing to Heal.
People who engage in expressive writing report feeling happier and less negative than before writing. Similarly, reports of depressive symptoms, rumination, and general anxiety tend to drop in weeks and months after writing about emotional upheavals.
Did you catch that? Expressive writing can help lift depression and general anxiety. That is worth its weight in gold, if you ask me.
2. It strengthens your relationships.
It makes logical sense that as our moods improve, our relationships improve also. I mean, who wants to be friends with someone who is in a bad mood all the time?
I found this to be true for myself, too.
One of the reasons was that as I worked out some of my negative feelings in my creative writing, I didn’t have to work out those negative feelings in my relationships. I started taking more accountability for my actions and feelings, instead of expecting someone to come along and take care of them for me (as so many of us do).
I found writing to be like an incredibly cheap version of therapy—in that it was an always-present safe space I could retreat to to work through whatever I was thinking or feeling.
Here’s what Pennebaker found when he began to look closely at the impact of writing on our social lives:
…[volunteers] were asked to wear a tape recorder in the days before and after the writing so the researchers could monitor their social lives. Overall, those who wrote about their traumatic experiences talked more with others, laughed more easily and often, and used more words associated with positive emotions in the weeks afterward. Expressive writing seemed to make them more socially comfortable, better listeners, talkers, and indeed, better friends.
Does this make you want to get started with expressive writing?
3. It moves you forward in your career
This is where things really start to get strange. Is it possible that creative writing could have an impact on our careers?
Pennebaker hosted an experiment with a group of middle-aged men who had recently been laid off from their technical jobs after fifteen years of working for the same company. They we’re frustrated and depressed. He split the men into two groups—one group wrote about their thoughts and feelings regarding losing their job; the other group wrote about how they managed their time when they were at the office.
Guess which group got new jobs faster?
Eight months after writing, 52 percent of the emotional writing group had new jobs, compared with 20 percent of the time-management participants. Individuals from the two groups went to the same number of job interviews. The only difference was that the expressive writers were offered jobs.
It is more than possible that finding a way to express your feelings through writing could speed up your progress toward your career goals.
4. It improves your physical health
As our moods improve, our health improves. One of the number one factors for health problems in modern life is: stress. So it shouldn’t seem like a stretch that there would be a connection here. Still, I have to say I was floored when I read the actual statistics around this.
Those in the expressive writing groups made 43 percent fewer doctor visits for illness than the control groups, who wrote only about superficial topics. Most of the visits were for colds, flu, and other upper-respiratory infections. Nevertheless, writing about personal trauma resulted in people visiting doctors for health reasons at half their normal rates.
This might be the cheapest preventative medicine money can buy. Go out and buy a Moleskine notebook and a package of good pens and set aside 30 minutes each morning to record your first thoughts.
5. It helps us make sense of our lives
Sometimes things happen to us that don’t make any sense. We lose someone we love, we are violated in some way, we are forced to let go of a dream we’ve been holding onto for years. Whatever it is, writing can help us sort through the loss and to make sense out of it. When we write, we naturally try to organize ideas, connect them, and make sense of them.
We can capitalize on our brain’s natural tendency to do this when we sit down and try to get words on paper.
As we’re writing, we create spatial relations between the various bits of information we are recording. Spatial tasks are handled by another part of the brain, and the act of linking the verbal information with the spatial relationship seems to filter out the less relevant or important information — Dustin Wax (LifeHack)
Writing naturally prompts us to put into words what happened to us—good or bad—to notice the relationship between those things, to be aware of our attitudes surrounding them, and hopefully to balance our negative thoughts with some more positive ones. At the very least, noticing our negative thoughts makes us more aware of how they’re influencing our lives.
6. To know what we think
People talk about “writers block” all the time. But writer’s block is just LIFE block. In other words, it’s not just that you don’t know how to say what you want to say in an eloquent way, it’s that you don’t know what you want to say. You don’t know what you think yet.
You can get there. But you’re going to have to work it out.
This is the beauty of the act of writing.
Most of the time when we feel blocked in our life, it’s because we feel safer that way. We may not be happy but at least we know what we are—unhappy. Much fear of creativity is the fear of the unknown — Julia Cameron
Writing is a space where we can safely face our fear and work out what we think. What we think helps us know what is really important to us, what to do next, why are we grieving, what the grief means, why what that person said to us was really so hurtful, and how to find our way out of the woods and to the other side.
Writing can be a lifeline—even if you’re sure you suck at it.
7. It makes you a better communicator
Speaking of improving our relationships, one tool I’ve used writing for over the years is to rehearse difficult conversations before I have them.
What I’ll do is actually write out the conversion as I think it might happen. I’ll write what I would say if I could say whatever I was thinking, and what I think the person’s response would be to what I said. This exercise is incredibly enlightening. Sometimes I find that what I really wanted to say was cathartic, but also mean and unhelpful.
Other times I find that what I think the other person will say to me is probably not what they will actually say, and is only a figment of my own inner-critic.
Writing seems to act as a kind of mini-rehearsal for doing… visualizing doing something can “trick” the brain into thinking it’s actually doing it, and writing something down seems to use enough of the brain to trigger this effect. Again, this leads to greater memorization, the same way that visualizing the performance of a new skill can actually improve our skill level — Dustin Wax (LifeHack)
This helps keep me tempered in my conversations, and makes them more productive. It allows me to vent my frustration, and also keeps me humble and kind.
8. It makes us feel less lonely
I’ll never forget sharing my very first blog post with the world. I think three people read it; and two of them were my mom.
Still, there was something exhilarating about putting my thoughts into the world (which were completely rambling and self-centered) to have someone else respond by saying, “me too”. It’s the power of human connection. It makes us feel a little bit less alone in this crazy, lonely, disconnected world.
Additionally—and maybe more importantly—writing teaches us how to be alone with ourselves, with our thoughts, which in a world of Netflix and social media and any number of numbing tactics for our deep-seeded sense of loneliness, is an important skill.
Until we can learn to be okay being alone, we’ll never really be able to connect.
9. It’s a positive outlet for strong emotions
Anger. Skepticism. Cynicism. Grief. There are a lot of ways we can deal with these complicated emotions and not all of them are healthy. Writing, on the other hand, takes something that could have a negative impact and turns it into a positive one.
Anger is fuel. We feel it and we want to do something. Hit someone, break something, throw a fit., smash a first into the world, tell those bastards. But we are nice people what we do with our anger is stuff it, deny it, bury it, block it, hide it, lie about it, medicated it, muffle it, ignore it. We do everything but listen to it. Anger is meant to be listened to. —Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
All of our strong emotions are meant to be listened to. Our intuitions. Our fears. Our doubts. Our sadness.
Writing gives us the space to listen to what our hearts are trying to tell us.
10. It changes the world
It is always good for me to remember that when John Steinbeck sat down to write East of Eden, he didn’t know he was writing the next Great American Novel. In fact, in his book Journal of a Novel—the journal he kept while he was writing East of Eden—he talks about his fears and insecurities as a writer, wondering if the book would ever amount to anything.
Are you writing the next Great American Novel?
Maybe. Maybe not.
But here’s he point: it doesn’t matter.
Something profound happens when we choose to just write, without worrying about what the outcome will be.
Writing helps us discover what we’re passionate about, to explore that thing, and to become the best version of ourselves. It can help us share our passions with other people who are passionate about the same things we are, to serve people, to connect with them, to build a community, and ultimately to bring our unique gifts to the world.
It could change your whole life. It could change the whole world.
You just never know.
For more about how writing can help you in all the above ways, join me for one of my writing workshops.