I’m a shy, introverted person, but there’s one type of group I’m always happy to get together with–a library audience. My usual library talk combines a little bit of autobiography (“So, if you’re inclined to write a book, I hope you give it a try!”), with my gratitude for the readers among us (this means you).
The benefits of reading good fiction are numerous and important. Reading makes us more tolerant, which ought to elevate it to our national pastime in my humble. Reading lowers blood pressure, improves sleep, improves heart health, expands vocabulary and thus expressive and receptive languages skills. If you’re reading good fiction, there is no downside that I can see.
And then I move on to the benefits of writing, particularly writing that expresses our emotions. The ground-breaking research in this area was done about thirty years ago, and we’re learning more year by year. James Pennebaker, a professor of psychology, asked his undergraduates to write for fifteen minutes about their most traumatic experience, or their most difficult time.
A control group wrote about another topic–their dorm room (you hope that’s not traumatic), or a building on campus. Six months later, Pennebaker tracked how many visits students in each group had made to the doctor or campus health clinic. The writers had sought medical treatment MUCH less, and this finding has been replicated many times.
Wounds heal faster when we write about them, especially if we take the gloves off, and write the real, vivid stuff about our suffering. There are a ton of caveats and yeah-buts that go with this line of research (constant bellyaching is not expressive writing, writing when you need to act is not expressive writing, et cetera). You can read Pennebaker’s book, which includes his own story (the depressed professional psychologist who wouldn’t go to therapy).
What’s the relevance of all this information to us? Well, first, we’re human so we suffer, and if writing can reduce the pain and suffering in this world–for free–then I’m all for it. Second, when do we write? Compared to the Regency folks I put in my books, who had no internet, no TV, no smartphones, but who did routinely journal, and maintain myriad, long-distance pen-pal relationships…. we don’t write much.
In this regard, I think the old days were better days. Everything from penmanship to a clever turn of phrase to being a reliable correspondent was valued for people living above subsistence level. We were expected to record our lives and to report them in writing to trusted friends and family. Maybe this was one way those ancestors compensated for a lack of antibiotics, but why shouldn’t we get the same benefit?
Who could you write a letter to this week? When was the last time you wrote or received a real letter? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of His Lordship’s True Lady (on sale from the website store now, from the retail sites on Tuesday).