Writing Down the Boo-Boos

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).



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30 comments on “Writing Down the Boo-Boos

  1. My education was set out for me when I was eleven here in England back in the fifties.We had to sit an exam called the eleven plus if we failed this exam higher education was denied us.We had secondary education which prepared us for certain areas of work e.g factory,shop work,housekeeping,caring.I failed the exam.I left school at fifteen and chose to work in a local record shop a teenagers dream.If I had passed my eleven plus I wanted to be a nurse but then I was not clever enough.However I did enjoy keeping dairies and writing poems,essays.I had friends and wrote to them often.My grammar was and still is not good.But I have written short stories for my grandchildren to enjoy.I think if my education was like it is now I would have chosen a career involving the written word.But that’s the way it was then for many of us.I still enjoy a little scribble for my own pleasure.

    • There’s a lot wrong with the American system of education, but one of the things we get right is that nobody is irrevocably bumped off the bus at age eleven. We have graduate-equivalency degrees (GEDs), that even high school drop-outs can pursue if they want to later attend college.

      I’m sorry that exam didn’t go well for you, Brenda, but I’m very glad you haven’t let it destroy your faith in your storytelling ability. I thought I was stupid in math. Oh, how I struggled in math… and it was doubly frustrating because with language, I did not struggle.
      Then in tenth grade Algebra Two I hit a teacher who had won all sorts of teaching awards, who loved to TEACH. Straight A’s.
      I suspect you are a marvelous storyteller, and I hope you keep at it.

  2. I wrote two letter this week.
    One to express condolences on the loss of a dear friend– a sympathy card didn’t quite work in this situation. I could have emailed…but thought a letter would convey my thoughts in a more personal way.
    Letter two was written to a dog friend who is going through a terrible time. I wanted to reach out and remind her to call me if needed.
    Am glad I picked up some notecards and stationary at Christmas Tree shop!

  3. I have not received or written a “real” letter since the early 80s. I guess the last one was to one of my aunts. When I was 3 or 4 years old, my grandmother and half of her 14 children moved from Missouri to California. I probably wrote more letters to her than to anyone else over my lifetime. Even before I was able to write, my mother would let me include a few lines of scribbles at the end of her letter before she sent it off to grandma.

    I don’t know who I would write a letter to now. Everyone I know is used to communicating in 140 characters or less. But that is not me. I refuse to text. I just don’t see the sense of typing something out on a teenie, tiny keyboard, when the instrument I’m using would allow me to use my human voice to convey the same message.

    • I’m not a texter either, though I see the utility when one of my siblings wants to send news to all points at once. My daughter, by contrast, would rather text than talk. I’m torn between, “Oh, c’mon… texting is tedious and unspontaneous…” and glad that she’ll communicate in any fashion.

  4. Dear Grace,

    The first book of yours I read was ‘Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish’ – I was looking for a Christmas themed romance and that happened to be well reviewed in the kindle store. I fell a little bit in love with Vim (my own husband is marvellous with babies) and a lot in love with your writing.

    Your characters were three dimensional and the problems they faced seemed real (too often the conflict in romance novels seems very contrived as it relies on the characters not talking to each other for no good reason whatsoever). I have subsequently read all of your books I can get onto my kindle, and am delighted that you have been so prolific this year.

    Sophie’s story, however, still holds a very special place in my heart. My (first) son was born late last year and to start with I really struggled to breastfeed him. I remember turning to my sister at one point in desperation and saying “If I can’t feed him, how will he know I’m his mother?” (With hindsight, this was obviously bonkers hormones talking). Picking up Sophie’s story for a little comfort reading helped remind me that there is SO much more to motherhood than simply feeding the baby, and that any method of feeding can be done with love.

    I love the heart in your books. Please keep writing, I plan to keep reading.


    • Pemcat, congratulations on arriving to motherhood with your sanity in tact and thanks for those kind words. Sophie is a special book to a lot of readers. It tapped into how the Christmas story changed for me when I beheld the holidays from the perspective of somebody who’d had no intention of starting a family at that time. Lots of miracles to be found along that path.

  5. It has been way too long since I last wrote a real letter. I am more inclined to scribble a note on a card, which is odd, since I do write quite a bit between review-writing, blogging (and of course social media.)
    My mom always writes a shortish letter with many of her cards, and i have a dear friend who writes multi-page letters.
    Part of it is that between the dichotomy of hand vs. brain speed, and the arthritis, my hand writing is far from legible. When I DID write letters, I would scribble them out in long hand, then laboriously hand print them. Any time I use long hand my brain begins to race and my hand struggles to keep up until even I can’t read my own writing if it has been more than a day ago.

    • My mom was a letter writer, but not always by choice. Dad has a computer, but he refused to show her how to email because “She might hit the wrong button and crash the whole thing.” This woman managed the entire seven-kid household for weeks at a time when Himself went off doing science (and drinking) with his colleagues, but she wasn’t competent to send an email? GRRRR.
      In her later letters, her hand writing became very hard to read, particularly as her eyesight failed. I think about what screen magnification would have done for her, and want to smack my dad.

  6. I wrote a note to my BFF from grad school yesterday. I stuck it in a CD and sent her. She is a musicologist and I thought she would like the CD. I mentioned–in our own special code–news of a mutual acquaintance. We usually IM or email but this was special!

    • I like those, “notes tucked in,” communication. There’s something about being able to recognize another person’s handwriting that future generations might never get to enjoy.

  7. Yesterday, my oldest friend (whom I’ve known since the fourth grade) lost her mother after a long illness. My friend lives several thousand miles away, but contact through writing shrinks that distance. Yesterday, when I got the news, I sent an email, grateful for its speed of delivery. But I also began a hand-written letter that I will finish and mail today, knowing that the long-familiar sight of my handwriting will bring a solace all its own.

    • And that solace will be available five years from now, if she keeps your letter. And old friend recently sent me letters I had written to her FIFTY years ago… somehow, I don’t think email can compete with the well preserved letter (not yet).

  8. My daughter just finished college as an English major and is doing a project on her own of writing 100 letters in 100 days. I got a letter from her last week where she asked questions about how my marriage started with my husband/her daddy (she is to marry in November). It is hard for me to think of writing down that history! Why is it so hard to believe that anyone would care to have that permanence of my history on paper?! She asked, didn’t she? And so, I need to make myself do that this week for her. And obviously, I am surprised to find, for myself as well. Thank you for your writings.

    • I hope this starts a bigger project for you. When my dad finally, finally eased up in the lab, he began jotting down memoirs, sometimes a few pages, sometimes a few paragraphs (how his parents met, what East Aurora was like 90 years ago, joining the Navy…) His recollections go back nearly a century, and his progeny are all very glad he took to the time to pen his musings.

  9. I just put the stamps on a lengthy missive to a friend in Australia. Emails or Skype simply don’t do justice to major life events. Letters give a tangible object to carry around and hold like an extension of the sender. I can treasure letters from those long gone,while emails are fleeting, vanishing with every glitch or merger of service providers.

    • I have a few of my mom’s letters to me. They have some of her spirit, in the verve and dash of the Catholic school penmanship, the exclamation marks before they were popular, the XOXOXO that she meant more than any other part of the epistle.

      I think I might have to write to my daughter now.

  10. I don’t use facebook/twitter/instagram largely because I don’t have the desire to communicate en masse (plus the implications to privacy). I can’t structure information (or I suppose people use filters) to be appropriate for consumption by all. I used to write letters of epic proportions. As a traveler and an introvert, I wrote and wrote over train trips and airplane rides and looking out over ancient cities and prairie lands. But I wrote not so much about what I was seeing but the changes those new experiences were bringing into my heart and mind and it was a way to continue to be known by my friends as I became a different person again and again. I don’t really want to show the world what I ate for breakfast, or a pithy response to a political event, and I am not interested in surrounding myself with the thoughts and eating habits of others not in the small circle of those I care about. Each friend of mine is a friend in a different way, with a different relationship history etc. I can’t even write to a few friends at a time because I would say different things to each one individually about any given topic. Maybe I am the only one who works like this, but I do write letters still occasionally and still find the process far more intimate than electronic communication and isn’t that what friendship is about? I hadn’t thought of it in terms of being healing, but I think being understood was a big motivation for my letters and having someone you love understand your experiences (good and bad and all permutations thereof) seems as good a definition of healing as anything else I’ve read. I hadn’t thought about the process of writing those letters as healing because they were sent to be read, but I see that having yourself understand your experiences seems as good a definition of healing as anything else I’ve read as well.

    • I love your comment about friendship not being suited to a general post or email blast–each person is special to us in a different way, so why assume a one-kitten-fits-all post will make a connection?

      The idea with writing about significant events is that in trying to choose words to describe it, in figuring out how to present on paper or to an imaginary reader (or real reader), we take half a step away from it, and give ourselves emotional breathing room without disconnecting from the reality. I know when I get some from a rough day at the law office, or I’m having a difference of opinion with someone, making an entry in my journal about it–before I try to go on about other tasks–usually helps me get past the upset faster.

  11. I don’t send many letters, but I email one of my sisters, the only one who has an email account that she actually uses. I have emailed her already today and yesterday, and several times last week. I wish my other siblings would embrace the interwebs, but they have no desire to do so.

    One of them is on Facebook but I would not write anything personal there.

    • Pam, you can message people on FB, which works just like email and is as private as email…. if people ever check their messages. I bet you’d surprise the daylights out of the non-emailers if you wrote them letters.

  12. I write and receive quite a few letters, mostly e-mail. Too many of them start, Dear Sir/Madam: and end /mm

    I get muddled talking so anything that has to be correct will be written out.

    I have been doing a little tutoring. My third grader seemed a little down. I looked for a pretty notebook appropriate for a left-hander and told her to write down something that she was happy about before she went to sleep at night . A couple of weeks later her mother commented that she didn’t know what I’d asked Emily to do, but she was sure a lot easier to live with. I’d never heard of the research. It just seemed like a good idea for a little girl who doesn’t have bedtime prayers.

    • The gratitude journal is a mainstay of depression clinicians, and it works. I think part of the benefit is that it stops me in my whiny, tired, fretful tracks, and makes me look around at my life–my real, true, HELLO–life, and see what’ going right.

      Because there’s always something I can be grateful for, and that makes it easier to see something else, and something else… Good on you, for putting a very powerful tool in that kid’s hands, one she can use for life.

  13. I could write a letter to my daughter who is in Alaska for a month, my dad since father’s day is right around the corner, maybe even my son who’s off persuing higher education. When my son was younger, I wrote him letters to receive during summer camp. I had a pen pal throughout high school and much of college. There was a time when that relationship could have become more than than, but neither one of us was willing to leave our homes to try to make it work out in person. We were both able to show the best of ourselves in the letters and we had each seen our parent’s relationship fail. I have no doubt everything worked out for the best though. And I ended up leaving home base to find my husband of 25 years.

    • I hope you and your pen pal kept those letters.
      I’ve had some friends who were mostly there for a certain period of my life, and I recall them so fondly. They moved on, but many of them got me through some knotholes that by myself would have much harder to navigate. Once or twice I’ve crossed paths with some of those “lapsed friends,” and telling them what a great gift they were to me at the time seems to cheer us both on our way.

    • I can get very silly about pens. The last time I was in Scotland, I got a chance to write on vellum with Regency ink and a quill pen. Oh my, what a treat… any geese in my neighborhood should be nervous.

  14. It’s been over twenty years. For the first 20 plus years of my marriage I wrote (and sent photographs) to my husband’s relatives. Both his parents had remarried and lived in various places with none being any too close to us. And especially once I had kids, I wanted to keep them informed. I also wrote to his various aunts and uncles. I must admit it became a chore at times.

    • I wonder about all those Regency folks who had vast correspondence networks and journaled religiously as well. Old Samuel Pepys gave up in diary (1660s) after about ten years–but they were a fun ten years!