Words by Fiona Mitchell
When I’ve spent hours hunched over my desk writing, the truth is I start to become slightly unhinged. Maintaining eye contact with people afterwards can be a problem when you’ve been immersed in a fictional world for several hours, and eyelids inevitably twitch.
And that’s just the writing and editing. Add to the mix what happens when you’ve finished – the many rejections you’re likely to face when trying to land a literary agent, not to mention all the fretting that goes along with having a novel on a book-shop shelf – and it’s a wonder any of us write at all. Right? Well, the thing is, writing is actually good for your mental health.
And it’s not just me who’s saying it; researchers are too. According to one study, jotting down your anxious thoughts before heading into an exam can earn you better results. And writing is being used in prisons to boost self-esteem, as well as in care homes to improve the wellbeing of people living with dementia.
Think about it – scribbling down your thoughts usually makes you feel better. Merely penning a to-do list can get the most chaotic of minds into some kind of order. And if you’re going through a tricky situation with a work colleague, friend or relative, writing down your thoughts on the subject can help you navigate it.
There’s a difference between therapeutic writing and writing creatively. Therapeutic writing involves scribbling down what’s in your head without bothering about narrative arcs and neat endings. But both types of writing start from the same place: expressing emotion.
I started writing my first book, The Maid’s Room, when I noticed people in Singapore treating their lowly-paid, live-in domestic helpers appallingly. Domestic helpers work long hours with rare days off, and some of them spoke to me about suffering sexual harassment and being given so little to eat that they shook as they carried out their chores. Plus lots of women have to leave their children back in their home countries and don’t get to see them for years.
I felt angry, but it wasn’t just this that resulted in me creating that word file entitled ‘Novel 1’; it was my own experience too. When my daughter was four, people kept asking me when I was having another child and since I couldn’t have any more kids, it really got to me. I ended up pouring all my emotions into my book – anger, sadness, a few laughs along the way. It was incredibly energising, so even when the rejections from literary agents clogged up my inbox, I carried on. At one point, I even scrapped the entire book and started writing it from scratch.
While I’ll never make peace with people who degrade others, I have made peace with the daft things people say about children without siblings. So yes, writing really has been a balm, and continues to be. Whenever I’m feeling frayed about something, I write. And then everything else drifts away – the state of the world, sales figures, what I’m having for tea – I feel sucked in by the work, soothed and it’s a damn sight better than blurring out your worries with a couple of glasses of wine or simply ranting.
There’s no doubt that therapy is powerful - it can save lives and turn lives around after all, but what’s great about writing is that you can do it whenever you like and it’s free. You don’t have to make an appointment. They have a lot in common though, therapy and writing, since both are about words, and as writer Matt Haig says, ‘words can be medicine.’
Fiona Mitchell is the author of The Maid's Room. Find out more about Fiona here and buy the book here.