Writing for emotional survival is a well known therapy. Release comes through using words as a purge, or as a mechanism to achieve perspective, which helps control or channel destructive, bad or sad feelings. At the serious end we have Anne Frank; at the frivolous end, Bridget Jones. It is no coincidence that both are bestsellers. Reading raw, unflinching accounts of other people’s self-examination is as close as we get to insider knowledge of another human’s soul. No wonder personal writing plays a major role in modern psychotherapy and is studied as both literature – Diana Athill writing about what it is like to be old, for example – and science – James W. Pennebaker, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, writing on the theory of catharsis.
Professor Pennebaker has gone further still. In Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions (1997), he explains that ‘inhibition can affect immune function. . . excessive holding back of thoughts, feelings and behaviours can place people at risk for both major and minor diseases’. In other words, expressing yourself, whether through writing or speaking, has a physical benefit, while not expressing yourself can make you ill. But I wonder if Professor Pennebaker has gone far enough. I believe that for some people, and particularly for writers, the physical act of writing is even more crucial than what’s expressed; that pen or keyboard is as critical to recovery as antibiotics or saline drips.
Come with me to Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary on one of the worst days of a recent unexpected two-week stay. Drowning in industrial levels of pain after emergency admission and a major operation, it turned out that my life-raft was not the morphine clicker, it was my notebook. Forget writing as catharsis. What I wrote didn’t matter a jot. It was the physical act of typing (for notebook read iPad) that kept me threaded to the world.
Sara Coleridge, the writer daughter of Samuel Taylor, experienced something similar. A chronic insomniac, her body wracked by ‘irregular and painful bowel movements, sweaty palms, physical exhaustion, headaches, lack of appetite, furred tongue and dry mouth, and sickness’, by 1834 she was addicted to morphine as on a ‘boisterous sea’. Her husband despaired. Then an article published about her father made her so angry she began to write letters. As her biographer Katie Waldegrave points out ‘it’s awkward to write letters lying down in bed’, so Sara sat up. Sitting up in bed also had drawbacks: she needed a desk. Soon she migrated downstairs to the drawing room. In a month, she was ‘sleeping without the aid of opium’. Anger at what she saw as a betrayal of her father may have been the driver, but the physical act of writing precipitated her physical recovery. Had Sara dictated her letters she’d probably have lain in bed until she died.
In the sharp and perfectly observed hospital diary kept by Hilary Mantel over extensive surgery linked to endometriosis, she reveals that she is ‘fascinated by the line between writing and physical survival’. During her truly ghastly medical trauma, too weak to reach an inch for pills, she could always ‘contrive to get a pen in my hand’. The ink ‘looping across the page’ reassured her that she was alive. She recorded her ‘hallies’ (hallucinations) not for later publication but because she needed to see her pen move, and the hallies provided subject matter. We know this because just before she goes home, Mantel scribbles ‘I could write up my hospital diary. Or … I could defiantly leave it unprocessed, and that way the marks of experience might fade’. For her, writing brings things crowding in. It is not writing that brings welcome distance, and she can only not write when she doesn’t need to write for physical survival.
Mantel wrote nearly every day of her ordeal, and read whether ‘in or out of [her] wits’. My experience was different. For almost two weeks, I couldn’t read. To avoid throwing up, I found it best to stay perfectly still and stare straight ahead, much as you do when feeling queasy in an aeroplane. But I wanted my iPad. Though I could barely look at the screen, the keyboard was a lighthouse. ‘Come to me,’ it flashed, ‘and be comforted.’ I wrote emails. I wrote some rubbish. Didn’t matter. Touching the keypad forced me to focus on other people, on events outside the hospital; in short, on life rather than what felt, at times, a preference for temporary, or even, occasionally, permanent extinction.
Like Fanny Burney famously describing her mastectomy of 1811 in a letter to her sister Esther, it was some time before I wrote of my actual experience. Let me reassure: my medical hiccup was much shorter-lived than Mantel’s and absolutely nothing compared to Burney’s. My illness felled me in seconds; Burney underwent months of cancerous agony. The sudden nature of my operation left little time for terror; Burney’s anticipatory terror was severe enough to induce partial paralysis. She could not write, so she tells Esther, because ‘my arm prohibited me’. Afterwards, her ‘miserable account’, as she characterised it, took over three months to complete. ‘Not for days, not for weeks, but for months I could not speak of this terrible business without nearly again going through it! I could not think of it with impunity!’ she exclaims.
Notwithstanding the italics, the measured tone of the letter suggests it was through writing that she found the strength to face what had happened and draw a line under the whole business. Having undergone appalling butchery at the hands of men – and there is something particularly horrible about a group of men severing something as intimate as a breast from a fully conscious woman – writing was her vehicle of reassertion. Taking up and wielding her pen couldn’t make her whole, but it could prove to herself and others that she was no longer a passive victim. The woman who wrote, sealed and posted that letter was back in control of her own physical and emotional destiny.
But what about authors for whom physical control is a dream? At 19, Laura Hillenbrand was completely debilitated by chronic fatigue syndrome (ME). ‘My illness is excruciating,’ she told The Wall Street Journal in 2010. ‘It takes over your entire life and causes more suffering than I can describe.’ Not yet 50, Hillenbrand has to use a chairlift to reach the second floor of her house, yet her chosen subjects for books are athletes: champion racehorse Seabiscuit, and record-breaking 1936 Olympic distance runner Louis Zamperini. This particular horse and man are not just athletes, of course: they are symbols of courage – Seabiscuit overcoming injury to finish his racing career with a stellar burst of speed to win the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, and Zamperini, whose running career was brought to an end by World War II, overcoming internal demons after hideous experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese.
Writing is Hillenbrand’s own manifestation of physical courage. Rather like Sara Coleridge, for long stretches of time she is completely bed bound, but unlike Coleridge, Hillenbrand’s ME-induced vertigo makes the physical act of writing impossible. Yet she still writes, sometimes ‘with her eyes closed, scribbling on a pad’. Why put herself through this physical torture? To remind herself that she’s not just ‘a person lying in a bed’. If the physical act of writing doesn’t release her from actual physical suffering, it does release her from thinking about it, which is just as important for survival.
Most writers have felt fear and disbelief at a major bodily malfunction; the sudden prostration; the roar of pain; the agonising heave onto a gurney; the melee of A & E; the rushing admission into a hospital’s creaking innards. When reading pieces detailing all this, most readers assume writers are busy making sense of their suffering by giving it narrative shape (or just making a bob or two). But I don’t think that’s all we’re doing. In that Glasgow hospital, it was only when typing that I felt myself. Partly, as perhaps it was for Burney, it’s being in control – my fingers were the only bit of my body over which I had complete command. Partly, it was Hillenbrand’s notion of being released, whilst writing or typing, from thinking about my condition. But it was also partly a mad belief that if I typed for long enough, when I stopped, my condition would have improved. A sentence a day keeps the doctor at bay.
Though we seldom explore the topic, I think that writers need physically to write as much as athletes need physically to move, or musicians need physically to hold or sit at their instrument. At the very least, writing makes you grasp something or balance something, and sit up straighter. Sitting up straighter is often the first sign of physical recovery. I certainly don’t recommend getting ill to prove this tenuous thesis, but next time you’re slumped and miserable, I wonder if you’ll discover, as I did, that it is less the art of writing and more the act that helps you feel human again.