Writing as therapy

Anyone who ever kept a secret diary as a teenager, or indeed in later life, can attest to the cathartic and healing effects of putting distress into words. Research studies have shown that “expressive writing”, as described below, can be of benefit to patients with a wide range of medical and psychiatric conditions.

Most published autobiographies include some account of the more upsetting aspects of their subjects’ lives. The authors of so-called “misery memoirs” carry this to an extreme, taking the adversity they have suffered – for example being abused by parents or partners, suffering illness or injury, or born into a disadvantaged minority group – as their main theme. Some books in this class are authentic and moving, have an educational function and even help to bring about social change. Some are so full of self-pity as to make their readers cringe, and might have been better left unpublished. Some distort the truth for dramatic effect, and a few have been exposed as entirely fraudulent.

Many writers of fiction draw on the more challenging aspects of their own life experience for their plots and themes Рwhether directly or indirectly, and whether consciously or not. This is certainly true of myself though I hope that readers of my latest novel Overdose Рa tragicomedy about the misadventures of a lovesick psychiatrist Рwill not take it as literally autobiographical.

Besides including fictionalised versions of real events, novelists may use writing as a means of expressing their “shadow side” – perhaps this would explain why so many highly respectable middle-aged women are good at writing murder mysteries.

For the record, here is a brief description of the usual methodology for the expressive writing research. Patients in the study group are asked to write either by hand or on a computer every day for 3 – 5 days, for 15-20 minutes per session, about the most traumatic experience or emotional issue that has affected their lives. This does not have to be directly related to the medical or psychiatric condition they are suffering from. They are advised to write as freely as possible, without regard for spelling or grammar. Patients in the control group are asked to write for the same amount of time, but about some factual objective topic. The material is confidential and need not be shown to the researchers. Some subjects choose to destroy what they have written.

Like any other therapy, this technique does not suit everyone, and responses vary widely. In the main, studies report that those who did the expressive writing, compared to the controls, became more distressed immediately afterwards and that their physical symptoms sometimes temporarily worsened. But in the longer term they reported improved health, mood, and social function. Many of them said that the expressive writing, though upsetting at the time, had been valuable and meaningful.

Choosing, and changing, the names of your characters

The important and enjoyable task of naming fictional characters is not always straightforward.

Most people find that certain names suggest certain features of personality and appearance. This reflects their own life experience. So, while the name Carol might remind me of the placid blonde in my class at school, you might picture Carol as a feisty brunette.

There is nothing to be done about these individual variations, but all names have universal associations too, and it is worth looking them up. Some names relate to particular ethnic, cultural or religious groups or periods in history. Some are intended to convey personal qualities such as courage or charm.

Names which belonged to well-known celebrities, Diana or Marilyn for example, are probably best avoided. It is also best to avoid using several similar names, such as Sara and Sandra, in the same book.

Modern word-processing technology makes it deceptively simple to change characters’ names. Such changes can cause problems, as I have found in my own work and when reviewing manuscripts for friends. ¬†Sometimes the same person is called by different names in different parts of the book. It should be easy to avoid this by using the “Find and Replace” function, however this powerful tool can have serious unwanted effects if carelessly used. For example changing Amy to Katy, without matching the case or specifying whole words only, would cause and the word “dreamy” to turn into “dreKaty”.

My own over-sensitivity to being criticised or offending people has caused me concern around the choice of names. What if one of the several Roberts I know is upset if he finds that I have called one of my less attractive characters by his name? What if a complete stranger brings a libel action because I have unwittingly used his or her name in a book? Such fears led me to change a few names in my first novel just before it went to print. But I still thought of my characters by their original names, and when I wrote the second novel I used one of them by mistake. Fortunately, while writing the third, I realized what I had done and have been able to get round it by introducing a new twist to the plot.

In conclusion, it is best to avoid last-minute name changes, but if you do decide they are necessary be sure to follow up with a careful check of the whole text.