Writing, Creativity and Healing

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Thanks to isabella, and her recent posts on writing and healing (like this one), I’ve been thinking more about the way writing, creativity and healing fit together. From the beginning of this blog, I had no doubt that creative expression of all kinds, and writing for me, could bring about healing, even if only temporarily. I’m quite sure now that writing has been central to my recovery from depression, but I’m not at all clear how or why it has that effect. I doubt there could be a definitive answer about something buried so deep in the mind, but I’m constantly trying to find new ideas about the process. I’ve recently been reading two books by Anthony Storr, a British psychiatrist, that bring together many insights from the work of leading thinkers and creative writers.

Solitude: A Return to the Self and The Dynamics of Creation explore the role of creativity in healing and the overall process of human adaptation to experience. Here’s a brief paraphrase of a few of Storr’s major points that I’ve found especially helpful.

  1. The mind understands the bombardment of sense impressions it is constantly receiving by organizing them into recognizable patterns – that’s a tree, that’s a person, that’s a car. In the same way, the mind needs to find patterns in the welter of feelings, thoughts, associations, images, dreams, etc. that crowd into its psychic space. A wave of emotion is separated into feelings – this is grief, this is happiness. Images appearing in the mind are picked out as memories, not scenes in the outer world. A word is linked to this memory and that feeling. According to Storr, creative work plays an important role in this ordering process.

  2. In his view, when creating something ourselves or seeing the works that others have created, we’re attempting to integrate and reorganize inner experience in a way that deepens meaning and produces a feeling of balance. That process moderates internal tensions and brings a sense of peace and fulfillment. The unruly flow of emotions and thoughts grows calm.

  3. Depression leads to a feeling of helplessness and paralysis. Doing creative work, to whatever degree possible, is a way of coping with this problem. Each activity contributes to a sense of control and mastery by linking ideas and feelings from different types of experience – or areas of the brain, in terms of neuroscience. Instead of feeling completely overwhelmed, a person can regain some level of confidence in the ability to function by imaginatively organizing physical things, words or fantasies.

  4. As I’ve written here, a depressed person can also feel detached from the outer world and need to retreat into complete isolation. Storr points out that creative work is one of the tools for rebuilding the sense of connection between inner and outer worlds. I experience this like a reopening of my eyes to everyday things, colors, sounds and allowing in all the associations they have for me. It’s a reminder that I’m part of the world after all.

  5. Many psychologists see the process of human fulfillment itself as the uniting of different aspects of personality and need. Each person makes an ongoing adaptation to new experience and relationships that draws often on unexplored parts of the mind. By integrating these elements, one can build an expanding sense of self and capability. Creative or imaginative work involves ordering symbols and patterns that have deep associations transcending logic and even conscious awareness to draw together different levels of mental activity. This helps an individual achieve the inner wellness on which continuing growth over time remains possible.

  6. In an interest analogy to Buddhist traditions, Storr describes the mental state induced by creative activity as one of detachment. The mind becomes absorbed in the task at hand. It can then observe every thought and idea more dispassionately and come up with news ways to work with them. It is somewhat like the state of being completely present in the moment that can be achieved through meditation.

  7. While attention is focused on writing or drawing, a sense of peacefulness develops. I usually feel this as a rich sense of satisfaction – even without reference to the specific content of what I’m writing. The act of being in that mental and emotional place restores me at a deep level. The way I put this in one post was that depression and all concerns simply disappear when I get to that unselfconscious level of concentration.

  8. Storr finds it important to the process of adaptation and healing that creative work continues throughout life. No one who needs to express themselves this way ever feels they have it right. There is always a drive to do it better next time. And as life and reactions to experience keep evolving, new ways have to be found to reorder the inner world and adapt to everyday life. I think that’s why anyone engaged in any sort of creative activity feels so frustrated when it’s not “right.” The inner balance being sought hasn’t yet been found.

I emphasize these ideas among many in Storr’s insightful books because they resonate so deeply with my own sense of what happens as I write. They also help me understand why the process of doing this blog has changed me, as I’ve tried to adapt to what I’ve gone through. I’ve been working for almost two years with all the inner realities of depression and its impact on relationships, work and just about everything else. It feels right to describe all this as a reordering and reworking of inner experience to create a more balanced whole. That brings me closer to a sense of fulfillment – and peacefulness.

As I’ve mentioned before, after writing about my experience for some time and doing other healing work, I suddenly realized that a basic shift in attitude and belief had taken place. Whatever that inner reordering accomplished, whether conscious or unconscious, I look at myself and everyone around me differently. Healing doesn’t mean getting rid of every problem, but it does mean I can be fully present for my own life and all that it brings. That is a kind of balance I’ve never felt before, and the process of writing feels like the most important activity leading to this change.

It would be helpful to know if these ideas make sense to you. Is this a useful way of thinking about the inner impact of creative activity – any kind at all that you may do?

18 Responses to “Writing, Creativity and Healing”

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  1. philippines says:

    Healing can also be acceptance on things that we are helpless and can no longer be undone.

  2. marg. says:

    Dear John,
    Happy to find your website,
    Feel very isolated,
    A story of more than 30 years of depression.
    I am in one since 6 months now.
    Tired of changing medication every year,
    I am writting to find hope, so tired of this
    lifestyle. I use to write a lot and always showed great courage, but not anymore.
    Why write and repeat always the same story? I am getting older and feel more
    tired of everything including believing that one day, I will be healed.

    So thank you again for sharing your stories,
    I know that I am not alone.
    Marg.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, marg –

      I know how wearying the whole thing can be – my depression took up about a half century, in varying forms and for long spells, before I finally got rid of it. Not much consolation, I know, but there is always the possibility that you can find a better way.

      Thanks for your comment – and I hope you feel better soon.

      John

  3. Matt says:

    For me in early stages of recovery, my writing exercises and photography are exceptionally vital to my improved health. Writing helps me to explore my true deepest nature, the part of me that had a fulfilling life prior to depression. Creative expression has dynamic restorative power for me as well.

    Thanks

  4. Happi says:

    John…..

    Finding a form of expression – an outlet for my inner heaviness – has taken me years and it took a total breakdown of my body and spirit to discovery it!! I’ve always been one to harbour all those feelings and yearnings and pain and dreams and have maintained a pretty good ‘control’ over releasing them!

    After my breakdown, I read and learned and discovered that I’m ‘more’ than my depression! I discovered that I have hidden my talents for years because there aren’t many, who do NOT suffer from depression and it’s effects, who want to ‘hear’ about what’s going on inside depressed people – they find it…well, “just depressing!”

    When I discovered online support groups, my mind started churning again and, after participating in a whole whack of ‘bad’ ones, I was compelled to help others (based on the gift of a particular verse of scripture from my Pastor) and started my own group about 8 years ago.

    There comes a time when you believe everything is finished. Later on you discover that it is only the beginning. I have come to realise that when the Lord gives gifts, he also gives the words to say and the passion for it. Remember that God wants to give us great things, but even He cannot give us any greater blessings that we can believe in.

    He has allowed me to bring out my true character and I have found it quite refreshing to feel a sense of independence and freedom once again. I have developed phenomenal friendships online and have truly enjoyed these new relationships, regardless of whether I have the approval of others or not. My group has helped me develop a sense of belonging, a sense of creativity, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of total fulfillment that I’ve not been able to enjoy before.

    As Jennifer put it, within that framework, I can control the setting but also ‘let go’ as I relate to others on the deepest level of friendship – from the depths of our hearts and minds.

    It is there that I find my ‘peace’.

    Happi

    • John says:

      Hi, Happi –

      It’s so important to me as well to be part of an online community. I just saw an excellent film called Depression: Out of the Shadows, which you can find on the PBS website. In it there’s an interview with a top corporate CEO who said that working with others struggling through depression has been the single most important part of his recovery. It’s like service in AA. Two people who’ve been through it and can trust each other, talking honestly. The online community has been like that – we’ve helped each other through such deep and probing exchanges, and they’ve made a huge difference in keeping me on track. That’s part of finding a purpose – it’s been so energizing, a lifesaver. Writing is one of my methods for finding these relationships.

      John

  5. Theresa says:

    John,

    You hit on a topic that I’ve been trying to describe for years! I experience a ‘separation’ of sorts when creating. When I achieve that separation is when what I am doing truly becomes creative. For instance, when singing, if I was worried about the zipper on my jeans or hitting the high note that was coming up, I wasn’t “there”. Those things never crossed my mind when “in the mode” and the music then had an energy and synthesis of its own. The same with writing, teaching, photography and working with people. It’s not true work unless that separation happens.

    I found a quick way to plunge into “in the moment.” If you’re not “in the moment” around a 1600# horse, you risk serious bodily harm! Animals can bring you to that place, if you are truly “with” them. When I start to unravel, I step away and into the world of the here and now with my animals.

    • john says:

      Theresa –

      I’m so glad to hear from someone working in different creative modes. What you say about singing fits well with what I feel in writing – where the danger is thinking about the reader over your shoulder rather than what you are expressing that is yours rather than what an imagined audience wants. You remind me also of long-ago experiences when acting. A performance was never anything but stagey until the words became mine, and I said them as if they had just occurred to me. It’s wonderful that you have a way of getting into the moment with animal friends. They’re always around me too and have a deeply relaxing effect.

      Thanks for coming by – and for giving me a chance to get to know your blog.

      John

  6. Jennifer says:

    John,

    These points resonate with me also. One of the things that has been very healing about writing about my experiences — in a very public place, where I can share them with others — is how the very act of writing has helped me almost reorder the experiences. Within a framework, one that I both control (by being the storyteller) and just let happen (part of the letting go that is necessary in the creative process, just letting your mind go where it needs to), I have found some peace. Of course, there are good days and bad, but I am in a different place.

    Thank you for putting it so eloquently!

    Jennifer

    • john says:

      Thanks, Jennifer – “the very act of writing has helped me almost reorder the experiences” – within a framework you control and also let happen. That’s a great way to think of it – a real writer’s perception. That fits very well with my experience too – it’s strange how the control and imaginative spontaneity go together. In that letting go of the mind, I also, and perhaps only at those times, discover altogether new things – or perhaps I’m rearranging things that have always been sitting somewhere in my mental space – and now understand them for the first time. That’s how I learn and move forward – and it is, as you say, an experience of peace.

      I’m so glad to have this comment!

      All my best – and I hope your writing is going well.

      John

  7. ish says:

    very valuable health information, thanks for sharing it!

  8. Immi says:

    When I’m doing something creative, all the depression and anxiety melt away. I’m there. I’m alive. Life just is. I’ve recently taken up mandala drawing as meditation and therapy. And fun 🙂 One of the most useful reminder / pointers I took away from DBT. So I can very much relate.

    • john says:

      Hi, Immi –

      That’s just what I feel. Your comment makes me realize how important it is to explore the link between this creative state and mindfulness.

      Thanks for commenting.

      All my best – and good health! — John

  9. Evan says:

    Thanks John. I look forward to seeing the posts.

  10. Melinda says:

    John,

    I could not agree with your thoughts on the healing energy of creativity more! Throughout my recovery, creative outlets have been a huge part of the process. For many years, I had terrible difficulty in talking about the abuse I suffered as a child but while I was in treatment, I started creating art work that allowed me to express the rage/pain/trauma I had felt. It was a huge relief.

    And writing my memoir has been another step of this healing journey–even though I had been in therapy and recovery for close to 15 years. Creative expression takes our healing to a new level. I really believe that.

    John, as always, this was so beautifully written–so eloquent.

    Thank you!

    Melinda

    • john says:

      Thank you, Melinda –

      I’m glad this sounds to you like the right track to follow. I’m especially interested in your mention of visual artwork as having such an impact on your recovery. That’s something I’ve never done, but I’ve seen it work. My wife used to be an art therapist, and she helped one of our kids get through a difficult time after he’d experienced a traumatic event. He was too young to talk about it, but painting the scene of what happened was his initial breakthrough.

      It is really exciting to find a form of expression that does more than years of therapy. I’m right with you when you say it takes us to a new level.

      All my best to you — John

  11. Evan says:

    Hi John,

    This makes excellent sense to me.

    I think creativity has to be part of psychological health. And I very much get the sense of detachment. Maybe a good definition of creativity is: detachment+making meaning.

    I’d be interested to hear about the different organisations that you perceive – during depression and now after depression. Not trying to pry though.

    • john says:

      Evan –

      That’s an interesting idea on defining creativity. I’m looking more closely at the analogy between the creative state and the detachment achieved through mindfulness and meditation. The act of expression in some form also has to figure into it. I’m writing a few short pieces now to go into the reorganizing and shifting. Hopefully, I can learn more about what exactly has changed – the shift from before to after.

      Thanks for coming by. I hope all is going well.

      John

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