Is Writing Making You Sick?

Photo by Volkan Olmez on Unsplash

“Write hard and clear about what hurts” — Ernest Hemingway

Imagine if Hemingway was a blogger. This quote, pretty much the mantra for bloggers everywhere, allows you to imagine your fantasy for a split second. Hemingway’s live on Zoom from some unspecified 5-star location, the unmistakable tinkle of ice cubes in scotch, and charisma fill the space. Oozing charm through video chat, he tells you how he made it on Medium, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed”.

Hemingway lives on throgh his many succinct quotes and also because if anyone knew anything about writing, it’s him. And as ever he hits the nail on the head here, using your unique voice to write about your experiences is what it takes to be a writer. Perfectly expressing your vulnerability gives your writing an edge.

Nowhere is this more so than the blogging world: writers tell other writers to add more emotion and to give the reader as much as they can of themselves. Many previously viral writers will advise revealing something shocking, that people would not normally admit to, to draw readers in.

Doing this can be incredibly powerful and valuable. Writers who write openly, often without a pen name, about assaults, relationships, sexual desire, mental health, and addiction are breaking down barriers with each word they publish.

Publishing your account of something that is considered shameful such as, an orgasm during a sexual assault can save someone who is struggling. There is no doubt that sharing your experiences can save their life or at the very least their sanity.

However- what is the personal cost to the writer?

Check-in with yourself: why are you writing and who are you writing for?

There are many gifted writers on Medium and frequently, I read their experience to find it’s exactly how I feel but I’ve struggled to find the words to explain it. Reading others’ experiences which mirror my own, encourages me to share my own trauma and life-changing experiences.

The power of blogging is that we feel almost strangely comfortable sharing our deepest darkest secrets with the entire world when we might feel uncomfortable announcing the same facts to a room of 5 people. Although this can be validating are we pushing ourselves more than we realize?

What if encouraged by others’ candidness I am sharing more than I am comfortable with? Am I caught up in a blogging frenzy?

As much as I enjoy sharing my past experiences through blogging, I need to check if I am 100% happy with this being out there- am I doing it with full consideration of the impact? Am I happy with a colleague or a family friend finding this article in the future?

Do I fully own this experience as a part of who I am today? Or is it something I am not ready yet to announce to the world?

Is this the right way to write it?

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you” — Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou is likely correct, it’s been proven that writing about experiences, particularly traumatic ones can help suffers process their experience. However, what if writing about it is enough? What if your story is not meant to be told in this way or at this time? How many people feel regret over how they told their story? And what is the collateral damage?

Having read back over some pieces I wrote of my own personal experience of domestic abuse, I now feel unhappy with my voice. Reading back there is no strength, I sound like a victim. I want to convey that I am stronger now, if not for others but to remind myself.

I’ve learned that how a story is constructed and the narrative voice chosen can vary greatly and depends on the time and the space that it was created. For example, some days my overall stance is noticeably more positive. However, blogging, unlike writing a novel rarely gives you the luxury of a week’s grace to review before publishing.

Writing as therapy?

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic and the fear which is inherent in a human situation.” — Graham Greene

For many artists, creating is not just an income stream or about helping others but also a way of exploring and gaining some perspective on experiences. Writing about your own trauma has the power to validate you, particularly if your trauma was minimized by yourself or others.

Taking back control of the narrative of your experience can be incredibly powerful.

“I do find it therapeutic, writing about stuff that was frightening and painful as a child, and managing to see it from an adult’s point of view. To get it out of the closet, metaphorically speaking is therapeutic.” – Julie Walters

What about if getting that experience out of the closet isn’t as therapeutic as Julie Walters and many other writers think it is?

When writing hurts

As great a role model as Hemingway is for writing, he also suffered from multiple mental health issues and ultimately took his own life. Like many creatives (and non-creatives) he was unable to conquer his demons.

Could writing about past trauma have contributed to his suffering? Every time he wrote was he triggering demons causing him to drink? It’s possible. However, it’s also equally possible that whether he wrote or not he would have suffered the same.

Hemingway and Van Gogh are commonly cited to support the widely held belief that those with mental health issues are drawn towards a life of creativity. However, what if it is the other way around: what if digging deep to generate the most breathtaking art helps to manifest mental health issues?

Whether artists use pen or paintbrush to convey emotion, they learn to utilize their past experiences for maximum effect. The world expects something bigger and better than before, more drama, more grit, more blood, more real emotion.

Audiences want to know how that fear felt, what it smelt like, what it tasted like. So, creators take themselves back to that fear to give audiences what they want. If you don’t give it to them someone else will. And if no one is interested in your work, what are you worth?

“Writing is something that you can never do as well as it can be done. It is a perpetual challenge and it is more difficult than anything else that I have ever done” — Ernest Hemingway

Engaging in any type of creative work can be incredibly draining as you push yourself daily. But expectations of a big reveal generated by yourself and others can force creators to relive past traumas.

When we are bombarded so regularly with advice that writing is good for the soul, it’s also important to balance that. Not every writer finds writing therapeutic. Zadie Smith for instance describes the process as, “the exact opposite”.

“I have never attended a creative writing class in my life. I have a horror of them; most writers groups moonlight as support groups for the kind of people who think that writing is therapeutic. Writing is the exact opposite of therapy.” — Zadie Smith

Erin Vincent, who published her memoir covering the loss of her parents at a young age, says this on the process:

“It’s funny, the main thing people say to me when discussing my book is how cathartic the writing must have been. I know they want me to say that it was, but I refuse to perpetuate the lie that writing about your pain is freeing when that is not always the case…Writing a book isn’t easy but dredging up your past and writing about it can be self-inflicted torture.” — Erin Vincent

It’s clear that for some people writing about past experiences is helpful and for some, it’s really not.

Quite regularly after writing about my past, I will feel completely drained and hopeless and need to curl up into a ball. This is what Bessel Van Der Kolk describes in his seminal book, The Body Keeps The Score as a trauma response.

And a trauma response is my sign to stop writing.

Signs of a trauma response

If you feel sick, experience unexpected pain such as stomach cramps or chest pain or need to shut off from the world after writing, or even just mentally exploring your past then it’s likely you are experiencing a trauma response. Having a strong desire to use drugs, drink alcohol, or engage in other self-destructive behavior such as self-harming can be a more serious example.

Erin Vincent describes how her traum

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