The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 15, 2000

How beneficial can diary writing be?
By Mohinder Singh

DIARY writing is deemed a practical psychological tool that enables you to express feelings without inhibitions, and to recognise and alter self-defeating habits of mind. Itís a common experience with diarists that their anxiety or depression does diminish once it has found adequate expression.

Recent scientific researches are adding another dimension: diary writing enhancing immunity from illness. Some doctors even think it eases physical illness like arthritis. A study written up in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that sufferers who wrote about their problems improved twice as quickly as other patients.

Now DeSalvo, who teaches creative writing at Hunter College in New York, has come up with a book Writing as a Way of Healing (Womenís Press, 1999). According to her, it isnít necessary to be an experienced or skilled writer to benefit from the cathartic power of the written word. Anyone setting difficult experiences down on paper is helped in coming to terms with them. "We receive a shock or blow or experience a trauma in our lives. Expressing it in language robs the event of its power to hurt us. It also assuages our pain," says she. And adds, "People in the act of writing have been studied physiologically and there is a quieting of the body, a slowing of the pulse and a calming of breathing. Patients with chronic illnesses have also found relief through writing."


Writing is not a "magic bullet" that can help everyone, concedes DeSalvo, but those who do find it works may be surprised by the cathartic results.

Diary writing ó the handiest form of personal or creative writing ó is a commonly recommended activity, especially for those who donít have much experience of writing. Itís the only form of writing that encourages total freedom of expression:there are "no traffic regulations". You can afford to misspell or write ungrammatically.

Nevertheless, a modicum of discipline is required. One has to set aside a certain amount of time on a regular basis, even if it means only half-an-hour on alternate days. You have to set a schedule, as one would for any healing art like yoga.

A lot of people fall into the trap of writing long pages full of self-pity. What you record shouldnít be a litany of moans about any dreadful days you have. You describe what you feel and ponder over it; you try to achieve some balance about it. Itís no good getting stuck in the rut of feeling sorry for yourself; you should try to gain some perspective.

Writing by hand continues to be the preferred mode. Some writers develop an affection for a particular fountain pen, often used solely for such writing. Handwriting, anyway, has a homely flavour, even expressive in itself of the varying moods of the writer. If a word processor or computer is used, it is important to print out what is written. That creates something tangible, a physical object.

More women than men seem to be doing diary writing ó hard to assess the actual position as most diaries remain private, unknown. Women are perceivably better at it than men. "Dailiness" matters more to them, and diary is its classic articulation. Again women possibly lead richer subjective lives, more private, more complex, more reserved, perhaps more lonely or tormented ó "her sex entitles her to the indulgences of an inner life."

The oldest diaries were actually written by women. Back in the tenth century, several ladies of the royal court in Japan recorded their emotion-ridden personal accounts of day-to-day life.

Some of the greatest diary writers have been women: Dorothy Wordsworth, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Anais, Nin. Nin filled hundreds of notebooks, and herself published eight volumes of them. "I felt the need to publish the diary as strongly as the snake pushing out of its skin."

That way self-disclosure is now the hot topic of research studies. Indications are that self-disclosure confers significant psychological and physical benefits. And you can do the same in the diary with little risk of embarrassment.

Indeed some medical scientists are advocating that such personal writing can be a group activity, the way alcoholics work with other alcoholics in Alcoholics Anonymous. "There is a great synergy in groups. And you are not just helping yourself, you are helping others. Also, isolation is one of the curses of our time, and doing anything to break that down is positive," rejoins DeSalvo.

Diary writing, however, is primarily a private activity, meant manifestly for the writerís exclusive use. There is no rule that a diary has to be kept secret, but there are many good reasons for wanting to keep it secret. We are never quite sincere if we are writing something we think someone is going to read. Some people go as far as to insist on privacy when writing their diary.

Diary writing is increasingly being recognised for its role in overcoming compulsive behaviour: smoking, overeating, alcoholism, drug addiction, and other addictions or obsessions. Addicts often develop selective blindness in their lives. Writing about oneís thoughts and actions reverses that process, replacing the blind spot with self-awareness.

Of course, there is no set formula for working through personal problems with diary writing. Each person has to fashion his or her own manner of doing it. But, as a general rule,if you have leant to unblock yourself by confiding in the diary and thus energizing yourself, you can deal with your problems more maturely.

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