A couple of years ago now, a woman in one of my writing workshops at Cancer Services, Rosetta, a breast cancer survivor, was writing about healing place. One of the things she ended up writing about was trying to find a place where it might become possible to put all of her questions out on the table. Questions like: What now? What next? Where do I go from here? I like her table image. I can see it. And her image seems to me now a fitting image for writing and healing this month: all of the pieces laid out on the table. Pieces perhaps of your own story. Pieces of your own writing.
Some of the pieces may be jagged. Some may be worn by the elements, like sea glass. And perhaps a pattern has begun to emerge out of the fragments—a clear shape—a lovely mosaic. But who knows? It may have fallen apart again. As far as I can tell, that’s the way it goes with forms and patterns—they come together and fall apart.
Say you wake up one morning then—you make your way to the table--there's a clear slanted light. Or maybe it’s late, the rest of the world gone to sleep, the room quiet, there’s just the one lamp. Maybe you find yourself touching the pieces. And maybe as you are touching them, and maybe only for a moment, it becomes possible to ask the next question. Among all these pieces—
What was the good part?
What is the good part?
(Is there a good part?)
(Is there more than one?)
[Note: The picture for this month was taken last August when the black-eyed susans were blooming in my yard. It seems to me that one of the good parts of January, when the garden may be a bit brown and sodden—it’s very sodden here now after several days of rain—one of the good parts is remembering those perennials that may be lying dormant, waiting for the right time to break the surface.]
The theme for this month—Figuring Out the Good Part—springs from an essay, “The Good Part,” written by Dennis Covington and found in the anthology, The Healing Circle, which I’ve mentioned here before. Covington's essay is funny and sharp. It asks excellent questions. In fact, the entire essay constitutes a kind of question in and of itself—a question that’s terribly relevant, I think, to writing and healing and to the way we try to make sense of the stories of our lives.
The essay begins with a pair of Florsheim Imperial wingtips. These are, apparently, a somewhat expensive line of men’s shoes, but this particular pair was bought on sale for $5.88 by one Bunky Wolaver, a man who loves a bargain and who also happens to be married to Dennis Covington’s sister, Jeannie, a woman confined to a hospital bed with a severe flare of lupus. She’s undergoing a painful procedure—having her blood cleansed—and she passes the time with her brother and his wife, Vicki, by telling stories. So she tells about her husband, Bunky, buying these shoes in a size six, even though he’s a size nine and a half, because he does love a good bargain. He’s been trying for days to find someone to give the shoes to—no luck—and then that morning he calls, Jeannie tells him her doctor’s there making rounds, he asks her if maybe she could just lean over the bed and check and see what size the doctor’s feet are.
The story goes on. Another lupus patient, a woman in Jeannie’s support group, stops by to visit. Both women have advanced disease and Covington relates that the visit is mostly a somber one, but then at one point Jeannie tells the woman about Bunky’s Florsheim Imperial wingtips and the woman starts laughing so hard that the chair she is sitting on collapses.
Jeanie’s stories have always seemed particularly Southern to me, and on the way home from the hospital that night, Vicki and I entered a serious discussion about the nature of Southern storytelling. The good part of Jeanie’s story, I thought, was Bunky asking her to check out the size of her doctor’s feet to see if the shoes he had bought on sale might fit. Vicki thought the good part of the story was the moment when the other lupus patient’s chair collapsed.
We didn’t resolve the issue, but we did conclude that every story, Southern or not, has to have a good part. “Have you gotten to the good part yet?” we often ask each other when one of us is reading a novel the other has recommended.
But what exactly constitutes the good part of a story? And since our lives themselves are stories, where in this sea of misery, this vale of tears, does the good part lie?
Covington proposes then that the answer to this last question can best be found in another story, and he proceeds then to tell a long and winding story which includes, among other things, his father, twelve armadillos, the loss of two of the armadillos (the father left the latch to the cage open and afterwards felt horrible about it), a stint of alcoholism, a marriage, getting sober, two daughters, his father’s death, a trip to Florida with one of his daughters to look at a piece of scrubland his father had left him, a baby armadillo by the side of the road, a decision to take the armadillo in as a pet and name him Joey, then Joey’s illness, Joey's death, his daughter’s tears in the wake of Joey's death.
The good part? At the end of all this, Covington writes how he and his wife disagree a bit on just when exactly the good part of this particular story begins. He thinks the good part may have started on the way to Florida, spotting the armadillo. (The redemptive armadillo?) Or maybe at the moment when his daughter asked him if they could keep it and he decided they would try. His wife, he says, thinks that the good part began at that moment when she asked their daughter why she was crying. And the girl said she was crying for their father.
One of the things that interests me most about this essay is what Dennis Covington doesn’t suggest. He doesn’t suggest that the good part of the story was when they stumbled across a pot of money. Or when one of his daughters got accepted into Yale. Or won a soccer championship. It wasn’t even when he got sober (though being sober, one could argue, allowed him to recognize the good part when it came along). The good part wasn’t when he found out his father wasn’t going to have to die. Nor when Joey, the armadillo, was able to be miraculously cured. His father did die. So did Joey. And yet still there was this something Covington recognized—something that happened between him and his daughter and his wife, something that echoed a moment that had happened once between him and his own father-----
I like the kind of writing that asks more questions than it answers. It gives me that sense that the work—the larger story—is still unfinished and that all of us—every single one of us—might yet have something to contribute---
What does constitute the good part of a story?
And how in the world will we recognize it when we get there?
When I was in graduate school, taking a writing workshop, one of my teachers told us that we would probably learn more in the workshop from looking at other people’s stories than we would learn from our own. The notion, I think, is that sometimes we can become too close—too attached—to our own stories, and that sometimes it’s easier to see other people’s stories because we can see them from a fresh perspective.
So---the writing idea:
Consider a story, any story as long as it is not your own story. It could be from a book, a newspaper, a movie. It could be from a recent conversation with a friend. Now consider the good part. What was the good part of the story?
Of course it may happen that you might not know at first what the good part is—in fact I think that might be the best way to begin. I have no clue what the best part of this story is. . . But then say you keep writing—say you keep writing I don’t know. . . I don’t have a clue. . . And then maybe you write, I don’t know but I wonder if maybe. . . Or, I don’t know but I’m beginning to think. . . Say you keep writing like this. Then—it could happen—something could jump off the page—your own words—and they could surprise you. (I didn’t know I thought this. I had no idea. . . )
There’s a writing teacher, Donald Murray, author of A Writer Teaches Writing, who says that we become writers when we are surprised for the first time by our own writing—that that in fact is the kind of thrill that can bring us back to writing again and again.
I’ve written here before about the research begun by James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas. In 1983 he asked a question that has more or less framed the field of writing and health: Can writing one’s deepest thoughts and feelings about a difficult life event result in fewer illness visits to a health clinic? The answer to that question turned out to be yes—writing can influence health visits. And in the years since, the data has been fairly consistent: expressive writing about difficult life circumstances leads to improved health outcomes.
Fifteen years after Pennebaker’s groundbreaking study, Laura King, a researcher at the University of Missouri, asked a new question--a series of questions actually--that moved the research in a bit of a different direction. Her questions:
What other kinds of writing might be healing?
Does writing, for instance, have to be painful in order to heal?
What about writing that focuses on the good part?
Might that kind of writing be healing as well?
Research had already shown that writing about mundane topics was not especially healing. For instance, in Pennebaker’s first study, one group of students was instructed to describe their dorm room, a topic chosen specifically because of its lack of emotional freight. And, though it’s possible that, for some students at least, the dorm room did strike a meaningful chord, as a group, and as predicted, those students who wrote about their posters and rugs and lamps did not show changes in health outcome.
But what about topics that are neither painful nor mundane? What about topics that carry a more pleasant emotional charge? What health effects might writing about those topics have?
Laura King asked a group of volunteers to reframe a difficult life event by writing for twenty minutes on four consecutive days on the perceived benefits of this difficult life event. Volunteers were instructed to consider a traumatic event that they had experienced and then “focus on the positive aspects of the experience. . . write about how you have changed or grown as a person as a result of the experience.” When King and her associates analyzed the results they found that the health benefits for this group were identical to those for the group that had written their deepest thoughts and feelings about a trauma. Both groups benefited equally.
Perhaps this finding doesn’t surprise you. Perhaps, in hindsight, it even feels like common sense. But, after fifteen years of research on writing about trouble, it introduced a new wrinkle into the research in expressive writing and health. It opened the door to a possibility that many people had perhaps long suspected: that a vast array of different kinds of writing might be healing. Writing about the difficult part is healing. Writing about the good part is healing too. Not either or. But both and.
[The source for this brief piece is The Writing Cure, edited by Stephen Lepore and Joshua Smyth, and especially Chapter 7, “Gain Without Pain? Expressive Writing and Self-Regulation,” contributed by Laura King.]
Is there a benefit to writing for women with breast cancer?
What kind of writing is most beneficial?
(And might the answers to these questions be extrapolated to other groups?)
To look at the first two questions, Annette Stanton, a psychologist at the University of Kansas, and Sharon Danoff-Burg, psychologist at State University of New York in Albany, conducted a study several years ago now in which they divided a group of women with breast cancer into three groups:
All of the women completed four twenty-minute writing sessions. And here are some things they learned from this group of women:
Thus, along with expressive writing, writing about positive thoughts and feelings—writing about the good part—was shown to be beneficial for women with breast cancer. Interestingly, though, and, I think, wisely, the authors, in the wake of these finding, advise caution in asking (or, worse, prescribing) persons who are facing adversity to find a positive benefit. They write:
Indeed, exhorting individuals to ‘look on the bright side’ or to focus on a specific advantage in their misfortune is likely to be interpreted as minimizing or not understanding their plight.
And they go on to name three reasons they think asking for a positive benefit was effective in this particular study:
This is an interesting, and potentially significant, study. And, granting, first, that all research in this field is still preliminary and that more research needs to be done, I’m taking from this study five useful bits:
[Note: a summary of this study by Stanton and Danoff-Berg, with commentary by the authors, can be found in Chapter 3 of The Writing Cure.]
For this writing idea I’m going to set down, first, the instructions that Annette Stanton and Sharon Danoff-Burg used in the study that I wrote about earlier this week. These instructions are specifically written for a woman with breast cancer. Following these instructions, I’m including a slight revision, a set of instructions that might be applied in the wake of any adversity. An adversity I’m going to call X.
What is your X? An illness? A loss? A setback? X can be whatever you would like for X to be. And you can, if you like, choose the first X that comes to mind. You really can’t do this wrong.
(And of course if it’s too soon to find a benefit in X feel free to skip this writing exercise—to save it for next year—or for your next life for that matter. If you would prefer to deal with the part of X that hasn’t been so beneficial you may want to look at Writing and Healing Idea #12 or Writing and Healing Idea #14)
1. The Stanton-Danoff-Burg Instructions: Writing About Breast Cancer
[from The Writing Cure]
What I would like you to write about for these four sessions [of twenty minutes each] are any POSITIVE thoughts and feelings about your experience with breast cancer. I realize that women with breast cancer experience a full range of emotions that often includes some positive emotions, thoughts, and changes, and in this writing exercise I want you to focus only on the positive thoughts and feelings that you have experienced over the course of your cancer. Ideally, I would like you to focus on positive thoughts or feelings that you have not discussed in great detail with others. You might also tie your positive thoughts and feelings about your experiences with cancer to other parts of your life—your childhood, people you love, who you are, or who you want to be. Again, the most important part of your writing is that you really focus on your positive thoughts and feelings. The only rule is that you write continuously for the entire time. If you run out of things to say, just repeat what you have already written. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling or sentence structure. Don’t worry about erasing or crossing things out. Just write.
2. The Stanton-Danoff-Burg Instructions Revised: Writing About X
What I would like you to write about for these four sessions [of twenty minutes each] are any POSITIVE thoughts and feelings about your experience with X. I realize that people who have undergone X experience a full range of emotions that often includes some positive emotions, thoughts, and changes, and in this writing exercise I want you to focus only on the positive thoughts and feelings that you have experienced over the course of X. Ideally, I would like you to focus on positive thoughts or feelings that you have not discussed in great detail with others. You might also tie your positive thoughts and feelings about your experiences with X to other parts of your life—your childhood, people you love, who you are, or who you want to be. Again, the most important part of your writing is that you really focus on your positive thoughts and feelings. The only rule is that you write continuously for the entire time. If you run out of things to say, just repeat what you have already written. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling or sentence structure. Don’t worry about erasing or crossing things out. Just write.
Three times in the last month I have come across, in three different places, the poem, “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver. After the third time, I thought this might be a poem I ought to pay some attention to.
The poem opens with the speaker telling us, her reader, that we do not have to be good, we do not have to walk on our knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. And, then, this line:
“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
It’s a radical line. Maybe a radical poem.
It goes against the grain of business as usual.
(The way the mind and the will are so often, for so many of us, yanking the body around to places it doesn’t really want to go—places even, sometimes, that can make the body a tad sick—or sicker.)
(And sometimes maybe this is one of those silver linings of getting sick—or so people will sometimes tell me—the small good part—how a person can begin to learn to quit yanking the body around. The stakes are too high anymore to do all that yanking. Sometimes illness is the beginning, for some people, or so they tell me, of beginning to pay closer attention to what the body loves and needs—and what it doesn’t.)
I’ve been carrying the poem with me this month, looking at it now and then, and now, today, there’s one particular word that seems to jump off the page: meanwhile.
MEANWHILE as the good part?
Because after the speaker of the poem tells us we do not have to be good, we do not have to walk on our knees for a hundred miles, repenting, we only have to let the soft animal of our body love what it loves, after that she invites us, the reader, to tell her of our despair and she will tell us hers—
And then there’s this shift—this leap—and she writes:
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes. . .
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again. . .
It’s as if the camera had been close in—a history of despair—or a history with some despair in it--but then—a shift—the camera pulls back---a shift to a larger landscape—a leap—meanwhile—somewhere—those wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home.
What I like best about Mary Oliver’s poem, "The Wild Geese,” is the way it manages to hold two such vastly different things in such an apparently simple poem. Despair and the wild geese heading home. Not just one or the other. Both. She manages the juxtaposition of these two things—the leap from the one to the other—with that single word: meanwhile. And, in so doing, the poem itself becomes a kind of invitation.
First a literal invitation: “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”
And, then, an invitation to consider what else might be happening meanwhile.
So, the writing idea----
Write for ten or fifteen minutes about a moment of despair—it can be your own despair, or someone else’s, or it can be a fictional moment—a character, perhaps, experiencing a moment of despair.
And then—stop—and skip down a line or two and write about some of the things that might be happening meanwhile----
Last week there was an interesting article in our local paper, the Winston Salem-Journal, entitled “Lee Smith’s Pain,” by Martha Waggoner. The article describes how Lee Smith, the novelist, now living in Hillsborough, North Carolina, found writing to be a remedy for grief. But—and I think this is the interesting part—she didn’t write directly about her grief. She found a remedy in writing fiction.
Lee Smith is the author of several novels, including Black Mountain Breakdown, Family Linen, and The Last Girls. A little over three years ago now, her son Josh, only thirty-three, died of acute cardiomyopathy. Lee Smith describes herself as feeling, afterward, as if her finger was stuck in an electrical outlet, all the time. She had, before her son’s death, been working on a new book, a story of an orphan girl named Molly in post-Civil War North Carolina. After her son’s death she put the story aside.
She describes herself as being unable to eat, unable to sleep. She had trouble finding the school where she’d been teaching for twenty years. She had trouble finding the grocery store. She lost thirty pounds. She began seeing a therapist. And when, after several weeks, her therapist offered to write her a prescription, she figured it would be for some kind of drug that might numb her pain—and she was ready for such. Instead, the prescription simply stated: “Write every day.”
Specifically, her therapist (I suspect he was a psychiatrist if he was writing prescriptions) told her he thought she would benefit by getting back to the book she’d been working on, that she might benefit from working on a narrative other than her own.
And that’s what Smith did. She went back the story of that orphan girl, Molly, that she’d put aside after her son’s death.
And, in the article, she’s quoted as saying this about returning to Molly’s story:
I was in a very heightened emotional state the whole time I was writing it, and it meant everything to me to have it to write. And Molly’s story became my story, or at least a receptacle of all this emotion I didn’t have anything to do with.
Molly’s story became my story. That seems somehow at the crux of it. A way to write her own story without writing her own story. The kind of catharsis that can come sometimes with a bit of distance.
Incidentally, that story of Molly as an orphan became a book, On Agate Hill, Lee Smith's twelfth novel, published in 2006, and well-reviewed, including this review in the Washington Post. I’ve not read the book yet, but I plan to look for it.
There’s a piece of research that dovetails well with Lee Smith’s experience that I wrote about last week. It’s the only piece of research I know of that looks at what happens in terms of health when people write fiction.
The study was conducted ten years ago by Greenberg et. al. and is cited in The Writing Cure, p. 106. Participants in this study—college students—were divided into three groups:
Both the group who wrote about a previous trauma and the group who wrote about an imaginary trauma had significantly fewer visits to the student health center in the month following the writing than the group who wrote about nonemotional events. Thus, writing about real trauma was beneficial. And writing about an imaginary trauma—writing fiction—was beneficial.
(Granted, not all fiction has to do with trauma or difficult life events but one could argue that a fair amount of fiction touches on this area. Consider, for instance, Stephen King. Edgar Allen Poe and that telltale heart. J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Charles Dickens and all those stories of orphans. Grimm’s fairy tales. I can’t help but wonder, as I write this, if reading these stories—holding strong emotions through reading—might not also offer a kind of healing—but that perhaps is a different question for a different day----)
In a discussion of this study, the authors propose a reason that writing about imaginary trauma might be beneficial. They propose that writing about imaginary trauma may have allowed people to “accommodate themselves to negative emotions in a safe context.” This resonates for me with the words that Lee Smith used when she talked about writing her novel:
I was in a very heightened emotional state the whole time I was writing it, and it meant everything to me to have it to write. And Molly’s story became my story, or at least a receptacle of all this emotion I didn’t have anything to do with.
Story as a (safe) receptacle for emotion?
Writing fiction as a (safe) way to hold strong emotions?
Writing fiction may, of course, lead to a lot of other things as well. Beautiful novels. Moving short stories. A deeper understanding of life. A new way of looking at the world. Entertainment. Joy. All of this may happen for the reader—or for the writer. But maybe one of the other things that can happen—sometimes—for any one of us—and not just published novelists—is this opportunity for writing fiction to become a safe way to hold and digest—and perhaps transform—strong deep emotions.
When I was in graduate school, one of my writing teachers told us this story, a true story about one of his students. Call her Sarah. Sarah’s young son had been ill for a long time with leukemia and then had died. It was a terrible grief, and one she had tried to write about many times—and couldn’t. My teacher suggested she try writing the story again, and this time switch the gender, telling the story from the point of view of a father who has lost a young son. Sarah wrote. The story began to come. And what she’d held in—a hard truth she’d believed was unacceptable—began to spill out into the story. Relief. One of the things the father in the story felt when the boy died, after months of watching him suffer, was relief.
Question: Can writing fiction be a way of getting at something true?
This same teacher who told us this story--or maybe it was another teacher--told us once that in order to write a good story you need to love all of your characters--have compassion towards them. And it occurs to me now that if an author could love all of the characters in a story, then it might become possible for one of those characters to express a feeling that the character might have thought was unacceptable. As the author felt compassion toward him--toward that character--an (apparently) unacceptable feeling might become, in that moment, more acceptable--ordinary--human. And that would be, I think, a good part.
There are perhaps a million ways to enter or re-enter the writing of fiction. Here is one: Begin with “Once upon a time.”
This particular idea springs from one in Dee Metzger’s 1992 book, Writing for Your Life. The book contains a wide range of exercises. One of my favorite of these is an exercise entitled “Entering the Tale”. In this exercise, one is instructed to simply choose a fairy tale—any one at all—and then shift the point of view so that one is writing it in the first person from the protagonist’s point of view. You write from the main character's point of view as if the story is happening to you right now.
For instance, if you were to choose to write—or rewrite—the tale of Cinderella, you might begin: Once upon a time, when I was a girl, and after my mother had died, my father decided to marry a woman who was not only cruel but who had two cruel daughters. . .
Or, you could write in the present tense, in a more immediate style: My father has decided to marry again. I am devastated. . .
You have a number of options here. You can include as many of the original details of the story as you like. You can also alter the details as needed. The fairy tale is at the core of your story—it’s the seed of your story—but you can take this seed, and shift perspective, and carry it wherever you like.
Simply begin at the beginning—Once upon a time--------
Yesterday, while my son was at his piano lesson, I went to the public library, and while I was there I came across a book by Mary Oliver entitled Long Life: Essays and Other Writings. Mary Oliver is the author of that poem, Wild Geese, among many others. In any case I brought her book home, along with a stack of others, and last evening I opened the book, and in the introduction I came across this—one of the loveliest invitations to making language--to writing--that I’ve seen—
And that is just the point: how the world, moist and bountiful, calls to each of us to make a new a serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning, ‘Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?’
The thread this month (though this may or may not be apparent) is the way that coming at things from a different perspective—a new angle—can sometimes lead to good things. And when I think about looking at things from a new angle—from a fresh perspective—one of the things that comes to mind for me is something I learned from college freshmen when I first started teaching them.
When I first started teaching writing, I wanted the students in my classes to care about what they were writing. So I started out by telling them they could write about whatever they wanted.
This did not go quite as well as I’d imagined it might. For the most part, the students wrote about their dormitories, their roommates, fraternities, beer. They seemed just a bit bored by their writing—and, I’ll admit, I was a bit bored by it as well.
I suggested maybe they try writing about something more controversial—argument papers. They gave me papers on abortion and gun control. Lots and lots of papers on abortion and gun control. And, well—it was still boring. For them and for me. Their sentences seemed canned, as if someone else and not them had written them. They were giving me what they thought I wanted. They were giving me what they thought teachers wanted.
I kept trying. Then at some point in the middle of the semester I remembered that story the teacher had told us about Sarah and her son—about writing fiction from a new point of view—and I told the students I wanted them to try stepping out of their skins. Their assignment: to write a paper from a different point of view. I invited them to imagine inhabiting some another body—animate, inanimate, I told them it made no difference. Just imagine being someone or something else, I told them. Be a different age. Be a different gender. Be a rock. And then write about it.
And they wrote.
John, an avid hockey player, imagined himself as a hockey player who had undergone a crippling accident and was left in a wheelchair. He wrote a story about this young man sitting in his wheel chair, watching movies, over and over, and then, one day, getting up and out of the wheelchair and travelling into the movie screen, onto a space cruiser, and then deep into the Andromeda System, to a planet called Saturn 9, which was like a place the young man used to dream about as a child.
David became a police officer who got shot in the line of duty.
Sam became a homeless man.
Glenn became Alfred Einstein—Albert’s nephew.
Chris became a white Camaro.
The students leapt out of their skins in ways I had not anticipated. It was as if I’d pointed to a door and they flew through it. Actually, the five stories I’ve just described briefly here were chosen by these students as their best work of the semester, and they were in turn chosen for publication by the editors of the freshman review, a small magazine at the university of the best freshman prose and poetry. And, as it turned out, their stories accounted for half the prose pieces in the review, suggesting that I wasn’t the only person who found these new stories they’d written of interest.
The stories they produced by inhabiting another body were both more compelling and more vivid, by far, than any of their previous writing. And—and this surprised me—the stories were more intimate. For some reason—and I have no clue why—it was the young men in particular who took to these stories. These stories seemed to give them a new vehicle for exploring their imaginations and their emotions.
A story of loss:
He was the cripple. He was the one who would never skate again or feel the cool breeze off the ice as he followed the puck down the right wing side boards, decked the defense and sent the puck sailing into the net through the goalie’s five slot.
A story of young love:
I was just a bashful white Camaro of seventeen, hardly able to catch second gear around a curve on a wet road.
It was as if fiction allowed these students the opportunity to inhabit another body for moments at a time, and somehow, by inhabiting this other body, to break a taboo—to say something tender, to say something new. Fiction gave them permission to explore what seemed like untapped territory in themselves, to say something intimate—even surprising.
I remember having this thought and I’ve never forgotten it: that fiction gave these eighteen and nineteen-year olds just enough cover to reveal themselves.
In 2003, James Pennebaker and R.S. Campbell published an article that carried the intriguing title, “The Secret Life of Pronouns”. The authors proposed, based on the analysis of thousands of texts, that flexibility in a person’s use of pronouns when writing about painful memories is associated with improved health.
This was not a predicted finding. It emerged when Pennebaker and associates persisted in asking the question: Why it is that writing about emotional topics results in better physical health? What actually happens? The most consistent finding prior to this 2003 study had been that people who participated in expressive writing reported that, afterwards, they actually thought differently about the experiences after they wrote about them. Pennebaker’s question then became: “Is this change in thinking reflected in the ways people write?”
In other words, do people become healthier as their writing changes in some way?
To try and answer this question Pennebaker used a computer program developed by researchers on artificial intelligence, a program which performs linguistic analysis on written texts. 7501 writing samples were examined. A total of 3,445,940 words. A virtual sea of words. In this sea, he looked at how a person’s writing changed over successive days—and whether or not these changes were correlated with better health.
The first thing Pennebaker looked at was content. Did changing the content of one’s writing over a period of days affect health? For instance, did the health of those persons who wrote about a different topic on successive days fare better than the health of those who wrote about the same topics? The answer? It appeared to make no difference.
Next, Pennebaker looked at writing style. And he discovered that when people changed their writing styles over several days they were more likely to show improvements in health. When he narrowed down these changes in style, he discovered that participants were most likely to show improvement in health if, over the course of different writing samples, they changed what pronouns they used.
It’s an intriguing finding. For instance, writing from the I point of view some of the time, and then you, then we, then he or she or they correlated with better health. The finding was not a directional finding. It was not better, for instance, to move from first person to third person, or visa versa. What mattered was the simple fact of variability—flexibility.
In his remarks about the study, Pennebaker makes this comment: “Pronoun choice is based on perspective.” He also admits that the finding is enigmatic. It raises more questions than it answers. For instance, does pronoun flexibility actually cause improved health, or is it a feature that merely emerges coincident with improved health?
Is pronoun flexibility a skill that can be learned? Could it be like yoga? Flexibility increasing with practice? Or, to put this yet another way: is there any benefit to be gained from intentionally writing from a different point of view? Is shifting one’s point of view a potentially healing habit?