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Take Two Adverbs and Call Me in the Morning

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I have heard that writing can be a therapeutic practice for many people. It can (reportedly) help one deal with difficult times, reduce stress and improve overall health. What is your take on such claims? I don't necessarily feel any better having written this letter to you, so I'm uncertain what to think.

--D. Rafter

(Out of my depth once more, I've asked Michael Mattison, Assistant Professor of English at Boise State, to field this question. --Dr. Ed)

What you have heard is true, at least according to some. James W. Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, has studied the connections between language use and health and he has found that "physical health and work performance can improve by simple writing and/or talking exercises." In short, writing can help us feel better.

So can money. One of the best ways that writing can positively affect your health is by helping you make money. If other people are really interested in what you write, they will pay you for it. For instance, many people like to be scared when they read; they want stories about strange, grotesque creatures that creep about in the darkness and terrify humans. This means that political correspondents will always have a job. So will Stephen King. He makes a lot of money by scaring people. This relationship is therapeutic for both the reader and for King (although King has a better house).

If you cannot write like King, you can always try a direct approach and simply include a plea for money at the end of your writing.

Some people, though, are not concerned with money. (These people are often called "teachers.") They are more concerned with writing as a way to express feelings and explore inner thoughts. Joan Didion (a famous writer) says she writes to discover what she means. This approach, however, presents its own problems:

Construction Worker: Where do you want these bags of cement?

Joan Didion: Oh, just a minute, let me write and see what I think.

Construction Worker: Lady?

Joan Didion (typing): Cement, put cement on, put cement in, set cement down over ...

Construction Worker: Ooooffff.

This is why writers rarely hold supervisory positions.

Dr. Pennebaker does give some suggestions for therapeutic writing. First, find a comfortable place to write: a coffee shop, a chiropractor's office, a gym or a library. It's also a good idea to strew some paper and pencils about so that people believe you are seriously engaged in your writing. And you should try and use the word "strew" as often as you can. It's a good word.

Second, don't worry about grammar and spelling when writing down your thoughts--just let your words flow freely and clean them up later. For instance, this is how I originally wrote the last sentence: Of prime importance is that said composer does not over-cogitate on the syntactical complexity and alphabetic configurations of polysyllabic entities when dampening the soft tissue of modern papyrus.

This easy style is what you should aim for when drafting. You can always go back and polish it.

And third, try to write for at least 15 minutes every day. There are some good books that offer prompts for daily writing, such as Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones (notice how she has made the title a little scary). If, however, you do not have 15 minutes every day, then I recommend simply writing out the alphabet: ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ. That way you have put down all the words you would have written, just without ordering the letters.

And remember, be modest in your goals. You don't need to write the great American novel in order to feel better. You could, instead, write the great Canadian novel, or perhaps the great Norwegian brochure, or even the great Spanish limerick. It's not the quality or quantity that matters; it is the act of writing itself that benefits the psyche.

Most important, though, please send money. In fact, you can strew it about me.

Michael Mattison is the director of the Writing Center at Boise State, michaelmattison@boisestate.edu. Send health-related questions to Dr. Rabin at theantidote@edrabin.com.

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