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Write what you don’t know

Over the last year, our Writeability Goes Regional project has included a remit to uncover and showcase the work of some of Victoria’s regional writers with disability.

Here regional writer Natasha Agafonoff explores the link between writing and wellness, and when the pen is mightier than the shrink…

‘Oh, I see the problem,’ Mr Fleming’s voice booms across the classroom. ‘You’re holding the pen all wrong.’ He weaves his way between wooden desks where 11-year olds hunch over exercise books, intent on forming their inky words. I stare at the blue Bic clutched between my stumpy, nail-bitten fingers. ‘No,’ he says, crouching beside me, ‘See? You hold it like this, here, with these fingers.’ He twists my fingers around the pen and I scrunch my forehead as I try to grip it the right way. The blue letters smudged across the page this new way are even more lop-sided than the first. The rest of the girls in class have pretty, loopy lettering and perfect circles for “o”s. Their sentences are neat rows of irises, tulips, roses and foxglove. My paragraphs are muddy and full of weeds.

In 2010, I began collecting mental health practitioners the way some people collect trading cards and with each new professional came another diagnosis. Anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, anorexia, bipolar disorder. Days turned into doctor’s visits and I spent hours counting minutes until my next dose of medication. Invisible illnesses threatened to engulf me, and at the time, I wished they would.

‘You should write about it,’ said Lola, a mental health blogger who I’d been following. ‘It will help.’

‘I don’t know how to write,’ I replied.

‘Just start,’ she said, ‘there’s no wrong way.’

I imagined real writers exhaled words in majestic, cursive calligraphy, while staring at my words on the page only reminded me that I held the pen all wrong. Words didn’t come out of me in smooth, flowing lines but in gasps, gurgles and gulps. Most of the time, I wished they wouldn’t come out at all.

But I started to write. And Lola was right. Because writing, whether creative non-fiction, fiction or poetry, is a process of reflection, exploration and discovery.

New writers are frequently given a piece of advice which is wildly misinterpreted; write what you know, they say. Marcie Hershman offers a more truthful observation. “It’s a myth that writers write what they know. We write what it is that we need to know. What keeps me sitting at my desk, hour after hour, year after year, is that I do not know something, and I must write in order to find my way to an understanding.” This is the essence of all writing, to find a way to an understanding.

In the late 90s, several studies offered evidence that writing about emotional experiences could positively influence both physical and mental health. One of these, James W. Pennebaker’s Writing About Emotional Experiences as Therapeutic Process, described the writing technique studied and the measureable benefits associated with writing about emotional topics.

Participants were allocated to one of two groups and were asked to write about assigned topics over three to five consecutive days for 15-30 minutes at a time. Participants in the control group were asked to write about superficial topics, while those in the experimental group were asked to write their very deepest thoughts and feelings about an extremely important emotional issue.

The group who wrote about emotional topics were found to have improved immune function such as t-helper cell growth and anti-body response to certain viruses. Automatic activity (e.g. lowered heart rate) and muscular activity also improved. Additionally, participants completed self-reports which indicated that writing could produce long term benefits in mood and a reduction in distress. Students who wrote about emotional topics began to get better grades, while professionals who were laid off from their jobs found new work more quickly and employees were absent from the workplace less often than control group participants. A reduction in doctor’s visits was also observed.

But the critical question is, why? What is it about disclosing our innermost thoughts and feelings that stimulates an improvement in health? Perhaps the answer can be found in neuroscience.

Humans as a species are hard-wired for connection and recent studies in neuroscience are confirming that our nervous systems want us to connect with other people. This may be because as mammals, we are born helpless and wholly dependent on other humans for survival in our early years. Recent brain imaging experiments have demonstrated that the experience of social pain is biologically identical to physical pain. Dr Amy Banks says that “Most people in our culture understand that physical pain is a major stressor, but we often reject the idea of social pain. This impacts our society on a grand scale, for example look at instances of racism or homophobia—any of the ways that we stratify and divide our social structures can literally cause pain.” Writing is a way of connecting with others. “There have been studies that look at emotions in human beings such as disgust, shame, happiness, where the exact same areas of the brain light up in the listener who is reading the feelings of the person talking,” says Dr Banks.

Another reason why writing may offer so many benefits is that of bearing witness. In terms of psychology, bearing witness refers simply to the process of sharing our experiences with others or to observe their experiences without judgement. But writing allows us to bear witness to ourselves, too. It is a way of holding space for our own thoughts and feelings, a way to make sense out of the mess. And isn’t that why we write? To find a way to an understanding. Bearing witness is crucial in the process of acceptance and healing.

Six years ago, after I began to write, I learned that when I lose my voice, I lose my mind. Writing gives me the opportunity to speak up, share my voice, to hear myself and in some ways, to heal myself. My handwriting may not have improved in the last 26 years to Mr Fleming’s liking but now that there are computers, I don’t have to worry so much. More importantly though, my words on the page don’t feel so wrong anymore.

About Natasha Agafonoff

Natasha Agafonoff is a Gippsland-based freelance writer who is currently working on a memoir.  She began writing in 2010 as a way of processing both the physical and psychological aspects of illness, although she never intended it as therapy.  Natasha blogged publicly but anonymously about her experience for four years.

In July 2015 a psychologist suggested Natasha read ‘Shy’ by Sian Prior when Natasha revealed that writing had been a particularly helpful coping mechanism for her in the past.  After reading ‘Shy’ Natasha decided to contact Sian regarding mentoring.  Sian read some samples of the work that had appeared on Natasha’s blog, encouraged Natasha to become a member of WV, and agreed to mentor her.  The blog is now the foundation of her memoir. 

Further reading

Included below are references for the technical information Natasha uses in the article:

  • ‘Q&A with Amy Banks, M.D.’, director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Wellesley Centers for Women; instructor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School; co-editor of ‘The Complete Guide to Mental Health for Women’; and author of ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Relationships and Brain Chemistry’.
  • Writing About Emotional Experience as Therapeutic Process‘ in ‘Psychological Science’, May 1997, James W. Pennebaker, (retrieved Aug 2016).


© Natasha Agafonoff 2016

Writers Victoria acknowledges the generous support of Perpetual Trustees for the Writeability Goes Regional program and these commissions.

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