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The Research on Fiction Writing and Health

Posted on Jan 21, 2007 by

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 in 1996 by Greenberg et. al. and is cited in The Writing Cure (106). Participants in this study—college students—were divided into three groups:

  • A group who wrote about nonemotional events
  • A group who wrote their deepest thoughts and feelings about a previous trauma
  • A group who wrote their deepest thoughts and feelings about an imaginary trauma

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.