There is much conflicting research on the relationship between writing and anxiety. Gone are the days when writers were known to be self-absorbed, difficult, unsociable and unhealthy people who’d rather swear at a photographer than pose, in an appropriate writerly stance, for a black and white picture. Writers today, like everybody else, have to consciously build their brands based on a sunny disposition, where even the deepest and most painful of thoughts have to be accompanied by a selfie in some place green during daybreak. I may be emphasizing and generalizing the way writers look way too much, but the visual side to writing is the subject of a recent study, that explored the role of the imagination in the brain of fiction writers. I’m going to try and see if anxiety can be used to help explain this research at all.
According to this study, seasoned writers used their imagination less than amateur writers. In fact, wholly different parts of the brain were activated even if both types of writers were writing in the same form, fiction. Amateur writers saw the substance of their fiction writing as if they were movies, and accordingly described the scenes in their writing. Their writing was also slower in pace when compared to seasoned writers. Seasoned writers directly thought in terms of words and sentences, accompanied by very little visual imagery. One possible reason for this suggested was seasoned writers had, after a lot of practice, extracted methods and patterns that worked for them and so found it easier to write and felt relatively less “blocked”. While it is disheartening to know that the role of the imagination – in its originality, surprise and pleasure – is diminished when one knows what works on the page, another thing that may be worth noting is the role that anxiety plays in the productivity of either. A seasoned writer knows that more writing results in better writing, and so leaves the anxiety until after the writing is done. The amateur writer, on the other hand, emphasizes more on his or her visions, vague ideas, which look much better in the cranium than they do on page. Doesn’t imagination then, counteractively, diminish the quality of imagined work? Doesn’t its demands create further anxiety, piling on the default anxiety of having to write something professionally for the first time?
Another conflicting area of research, done by many different sets of researchers across time, deals with writing and anxiety more directly. Journaling is a subject of debate in cognitive science. While some argue that journaling is good for the mind to clarify its thoughts and, with the correct guidelines, assess them ( which is the basis of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy or CBT), others argue that journaling results in greater rumination (in plain words, thinking), and makes the situation worse. I agree with both. I think there is a very subtle line between keeping a diary to express your thoughts and feelings which may help you assess, and to some extent, relieve you of the stress of them. But, often, writing them down makes you feel worse, whereas distraction may have worked better in such a situation.
The thing about writing is, it makes a thought real. You could very well think it or say it, but the moment you put it down, whether you show it to someone else or not, there is something finalizing, truthful about it. Thus, if you are in a particularly self-loathing mood, what you write will be in sync with that and further affirm it. Writing isn’t always the place for logic and judgement. It is asking too much of writing if you think that writing something down will help you work it out. Writing has been seen as a response to anxiety, but that response doesn’t always have to be positive. We can’t control our thoughts, but we can control our writing. That makes us feel like masters, creators of it. But, that does not in any way guarantee that what we write will help us cope with our anxieties.
Though I do not envy the scope of imagination in a seasoned writer’s life (I, personally, don’t believe it to be true), there is something to be learned from his or her habits. I generally prefer writing imaginative work at night because, that is when I feel most relaxed and open to creative work. However, if writing became more of a habit, something dependable and necessary, and not too dependent on external factors, the quality of writing itself might improve and make it relatively less of a source for anxiety. Writing even when you don’t have to or aren’t inspired to, may make you less anxious for when that urge and inspiration does come, for you are more than likely to be prepared for it.