I recently wrote a piece for our Life Beyond Medicine series explaining why running specifically, and physical activity more generally, is such a central part of my mental well-being as a resident. On writing it, however, I realised that something big was missing: Running is an important process for me, but I hadn’t spoken at all about writing, which is another essential part of how I make sense of the world and stay sane during my medical training.
When something scary, overwhelming, or exciting happens at work, the gears in my head start to turn, and I get the itch to sit in front of my computer and write. I may submit my story to a publication or publish it on my personal blog, This Liminal Space (sluckettg.wordpress.com), but just as often the story sits on my computer unread. I may open it once or twice, adding detail or editing, but more often the story remains unchanged on my hard drive after initial edits, a record of a difficult, joyous, sad, or angry time during my training.
The process of writing matters to me more than the content. Here’s why:
- Writing helps me understand my own feelings.
After a public reading of a piece I had written, a friend paid me one of the highest compliments I had ever received. She said that I somehow knew how to put into words the feelings she didn’t know she had. I thanked her, but didn’t share something that was equally true: I often put into words feelings I don’t know I have. I find that process of writing that liberates my emotional experience. Sitting in front of a computer, picking and choosing words and phrases, lets me tap into an emotional experience I’m often not aware of. Understanding how I feel about something that has happened to me (or someone else) lets me deal with it productively, instead of letting it fester under the surface.
- Writing helps me understand the feelings of others.
If I’ve ever been in the thick of something emotional with you, you had better believe you’ve become a character in one of my stories. I may have been angry with you at the outset, but by the time I’ve finished writing, I’ve likely come to a better understanding of your actions. To write someone as a character means to try to find a way to understand his or her motivations and thought processes,. I like to write characters from the inside out, and that can involve some serious emotional work. Usually I come out with a better understanding of the players in my story, and consequently greater compassion and empathy than I had had before.
- Putting an experience down on paper takes the experience out of my head.
Have you ever heard the advice that you should write your worries on a piece of paper before you go to bed? It’s supposed to help you get to sleep. Something about writing out your worries takes away your need to think about them as you lay in bed. I don’t really understand how this works, but writing, more generally, seems to do the same for me. I may turn an experience over in my mind for hours, days, or weeks before I feel ready to write my thoughts down. Then, having written out the experience, I’ll stop thinking about it as intensely. That can be a huge relief! I’m not sure whether it’s because I’ve processed the experience, or because I’ve acknowledged my emotions, but there’s something magically stress-relieving about writing.
Not everyone is a natural writer (I’m not!), just like not everyone is a natural runner (again, I’m not!), but if you want to try writing, my best advice is to grab pen and paper (or your laptop), set a time limit (10 minutes is a nice place to start), and write about something you know (there are lots of writing prompts available online if you need a place to start). Like your cardiovascular system or your leg muscles, writing ability is something that is developed with practice. And don’t forget that editing is a magical thing – most writing doesn’t turn out great on the first try, even for experienced authors. So give it a shot! It’s cheaper than therapy and safer than drugs for dealing with the stressors of a life in medicine.
Reviewed by staff (Dr. Heather Murray)