Editor’s note: This column was originally published by The Prairie Doc in 2018.
During the 2018 South Dakota Festival of Books, I listened to a group of five successful novelists discussing the art of writing and what they gained from creating those words.
They all seemed to agree with journalist Malcolm Gladwell, who said that it takes some talent, but more importantly, about 10,000 hours of practice to become good at anything. They each also said that writing has given them joy and humor, an understanding about life and a sense of meaning.
Hearing all this, I reflected on how much room I have for improvement in my own writing. On the other hand, I realized my compositions are not for a novel but for self-help, and the goal of my latest book, “Life’s Final Season,” is to help people during their aging and dying process. As opposed to a novel, my writing has a different purpose. I also thought how therapeutic my writing has been for me since my cancer diagnosis.
There is a lot out there about writing as therapy. Orthopedic surgeon Dr. David Hanscom, in his book “Back in Control,” provides for us a writing method to help people in chronic pain. He advises those in pain to write down any random thoughts for 10 to 30 minutes once or twice a day for at least several months.
Hanscom reports the theory that when pain becomes chronic, the signals change from damage pain activity in one part of the brain to an emotional (fear and anxiety) response in a different part of the brain. Hanscom asserts that the daily writing exercise truly helps people break the pain cycle when nothing else helps.
Professor Gillie Bolton also recommends a daily writing program for chronic pain. She says not to worry about grammar, style or spelling and advises starting by unloading and dumping negative thoughts followed by expressive and explorative writing about any topic. She suggests focusing on the writing without distraction, finding time to do it once or twice daily and doing it for yourself (not others).
Her contention: writing helps us illuminate our own suppressed feelings, thereby helping people deal with chronic pain, depression and the miseries of life.
I truly hope my book helps caregivers and people who are aging and dying, but my writing has had the added benefit of helping me cope with a deadly diagnosis.
A daily writing exercise may just help you too.
Dr. Richard P. Holm died in March of 2020 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was founder of The Prairie Doc and author of “Life’s Final Season, A Guide for Aging and Dying with Grace.”