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Better mental health through writing

By Rebecca Simkin, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

It’s been a long three years of the pandemic. Most of us hardly remember what life was like before 2020, but somewhere in the back of our minds, we know we’ve lost time, connection, and pleasure, and whether we realize it or not, we are grieving those losses. This can affect our sense of wellbeing and our mental balance.

According to the Everything is Not Ok website, “74 per cent of Ontarians are experiencing increased mental health and addiction challenges. Thirty per cent are at high risk 19 per cent are at moderate risk.”

While some people will definitely need professional help, others will still need some form of reset going forward, and writing can be one of the tools to accomplish this.

The act of putting pen to paper can be therapeutic. In A new reason for keeping a diary, research indicates that “expressive writing reduces intrusive and avoidant thoughts about negative events and improves working memory. These improvements, researchers believe, may in turn free up our cognitive resources for other mental activities, including our ability to cope more effectively with stress.”

Whether you are journaling, writing poetry or telling stories, putting down ideas on paper can help us better understand our emotions, cope with stress, and process difficult experiences. It doesn’t matter what kind of writing you do, only that you do whatever kind of writing you enjoy.

A while back I wrote an article on journaling for an Evergreen Hospice newsletter. While it deals specifically with grief (and the loss of our former way of life is a kind of grief) much of its content is useful in any kind of mental health context. Use the suggestions offered to get started, or, check out this course offered online through the Markham Public Library on journaling and memoir writing. Just sign up for free using your library card.

I realize writing isn’t going to solve everyone’s mental health issues. If you are in need of serious help, please be sure to reach out to local mental health services such as the CMHA which has a number of articles on the subject of Covid related mental health issues as well as support programs on offer.

If journaling isn’t for you, perhaps you want to get into creative writing and do a short story. Again, the library has access to courses such as this one on short story writing to help you out. Or perhaps you’re into poetry? There’s a course for that too.

Now, if you’re really brave, or have a lot to say…you might want to write a whole novel. Canadian author, Margaret Atwood is famously quoted from her essay An End to Audience? on the subject of writing: “I’m sure you’ve all heard the one about the writer and the brain surgeon who met at a cocktail party. ‘So you write,’ said the brain surgeon. ‘Isn’t that interesting. I’ve always wanted to write. When I retire and have the time, I’m going to be a writer.’ ‘What a coincidence,’ said the writer, ‘Because when I retire, I’m going to be a brain surgeon.'” Atwood goes on to say that people assume writing is easy because we all know how to do it, but it’s not easy writing a really good story.

I wrote a novel once. It took me 20 years. Why so long? Mostly because I needed to learn how to write. I took courses, attended workshops and joined critique groups to help me get there. It was challenging, but I felt a great boost recently upon finishing it.

Many people have toyed with the idea of writing a book at some point in their lives. For some, it’s just a fantasy. They don’t have enough interest to start, or if they do start, they probably won’t finish. But if you feel you have a strong desire to attempt a book, then I have some additional advice to help you succeed.

If you just want to write something for yourself, you can start at any time. But if you have aspirations of getting your work published, you will need to put in some time learning the ropes.

My favourite place to learn and rub shoulders with other writers is the Writer’s Community of York Region (WCYR). It’s one of the best writing groups in the area, offering support, networking and education for writers at all levels. Most monthly meetings and workshops are held at the Newmarket Public Library but frequently have a virtual option. You can attend as a non-member or join and also have access to events offered by their sister group in Durham Region (WCDR).

If you need help getting motivated to write a novel, I highly recommend Nanowrimo, National Novel Writing Month. They’ve dedicated a lot of time to encouraging thousands of people to write a book in a single month on the premise that it will need lots of editing to fix it up anyway, so why not just work fast and make a sloppy first draft? It really helps to have something finished so that you can move on to polishing it up.

Whatever you do, if you stick to it and write regularly, you’ll have a first draft in no time. I hope writing makes you feel happy and healthy!

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