Famous American writer, Flannery O’Connor, had once said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say”. This is perhaps true for many of us. Writing is an important tool to process our emotions and thoughts which in turn helps in soothing our anxiety riddled brains, as several studies have already shown. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that during the COVID-19 pandemic — as our homes turned into our own prisons, and we were overwhelmed with the fear of losing our loved ones or the stress of facing unemployment or spending months without social interactions or even a human touch (in some cases) — many of us embraced writing.
According to a recent survey conducted by Wattpad, an online storytelling platform, ‘From January to April, the number of new stories written on their platform grew by 151 percent. April, in fact, saw a 50 percent increase in user sign-ups compared to March.’ Devashish Sharma, India Country Manager of Wattpad told News18, “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 has been a year of immense stress, and prioritizing your own mental health has become more important than ever. Everyone practices self-care in different ways, but an interesting trend that we noticed is that more people are turning to writing online as a way to support their own mental health.”
“One of the most exciting genre developments we’ve seen during this crisis is quarantine romance, where writers are imagining love and connection in a quarantine setting. Beth Reekles, the author of The Kissing Booth, started a new series called Lockdown on London Lane in April, and it has already accumulated more than 400,000 reads. There is also a growing interest in dystopian fiction. Users are spending millions of minutes each month reading about zombies, uncontrollable viruses, and apocalyptic situations.”
From Escaping reality to confronting fears
While many writers have sought refuge in romances and dystopias to manage their stress and escape this virus infected world, the drudgery of the news cycle, and the constant reminders of painful and lonely deaths, others have found writing a ‘cathartic’ ‘healing’ and ‘therapeutic’ means to make sense of this ‘new normal’. Writing, in fact, journaling has often been suggested by psychologists as a mode of self-discovery.
Geeta Ramanujam, Founder, and Director of Kathalaya International Academy of Storytelling said in an interview, “Lots of people in our workshops like to pen down personal tales as a means to process and articulate their feelings. I think a crisis of such magnitude also makes them reflect and introspect. writing down personal experiences is a way for them to add meaning to their existence. It can be very cathartic, healing, and therapeutic.”
“During this pandemic, one of the strongest emotions that we have all experienced is fear. It not only affected our brains but also got deposited in different parts of our bodies. So, an exercise that we conducted in our storytelling workshop was to ask people to list their fears — all the things that had worried them in the past or are gnawing at them currently due to this pandemic. We also told them how they write ways in which they want to address and transform those fears into positive emotions. ” said Ramanujam, adding that the responses that came out of it were really ‘beautiful’, and ‘life-affirming’.
The physical act of writing, the digital mode of connecting
There are many studies that show that the physical act of putting pen to paper activates the brain. “There is a connection between the tip of your fingers and the brain. So, when you actually write, it ignites a neural activity and relieves a lot of stress.” pointed out Ramanujam. Perhaps that is the reason why so many authors, from Ernest Hemingway to Franz Kafka, preferred to write their novels on paper, before typing them out on their typewriters. There are other scientific studies that show how writing is a meditative act, as it slows down the brain.
Reports also claim that writing by hand keeps your grey matter healthy and what this pandemic has done inadvertently is that it has given many writers the time, and solitude they need to write. Author of books like East End at Your Feet, Poona Company, and Bombay Duck, Farrukh Dhondy told in an interview, “The restricted social movement of pandemic lockdown has given me more time than I’ve ever had away from meetings and even wine-soaked evenings with friends. I’ve been forced to be productive. I’ve written a novel partially in a genre that I never imagined I’d tackle.” During the last few months, Dhondy also translated a book of Rumi’s poems, completed his autobiography, and ‘put finishing touches to two stage plays.’
“I really do miss personal and close contact with friends and loved ones, but am grateful that we have ways of communicating through the ether. I have, for the first time in my short and happy life, sent unpublished work to friends to read — a sort of impatience which makes me ask if what I’m writing is readable?” confessed Dhondy.
Processing feelings and accepting trauma
While adults know how to identify their feelings, it is especially hard for children to name them, and manage them. Ritu Vaishnav, the author of children’s books such as Inside a Dark Box, which paints a vivid picture of what it is like to live with depression, said that “Our kids are dealing with a lot for their age because of this pandemic. Suddenly they have lost access to their school, their friends, and to public spaces. Books have been a saviour for my son. They bring joy, calm, and hope and help them escape into other worlds while still locked in the house. But, kids are bound to have fears and frustrations that they might not completely be able to comprehend. Writing is a fabulous coping tool. It helps you not just express but even decipher your own feelings.”
Writing can also help in processing trauma as it did for Manjiri Indurkar, the author of ‘It’s All in Your Head, M,’ a memoir that tackles mental health illness brought on by sexual abuse suffered as a child. Indurkar told News18,” There is no other way of finding your way out of your traumatic past, you have to face it, and that is what writing is for me. I can’t do it every day, so I do it slowly, I take my time, I chew on my anxieties till they dissolve. But I always return to the page.”
“I have always had a habit of blocking certain unpleasant memories. It was an easy coping mechanism. But once I started writing, a flood of memories, bad, weird, and horrible, all returned to me. It should have made writing difficult. But there were moments when I felt like writing was working like a spell. I wasn’t writing just for myself but was telling the stories of people who came before me, and perhaps also the people who will come after me. I was terrified. But writing brought me answers. It prepared me for things I would not have done without it. A woman recently told me that she feels ready to talk about her abuse experiences because I have written about mine. That is why I do what I do. That is what writing is for me. It is a sanctuary.” she added.