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How writing fiction in isolation saved me

Writing can be a therapeutic practice, helping one work through one's emotions. Here's how to get started.

Research shows that expressive writing has a direct positive correlation to overall well-being
Research shows that expressive writing has a direct positive correlation to overall well-being (istock)

In June 2020, I was in New York City, then the pulsating center of the global pandemic, isolated in my apartment and charged with producing a thesis manuscript towards my MFA degree. The task felt classically Sisyphean—to create vibrant, fictional worlds populated by three-dimensional characters—while my own life felt boxed-in, flat, and alarmingly vacant. It was, I decided, an impossible thing to do. I dragged myself to my desk, unwilling and unable, sustained solely by the white-hot pressure of a hard deadline.

It’s not uncommon for published fiction writers to turn their nose up at the idea of writing as a therapeutic practice. Writing is my life’s work; it is a serious endeavor that requires rigor and practice, and demands discipline. To write fiction is to trigger an emotional response from the reader—it is not a tool to process your own emotions—or so conventional wisdom says.

With this in mind, I wasn’t prepared for the eventuality that the fictional world I began to create in isolation would appear in sharper focus than the real world, which felt like it was folding in on itself around me. I was similarly unprepared for how bright these newly-created characters revealed themselves to be, shaped by conversations and longings that had been languishing unattended in my head for months—seated as I was at a table for one.

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For the first time in weeks, I felt a respite from the ubiquitous brain fog and relentless pessimism that formed the bedrock of my daily routine. My mind stopped spinning and came to rest at the realisation that despite the agreed-upon wisdom, it was an indisputable fact that some of the most significant confrontations of my own emotions—especially in the face of isolation—had been through writing.

Storytelling as art has existed as long as humans have: Even before the appearance of oral traditions like folksongs or early written languages like hieroglyphics, cave-dwellers chronicled their lives using pigment smeared on walls. The urge to tell our stories has always lived within us. More recently, research has been undertaken to prove that expressive writing has a direct positive correlation to overall well-being—both physical and mental—as noted by psychologist James Pennebaker in his pioneering study.

The veil of fiction gives writers a comfortable distance from which to approach their issues. The contrived problems of a fictional character, after all, are not explicitly your problems. But for people who find themselves at the margins of society, or misunderstood by their friends and loved ones, or simply those that struggle to fully understand themselves—creating narratives that are representative of their experiences and struggles can be an empowering practice, facilitating the confrontation and analysis of their own emotions. When it comes to writing as a route to recovery, fiction has an uncanny ability to both externalize the story and mirror reality, allowing the writer to assume the position of the spectator.

If you’re a busy person thinking that there’s no way you could ever fit a writing routine into an already packed schedule — start with 15 minutes. Treat it as you would a meditation or fitness ritual (it is, in some ways, both). This writer is all too familiar with how daunting a blank notebook page or the blinking cursor of a fresh Word document can be. Writing prompts can go a long way towards alleviating that terror.

Try writing prompts to get started
Try writing prompts to get started

Prompts are a great jumping off point for creating a scene or character when you find yourself parched for creativity. It is helpful when using writing as a therapeutic tool to take the pressure off and remind yourself that these words, should you chose them to be, are for your eyes only. Stripping away the desire to impress allows writing to be an ergonomic experience.

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For those that are more socially inclined, a great way to connect with old friends and make new ones is to create or join a writing circle, where you can meet virtually and listen to each other’s pieces. The Japanese poetry tradition of renku—a collaborative linked verse where each participant adds a subsequent verse to create a series—is a great way to unleash your inner poet and have a collective experience. The objective is not to dispense literary critique, but to listen. The written word creates a shared intimacy between writer and reader that has the ability to alleviate by some measure the grief, loneliness, or loss they have expressed. Creative safe spaces often help people introduce issues that they may otherwise not feel comfortable sharing. It seems like a contradiction, but there is an unflinching honesty to fiction that may surprise you.

I eventually submitted my thesis late last year, one extension and many long stretches spent in the misery-lined trenches of writer’s block later. It was the result of patch-working together small scraps of writing time, as much as my waning attention span would allow before caving to the distraction of Tiger King or a meandering FaceTime call bemoaning the state of the world.

Afterwards, I felt the way any writer does post-submission—certifiably sick to my stomach and certain that it was at best, not good enough; and at worst, laughably awful. The shock I felt when an email arrived stating that a story from that manuscript was nominated for a prestigious award (one that it later ended up winning) cannot be overstated. It was a celebratory oasis in what had otherwise felt like a year of barren nothingness. The point, of course, is not the award or the temporary validation that came with it—the point is that sometimes writing in the face of confusion and uncertainty and loneliness is necessary, vital, and even nourishing. The hard truth of the matter is that the only way out is through.

Arushi Sinha is a writer and editor, and the winner of the 2020 Henfield Prize for Fiction awarded by Columbia University, USA.

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