Our thanks today to our guest blogger, writer and poet Vivienne Tuffnell, author of a number of wonderful novels, including Strangers and Pilgrims, The Bet and one of our favourites, Away With the Fairies, all dealing with the human condition in a mystical and spiritual way. Her short story collections are full of mystery, with supernatural elements and a deep questioning of what it means to be human. She has written and spoken of her own struggles with depression and has just published a fabulous selection of her prose pieces from her popular blog Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking. These essays challenge, question and nourish the spirit, offering support to others in mental and emotional distress. Depression and the Art of Tightrope Walking is available from Amazon in paperback and on Kindle.
No one listens to me.
But then I have nothing to say
I have not said a thousand times before.
I’m dying for someone to hear
My silent screams
And offer help.
I’m searching for the words:
The right words
The magic words.
They’re just words;
They hold no power
To save or damn me.
Just words: no more.
I wrote this poem about ten years ago and I would say now: I was wrong. I wrote that poem before I discovered quite how powerful a tool the written word can be for self-healing. The process of reading and the process of writing have effects that I believe are much greater than we’re prepared to imagine.
I began writing almost before I could read; I used to sneak in to use my father’s typewriter, trying to write down my stories, believing that somehow the hitting of the keys would magically reveal the words. And words were magic of the finest kind, because they could transport you from a dull bedroom on a rainy November day when it’s too cold and wet to go out and play, to, well, anywhere in the entire universe. From being read to as a tiny tot, to trips to the local library twice daily during the long summer holidays, I devoured books. I started trying to create them too, from a very early age; I wrote my first novel when I was ten. I read English and Latin at university, which was so sobering I didn’t read much at all in the first year after graduating and it was another two years after that before I tried writing fiction again.
The other constant in all those years was depression. I experienced my first brush with it when I was about six. You might extrapolate that so much reading and so much writing were the cause of the depression, but it was more that they were the result of it. I read and I wrote to escape the yawning, gaping maw of the void that is depression. The times I experienced the most severe bouts of depression were ones where I could not (for whatever reason) read or write.
Recent advances in science have allowed us a sneaky peek into the human brain without slicing off the top of the skull; this means it’s now possible to have some clue about how our brains react to certain experiences. Most curious are fairly recent studies that involved MRI machines, volunteers, and sequences of words and pictures or sometimes other factors. These include The emotion potential of words and passages in reading Harry Potter – An fMRI study and
Love, Pain, Money, Cocaine Light Up Same Area of Brain.
What is clear is that there are things going on in the brain that are beyond what we had previously thought. It gives great scope for pain relief and other beneficial results.
In the original version of the film Total Recall, memories are planted in a person’s brain to give them the illusion they have had a wonderful holiday. It’s a matter of an hour or two to create weeks’ worth of memories and the associated benefits on a person’s well-being that a great holiday would bring but without the need to travel or take time off. That’s what a good book can do, too.
As a reader, I crave books that can bring me relief from the inner darkness, but not by providing me with unremitting sweetness and light. There is something obviously false and unsatisfying about books that contain no conflict, no peril, no risk, because life isn’t like that. Some demand to be able to buy books with a Happy Every After guarantee (generally romance) but I doubt that this is a wise choice. Knowing beforehand a book will have a happy ending robs the reader of the experience of literary catharsis, of suffering with the main characters without being certain of relief. It’s the experience that brings the changes in the emotional state, not the outcome.
As a writer, I use my writing to explore how I feel and think, and the expression of my inner life in stories is one way I cope with my own sometimes fragile mental and emotional state. Yet there is both catharsis and a kind of creative synthesis that goes on, largely unconsciously, in the creation of a novel. When I write, quite often I don’t know how the book will end until it comes to me during the process of actually writing it. I often don’t know what the main themes of a book are until it is complete, and sometimes not even then. The feedback from readers sometimes brings me insights into what the book is about that I had no conscious clue about. One of the things I have found most rewarding as an author is that readers have found the books have affected them in profound and positive ways. It could be said that the books have been agents of healing and of comfort. It’s something that makes the process so worthwhile, doubly so, for the writing of a book is a process of catharsis and of inner healing for me; to know that it has this effect on readers enhances my own experience