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Let's all Pennebake

Folks, today is International Pennebaker Day; I have so decreed it. And, lucky you, I plan to tell you all about Pennebaking, but not until I have told you this:

We started our Summer Festival of Writing last year because our plans for our regular, physical Festival were thrown into disarray by the pandemic. Then, partly for the same reason, but also because the Summer Festival was such an obviously brilliant thing to do, we ran it again this year, with fifty or sixty live events running across the whole summer. 

We’ve now taken the decision that the Festival is so awesome, we should make it as widely available as we possibly can. So from now on, the entire Summer Festival will be free (and exclusive) to Jericho members. That means, if you’re a member, your membership has just become a whole lot better. If you’re not a member, then you have about fifty or sixty additional reasons for feeling sad.

OK. Nuff of that. Back to International Pennebaker Day:

James Pennebaker, a US psychologist, was interested in trauma. He knew that trauma of any kind is associated with bad health outcomes, but what if those suffering trauma were good at talking about their ordeal? Would that make a difference?

Pennebaker decided to investigate. His first thought was that some traumas carried more shame than others. (So, for example, the death of a child by suicide might be more shameful to the parent than a death by car accident.) So perhaps the nature of the trauma would be highly correlated with outcomes?

He investigated and it turned out that the exact nature of the trauma was essentially irrelevant. Instead, what mattered – and it mattered a lot – was what people did with that trauma. If you had a bad experience and talked about it with friends, or family or a support group, you were largely spared the adverse health effects. If you stayed schtumm, you were much more likely to become physically ill.

That was interesting enough, but what if you didn’t talk about your problems? What if you just wrote about them?

Again, Pennebaker investigated. He asked a group of people to write – for fifteen minutes a day, for four consecutive days – about the most upsetting experience of their lives, preferably one they hadn’t shared extensively with others. A control group undertook a similar exercise, but wrote about their homes or their workdays, or something else forgettably bland.

A year later, and with permission, Pennebaker got hold of everyone’s medical records and found that those who had written about their trauma got much less sick than those who did not. An hour’s unstructured writing had yielded major health benefits – a remarkable discovery.

But further research got more interesting still.

If people were asked to describe their emotional difficulties via music, or dance, or painting, they got no benefit. What’s more, if people came to the writing exercise already fluent in their description of their trauma, they obtained no particular benefit to writing it down. The people who benefitted were the ones who made progress over the four-day period; who gained in insight, who built a story.

Now all that is interesting in itself – blooming interesting, if you ask me. But we’re writers, either already professional or with aspirations to be published.

What does Pennebaker’s research mean for us?

Well: I don’t know, but here are some things that occur to me.

First, if you have experienced major trauma, you should write about it. It doesn’t matter whether that trauma was newsworthy or not, of public interest or not. All that matters is that you write about it, for your own mental or physical health. You’ll be glad that you did. It’s an amazing thing to do and you’ll definitely feel better for doing it.

Secondly, I should probably tell you now that memoirs of personal trauma usually aren’t saleable for a mixture of reasons. There are some significant legal obstacles – libel and privacy – for one thing. I know of one really strong memoir, well-written and shocking at the same time, which found an agent, but which publishers declined to take on for fear of the possible legal consequences.

But, look, what publishers do really doesn’t matter. That’s not the point. You’re the point. Write it for you.

Third, I do wonder whether all novelists don’t in some way write books in order to deal with some deep psychic issue – or more accurately, our life experience simply smuggles itself into our work, whether we want it to or not.

John Le Carre spoke somewhere (I haven’t been able to find the quote) that he found himself always writing about love and betrayal. It’s the theme that resonates through his work and one born of childhood insecurity: a conman father, a mother who deserted him. When you read things in Le Carre, like “Do you know what love is? I’ll tell you: it’s whatever you can still betray.”, you know you are reading about the author as well as the character.

If you notice things like that happening, let them happen. The richest novels always have deeper themes stirring beneath the surface. I don’t even think you need to analyse those themes beyond a point. I always love it when I’ve written three-quarters of a book, or am doing my tenth edit of a completed draft, and then think, ‘Dang me, I’ve been writing about X all along and never noticed before now.’ Sometimes that X is a directly personal thing, but often it isn’t, or at least not so obviously as in Le Carre’s more colourful case.

And all this makes me wonder: does writing novels have a health-protective effect? If we sublimiate our emotional difficulties and work them out via space opera / detective stories / Regency romance / literary fiction / dystopian YA, does that work as well as doing the Pennebaker exercise, the way he set it out?

I’m going to guess not, but (A) I bet it does something beneficial, and (B) it does seem, from Pennebaker’s work, that there really is something special about words, as opposed to paint, music and all that. (The ‘lesser arts’ as we can agree to call them.)

Which gives us a conclusion of sorts, I think.

If any of you have real trauma to deal with, I think the Pennebaker exercise looks genius. Four days. Fifteen minutes a day. Just write, don’t judge. The science says you’ll be wiser, happier and healthier for that (tiny) investment.

And all of us: if traumatic events smuggle themselves, subliminally, into our fiction, then great. Our fiction is likely to be the better for it. As you know, I can be quite analytical about fiction, but when it comes to that personal/fictional interface, I tend to be quite incurious. I somehow feel that if my unconscious wants to work a few things out via my story and characters, I’m probably better off leaving it be. I’ll look after the story. My unconscious can look after its Pennebaker-chores.

That’s it from me.

In this week’s, Kids Being Barmy news:

I screwed some castors onto an old wooden pallet and added a rope to pull it along with. The four kids pull the pallet up the road outside the house, then ride it downhill with the younger boy shouting, ‘Crash coming up! Crash coming up!’

His predictions generally come true within a few seconds of being issued. So far, no major injuries.

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Comments (24)
    • I've had a chronic health condition for 15 years, and I attribute a lot of the progress I've made in the last few years to the fact that I eventually started writing the novels that were waiting to get out.

      I think on one level we're always writing about ourselves. It's funny, my latest novel is a YA book, and I started it thinking, 'I've written three books that were to help me process, now I'll write one that's just for kids' benefit.' And it turned out that I learnt unexpected things about myself!

      This really is the best job in the world :)

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      • I had to recreate my account just to leave this post; the original password and user name scribbled in fading ink on a curled, stickyless Post It note, abandoned on a fluff covered shelf somewhere and companionably piled with all the other Post It notes containing useful information that inexplicably disappear five minutes after you put them down. What drives me to resurrect Townhouse membership - Midwich Cuckoos, that's what. Just saying, Harry...that's a very John Wyndham assortment of children! :-)

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        • I'm definitely going to check out Pennebaker because this post speaks out to me. Personally, for many many years, trauma seems to give rise to poetry. I'm not sure they're 'good' but they do the trick of letting something out and I guess that's similar to the 15 minute slot of writing you've described (though I often spend way longer than 15 minutes). My story writing also draws a lot on personal experience, though I've recently tried to pull away from it a bit and let the story lead me to new places more.

          Apart from that the FOW news is good indeed. I was already about to sign up as part of my post-summer surge and that is just another great reason to do it asap.

          And the kids are too adorable to bruise, so go easy there - maybe fit a brake? It does look fun though

          PS how many splinters have you had to extract so far? ;-)

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          • That is fascinating info about James Pennebaker. Thank you!

            The novel I've  finished - not getting interest from agents, so maybe not - starts in 1987 at a therapy session.  The therapist, a bit of a hippy go lucky kind of woman with amazing skill and obviously 10 years ahead of her time, suggests the protagonist writes down all her memories to wheedle out what might be the root of her sudden onset, panic attacks. 

            It's such a current topic I think I will persist...

            PS Love the pallet on wheels - what a thrill!

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            • The pennebaker stuff is fascinating. I’m surprised it isn’t more widely known and used. In my job I meet a lot of people who are doing “talking therapy” of various kinds and a few who are doing “art therapy” but I’ve never met anyone doing “writing therapy”. I’m glad it confirms  my gut feel because I’ve quite often told people that if they don’t feel ready to talk about something they should try writing it down. Then they can shred it or burn it or whatever they like but at least they’ve got it out. Seems there may be some science in this.

              I also love that your kids are having a proper childhood. All kids should crash into nettles from wayward pallets rather than sitting inside looking at gadgets. I reckon the world would have much more resilience and happiness if they did. 

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