Writing for your Mental Health
For me, writing & editing—both fiction and memoir—are forms of trigger work (processing unresolved events that cause a strong emotional reaction in your body). While memoirists must claim their triggers as their own, fiction writers still must confess—but through the emotional truths (as opposed to plot-based truths) of their characters.
WRITING: making the subconscious conscious
Writing (i.e. a first draft) is about making the subconscious conscious. During the writing phase, the goal is to be surprised by what comes out. Set a timer for 20 minutes and let your body—aka your triggers—lead. There will be something in your life that causes an emotional reaction in your body. Write into that. Emotions are stored in the body and during our first draft, we want to be writing directly into the things that cause sensations in the body—even when it doesn’t make sense to our brain.
Once started, let your fingers follow the tangents. Even the ones your brain didn’t see coming (especially then!).
The goal is to sink deeper and deeper. To let yourself vomit everything onto the page. All the shame, all the secrets, all the desires. Yes, this applies to fiction writers also (this journaling can then form the basis for the emotional truths of your characters).
What this does, in my experience, is allow stuff from the subconscious to come up to a conscious level. That is, things you didn’t realise were bothering you, patterns in your thinking, things you’ve been obsessively worrying about without realising. When you stop trying to control what comes out and instead write freely, your body tells you what it wants you to use the page to process.
The page will show you your triggers if you allow it to.
Your first draft will be messy. Let it.
Your first draft will frequently not make sense. Let it.
Always, always: writing (a first draft) is about letting go of control.
EDITING: self-interrogation & thought correction work
If writing is about letting go of control, editing is about taking back control.
From the second draft onwards, we’re moving out of writing mode and in to editing mode. This is where we begin to allow reason or intellect onto the page.
I write from the body and edit from the head.
Now that you’ve vomited your heart and liver onto the page, maybe seen some patterns, spewed out some projections, it’s time to turn this into a scene. Pick a key emotional trigger from your writing and re-write the events as though everyone is characters in a film interacting with each other.
Now, you’re starting to get some distance between yourself and the page. Now, you can begin the real work of noticing.
When we get this distance, we begin to see things from other characters’ points of views. We begin to ask: Why is this character (ourselves or others) behaving in this way? What are the false mental stories they’re allowing to control their behaviour? Is there something they (I) are not taking responsibility for?
Here, I am looking for gaps in my communication skills, areas where I’m emotionally unregulated, and interactions where I am playing the victim. Conflict is not abuse, and yet many of us treat it as though it is.
Then, I want to do two things. Firstly, I want to figure out what it is I need to learn. For example, how to communicate my desires in a way that doesn’t involve blaming others. Then I want to go and learn the thing off the page. And write about it as I do so (as fiction or memoir).
Secondly, I want to figure out what mental stories I have been allowing myself to believe that aren’t serving me. For example, ‘If I set and hold X boundary, I will probably be rejected’. This is not a fact, this is a story that your brain is presenting to you as fact. Then my work is to train myself to set and hold that boundary I know I need, even when it feels uncomfortable. Even when I am afraid of rejection. And write about it as I do so (as fiction or memoir).
Our triggers are our own responsibility to heal. Writing and editing is how I do this.
About the writer:
Chloe Higgins writes about the things she’s afraid of: death, sex, love, and how she feels about her mother. The Girls, a memoir of family, grief and sexuality, is her debut and won the People’s Choice Award at the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. The Girls was also shortlisted for the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award Prize for Non-Fiction and shortlisted for the State Library’s 2020 National Biography Award. She is the Director of Wollongong Writers Festival and works as a writing mentor helping students develop a daily writing practice. She chronicles her writing process via IGTV on Instagram @write_with_chloe