Benefits for Readers
When reading, the suspension of ordinary awareness through engagement in a story world has enormous benefits of itself. Empathy, theory of mind and critical thinking are all enhanced. Reading relaxes you, de-stresses, takes you out of yourself and improves vocabulary and memory.
Then there is the enrichment that comes with engagement. Other views are expressed. Moral dilemmas confronted, insights into human nature given. We learn stuff! Tons has been written by psychologists and educators about how fiction benefits readers. What about the benefits for writers?
Benefits for Writers
I’ve been writing fiction for over a decade and I often reflect on how the process has changed me for the better. One thing I found early on is that writing fiction might be a solitary act but the writer is never really alone. They have for company the imaginary world they have created and that world can be all-consuming.
Creative writing is multifaceted. Everyone surely knows composing good fiction requires and develops the imagination. But I think it does a whole lot more than that.
The act of creating sentences in a story is a form of meditation in which the writer’s own sense of self is temporarily suspended as they enter the flow. There are therapeutic benefits embedded in the act. Self-forgetfulness is a release from all of the worries and preoccupations of daily life. A soothing, centring, focusing takes place, and the more the writer practices the craft, the stronger, the more complete this self-forgetting becomes. All art and craft does this, including and even especially knitting and needlework, anything that brings the mind to a single point of focus beyond the self. Writing goes the extra mile as it replaces the self-forgetting with an imaginary world of the writer’s own making. There is nothing more thrilling than watching all those sentences come together into chapters as the story grows and grows.
The various elements of the craft of writing require different skillsets and position the writer differently.
Action scenes bring the writer very close to the story in a process of imaginative embodiment. I find action the hardest element of storytelling to write, only because, for me at least, an action scene cannot be written in one hit. There are layers to build and each sentence requires a lot of crafting and altering to make sure the reader is right there with the writer, living the action. Good action writing disappears from view as the reader engages with the story. Any tiny thing that jars and brings the reader back to the realisation that they are reading rather than actually living the story is to be avoided. A lot of fine judgements have to be made to get everything sitting right and pacing is crucial. I daresay some writers find writing action natural and easy. I’m a little envious! I think my failing is that I am inclined to rush.
Description is built out of blocks of sensory observation, pieced together like a work of impressionist art, the writer standing back, just as the painter stands back to observe the canvas. I find writing description rewarding. I enjoy shunting around phrases, making sure a descriptive passage flows well and is very much embedded in the story through the eyes of the narrator and/or protagonist. It’s important not to overdo it. Sometimes, two words are enough to describe something. As ever with writing, description involves lots of fine judgements and a dollop of style.
Dialogue, for me at least, is like channelling voices. I write dialogue stream of consciousness style and figure out the attributions and tightening and styling afterwards. Dialogue can be ideas-driven, sometimes intuitive, or it can simply be a shorthand way to progress the story. I find dialogue easy to write and very pleasurable but I know other writers don’t. I seem to have an internal editor that cuts out most of the fat before the words appear on the page. The trick with dialogue is to pare things down to a minimum so that a conversation appears to be natural and lively but is not at all how real people speak. The art of writing dialogue also develops a kind of inner poise.
Reflective passages require the writer to enter the mind of their protagonist or character via the narrator who is in charge of the voice or tone of the work. Empathy is required and is also developed through this extraordinary process of giving voice to the thoughts and feelings of the imaginary other. For me, reflection is the best part of the writing process. It just seems to land on the page fully formed. But it is a kind of brainstorm and the better you are at brainstorming the easier reflective writing will be. Stands to reason, then, that this element of creative writing develops our critical thinking skills and expands the higher mind.
Telling a story through combining the elements of action, description, dialogue and reflection requires another skillset. The writer needs an idea or premise and a plot and they need to follow the conventions of genre and storytelling. Above all, the writer needs to embody a story, bit by bit and make it whole. A story is a synthesis of its parts. Once the first draft is written and the story is told, the writer holds that entirety in their mind as they tinker with all those parts. This process is expansive and stretches the mind of the reader. It’s a visioning thing.
All creative arts offer the potential of a pathway to wholeness. I have found over the past decade that writing fiction full time has enriched my life in ways I could not have thought possible. There’s the satisfaction side when others tell you your story is pretty good. But that is only a small part of the gains. Imagination, intuition, empathy, poise, focus, concentration – all these attributes and qualities have grown in me through writing fiction. And I have managed to lay to rest a whole heap of junk in my life. I’ve developed a sense of humour and proportion. Above all, I am a lot more detached about the hard stuff that happens to me as it does to all of us. And I have a fabulous way to work through the things that bother me.
I might have developed the habit of solitude to the detriment of other areas of my life. I might have lost interest in other pursuits like cooking. But I am contented, satisfied, the happiest I have ever been. If anyone questions why writers write, I hope I’ve provided a few insights to offer up in our defence. I firmly believe creative writing is an excellent way to grow as a person.