The Breakfast Table

Write Two Pages and Call Me in the Morning

Good morning, Jesse:

An article from the Chicago Tribune, reprinted in the San Jose Mercury News, refers to a study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that concludes writing may be beneficial for your health. Now, that’s what I call news. According to JAMA, physicians conducting the study asked subjects suffering from acute asthma or from rheumatoid arthritis to write for 20 minutes a day for three consecutive days. They were asked not to concern themselves with the niceties of spelling, punctuation, and so on. They were told instead, just write and write and write, what we call in the profession free-writing, I suppose.

A significant number of study subjects reported that their symptoms improved with writing. This of course is good news. But even better is the prospect that future studies may go on to show that writing may actually cure much of what ails us (except for writing-induced ailments like carpal tunnel syndrome or, if you’re still using a pencil, writer’s bump–that unsightly callus on your index finger caused by holding a writing implement).

I’m not sure what the controls were for the JAMA study. Were an equal number of volunteers asked to not write for 20 minutes for three consecutive days? Did their symptoms then worsen, or remain the same? I know my own symptoms would worsen if I were told not to write, since I write all the time. But let’s look at this Slate discussion for an example of healthful praxis: I’m writing for more than 20 minutes twice a day for what will be four days. Should I be taking my pulse and blood pressure regularly? Should I not use my inhaler? (Actually, I do have an inhaler, but seldom need to use it.) What should I expect to see happening? To whom do I report the results? Will my HMO cover this?

OK, you get my drift. I’m not convinced that writing holds promise as a prophylactic. There have been a number of “scientific” studies like this one that deal with language-related subjects but that are not really linguistic studies. A few years back (hey, this is still on topic–I’m an English teacher, so I should know), there was some discussion in the press about the discovery of a grammar gene by neurologists. This was based on a study of an extended Montreal family, many of whose members exhibited certain curiosities in their grammar: They could not form certain kinds of sentences, couldn’t answer questions, couldn’t write clearly, and so on. It was held, in these popular reports, that the discovery of the shared defective gene seen to cause the symptoms would eventually lead to a cure not only for dyslexia but for freshman composition–perhaps even for government prose. Guess what, folks? It didn’t happen. It seems that writing, and grammar, are too complex to be controlled by a single gene. And disease is too complex, I’m guessing, to be palliated by journal writing.

That is not to say that people don’t or won’t find writing to be beneficial. As an English teacher and a linguist, and a writer, I’ve been advocating writing as good mental exercise for as long as I can remember. Of course, I was a sickly child, and one who wrote all the time. What does that tell us? Nothing about writing, or health, actually.

But once people read about the physical benefits that accrue from writing, I’m sure that writing clinics will spring up in California, land of all good fads, or if the JAMA study is discredited and writing clinics are outlawed, then they will spring up in Mexico. I predict that the sick will make a pilgrimage to these clinics, perhaps even swarming to our own writers’ workshop, where student writers get help with their term-paper assignments. Will writing become a remedy of the desperate, like grapefruit diets, coffee enemas, Krebiozen, copper bracelets–or does it work more like meditation, prayer, or even beta carotenes? Will the FDA start controlling writing? Will there be minimum recommended doses? Warning labels on keyboards?

I guess I’m satisfied that writing is good for you, won’t cure a thing, and anyway, writers seem not to have a choice in the matter: To paraphrase the words of Gene Kelly, we just gotta write, gotta write …