Journaling Can Enhance Creativity and Health

As a child, Andrea Ashworth and her sisters suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse from two stepfathers.

Her memoir, Once in a House on Fire, recounts those experiences growing up in Manchester, England, in the 1970s and ’80s.

She went on to become one of the youngest research Fellows at Oxford University, where she earned her doctorate.

In our interview, she talked about how writing the memoir was “a real sanity-saving exercise” and way to deal with her past, and then be able to move on to writing fiction.

“I wanted to get my memories out because I wanted to pin them down, so that all those ghosts wouldn’t go streaking across the novels,” she explained.

Ashworth found journal writing as a child was a kind of emotional buffer against the abuse and difficult circumstances she experienced.

“I wouldn’t have known that’s what it was then, but I know I found it a very sweet pleasure. And I found reading and writing a sanctuary.”

She thinks the process of writing fiction, on the other hand, is “hugely different. It’s a massive challenge, and a luxury, to be free to make it all up. The great thing is, I don’t have to go back to all the dark and scary places that I had to troll through in ‘Once in a House on Fire.’

“But of course, the hard thing is that in making it all up, I have to conjure its reality for myself, and seduce myself into the fiction.”

She notes her “apprenticeship in writing was a very painful one,” so it seems strange to be writing fiction: “a little bit like walking on the moon: I’m not quite sure where all the gravity went to. It’s disconcerting, having to make up a story, but it is mostly incredibly liberating and fun.”

Many writers and therapists commend journaling as an effective strategy for healing and personal growth, and a way to enhance creativity.

Julia Cameron (“The Artist’s Way“) advises writing “three pages, longhand and stream-of consciousness, first thing in the morning” as a “form of meditation” and “spiritual windshield wipers.”

This form of writing may also have additional benefits: studies by psychologists and immunologists have demonstrated that subjects who wrote “thoughtfully and emotionally about traumatic experiences” showed increased T-cell production; a drop in physician visits and generally improved physical health.

[One of many books on the topic of journaling is The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, by Vivian Gornick.]

Ashworth adds more about her drive to write: “When I was a teenager, and felt trapped and so on, there were no role models and nothing for me grab onto. So partly I wrote the book with that sort of invisible audience in mind.

“And the great thing is that in England the book is reaching lots and lots of children, and I’ve been doing a lot of things to stimulate the truth and creativity in children.”

Writing her book, Ashworth affirms, “Exorcised the ghosts, but also exercised my creativity.”