The Global Pen-demic

How can putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard help people during a time of crisis?

By Alex Rossell | @AlexRossell8. Images by Sophie-Rae Photography (sophierae_photography)

Writing has, for many years, been a crucial component to society. The art of using words to build entire worlds accessible by the flip of a page, or just jotting down thoughts and feelings, can make a tremendous impact on anyone. Now we find ourselves in the midst of a lockdown, and while this caused massive disruption to thousands of people’s regular lives, it didn’t put a stop to the art of writing. So that begs the question, how can writing help people during a time of crisis?

When it comes to mental health, it is not all doom and gloom

First, let’s talk about mental health, something that seems to have slipped under the radar slightly during these difficult times. A study from the University Of Sheffield showed that there was an immediate spike in depression and anxiety following the Prime Minister’s announcement of the COVID-19 lockdown. Not only that, but further studies from the Mental Health Foundation have shown that almost a quarter of adults living under lockdown in the UK have felt loneliness, with more than 44% of 18-24 year olds suffering from loneliness. This all makes sense; with many being stuck indoors without their loved ones, living in fear of catching the virus and being constantly hounded by the media’s pessimism, which essentially feels, to many, like a constant thunderstorm of DEATH DEATH DEATH, clearly there is going to be a negative impact on their mental health. Now, we all know some of the potential consequences of poor mental health, none of which are pleasant in the very slightest. However, when it comes to mental health, it is not all doom and gloom. There are many things you can do to help your mental health, and one of these is expressive writing.

Repeatedly confronting painful emotions eventually lessens their impact

Expressive writing is, essentially, a method of therapy in which one writes down their thoughts and feelings. This has been proved to help ease feelings of emotional trauma, as well as helping with stress and anxiety. Why is this the case though? 

Well, American social psychologist James Pennebaker, in his book “The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us”, claims many people who have a traumatic experience keep replaying the event in their mind, in a futile attempt to make sense of their suffering. Some scientists (not scientists like Neil Ferguson who flout lockdown rules for a quick shag, i’m talking respectable scientists) believe that expressive writing helps people who have suffered with traumatic experiences as repeatedly confronting painful emotions eventually lessens their impact, as we adapt to them. Another group has pointed to the unhealthy effects of unfinished business. While it isn’t entirely known why expressive writing helps, and while it doesn’t help everyone, it certainly helps a lot of people, with studies from Harvard Medical School showing this.

Now that we know some of the science behind writing and its benefits on mental health, let’s move on to what is going on currently: A public health emergency and lockdown. For many, behind each repetitive government soundbite, (I swear, i’m going to start hearing Matt Hancock tell me to stay home and protect the NHS in my sleep soon), their normal lives have grinded to a halt. Instead, they are living in a limbo of waking up, making toast, lying around and forgetting the date (I myself am guilty of this). However, not everyone is living like this. Amongst those keeping productive are writers, who are finding robust ways to keep themselves occupied during the lockdown.

Aaron Simmonds is a 24 year old writer. As someone who has gone from writing “terrible poetry about dragons” to studying Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University, he is clearly very passionate about writing. Inspired by his love for entertainment media, writers including Danny Wallace and Hunter S Thompson, as well as a desire for the “fame and applause that can come with being a renowned writer”, he was in the midst of writing a personal blog in Canada when the COVID-19 pandemic was kicking off. Now in isolation in his hometown of Newbury, he is trying to use all this time to write and “not procrastinate too much”. 

During this pandemic, Aaron is one of many working on the “Decameron Project 2020”. This is a writing project inspired by Boccaccio’s medieval italian text “The Decameron”, which is about 10 people self-isolating from the black death and, in order to stave off boredom, each person each day tells a story under a certain theme. The Decameron Project 2020 aims to emulate this, with people under isolation from COVID-19 taking part, using the same themes from The Decameron. Having heard of it from the editor of the project, Fiona Russell, someone who he attended both primary and secondary school with, he began contributing. He describes it as “very satisfying” to have written pieces for the project, and that it’s “imperative for creative people’s wellbeing to exercise their skills”. Though he emphasises that it is really no substitute for getting fresh air, exercise and social interaction, he says that it has indeed helped during these strange times.

Outside of the current ongoing pandemic, he says that writing has “undoubtedly” helped him overcome personal challenges, and that “The ability to communicate effectively impacts pretty much every aspect of a person’s life in a positive way”. “I urge anyone to write a self-confrontational auto-biography/diary as a form of therapy”, Aaron continues. ”I don’t know the full psychology behind it, but it’s liberating to commit even the ugly aspects of your own psyche to paper.”

Looking to the future, In the short-term, Aaron aims to publish a collection of short stories. In the long term, he strives for fame and fortune. 

While Aaron and other talented individuals contribute to the Decameron Project, there has to be someone to edit it and promote it, and that person is none other than the creator, Fiona Russell! 

With a Masters degree in English literature, along with experience in theatre writing and reviewing, and having “always written for pleasure”, she is clearly very passionate about writing. So, it is only logical that this passion shows in her commitment to the Decameron Project, which it certainly does. But where did the inspiration for this interesting project come from?

Fiona, being “very interested” in collaborative writing efforts, began flicking through the original Decameron the day before lockdown began in France, where she lives. Thinking that getting input from different people would be far more interesting than just writing herself, and wanting to provide an outlet when faced with a “really surreal and strange global situation”, she started the project, which she described as a “nice opportunity to help people challenge any energy and frustration into a creative project”.

Her favourite aspect of running the project is reading other people’s work and compiling it. “It has joined some very unlikely people together”, she explains. “We’ve had a few thousand readers now from over 45 countries, so that has been really exciting!” Though reading other people’s work and compiling it is her favourite aspect, she mostly edits and promotes the project. Although that is not all she does, as she has even contributed a piece or two under a pen name.

While the Decameron Project continues to bring together talented and passionate individuals during these difficult times, there is an ultimate end goal for the project. Fiona plans to publish the project, and even have a launch event. This published piece won’t be an eyesore by any means either, as a contributor to the first day, Hind, who Fiona describes as a “very talented artist”, is designing a cover for it.

Alongside publishing the project, due to the many contributions from non-native speakers and expats, Fiona would love to use the network created by the project to release some “sort of quarterly online literary journal” as a longer-term project.

There is no doubt that working on the Decameron Project has helped Fiona during these difficult times. Being thrown into a world of uncertainty as someone who teaches English at a university in France, keeping busy with the “really wonderful task” of reading and editing the different submissions, and reading other people’s views on things, has provided “both solidarity and much needed escapism”. She has even received some “very heart-warming and emotional emails” about how the project has helped people alongside submissions, which she described as “very rewarding”.

With a couple of projects on the go alongside the Decameron Project, and a plan to do a future literature PhD in France, Fiona’s passion in writing has not faltered during this time of crisis, and it has only helped her further.

So how does writing help during a time of crisis? Well, first of all, studies suggest that writing can help ease multiple mental health problems, including trauma, anxiety and stress. Although this may not work for everyone, the evidence is there to clearly suggest that it helps a large number of people. Secondly, writing can be done anywhere. From your local Starbucks, to the park, to your bedroom during self-isolation from a global pandemic. Should you have a pen and paper or a laptop, you can write wherever you like, about whatever you like, whether it be stories or expressive writing, to help ease anxiety or fend off boredom, writing is an extremely powerful tool available to anyone to help cope during whatever you are going through. You don’t have to do it alone either, with creative projects like the Decameron Project, anyone can harness their creative ability with words, to help them through tough times.


Magazine and website celebrating Nottingham's stories.

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