Stepping Back to Move Forward: Expressive Writing Promotes Self-Distancing |. Pedagogical Implications for Training those “Moody Artists”

Park, J., Ayduk, Ö, & Kross, E. (2016).
Stepping back to move forward:
Expressive writing promotes self-distancing.
Emotion, 16(3), 349-364.

For individuals high in emotional reactivity with less efficient stress management mechanisms, it seems possible to regulate negative affect and reactivity to specific stressful events through self-distancing that occurs during the act of expressive writing. A recent study examined self-distancing as the possible mechanism involved in the positive affective and health outcomes from the textual construction of meaningful narratives of distressing life events as established by Pennebaker. Two studies involving fifty-six college students were conducted to measure self-distancing, depressive symptoms, emotional reactivity and health outcomes relative to expressive writing. Baseline measures were taken before and subsequently to the writing activities at one day, one month and six months. The first study compared students randomly assigned to write three consecutive days for fifteen minutes about either an emotionally stressful life event or a non-emotional daily routine. The second study involving eighty-four students, added a third condition in which the subjects were asked to think about an emotionally stressful life event over the three days for fifteen minutes a day. It was found that the group that engaged in reflective expressive writing consistently had the highest levels of self-distances, lowest emotional reactivity, and more positive affects at one-day, one month and six months than the groups that wrote about trivial routings or thought about stressful life events. The study did not find a statistical pattern in physical health outcomes, unlike Pennebaker’s results. Finally psycholinguistic analysis tools, LIWC2007, were applied to the writing samples in a quest for notable intersubject patterns. It was found that those students in the expressive writing groups showed increases of causal words over the three days suggestive of narrative building, a reduction in negative affect words and shifts in pronoun usage indicative of perspective shifting. The authors suggested that the narrative building, reductions in negativity, and perspective shifting was evidence of processes of detaching from the event, of self-distancing, which in turn seems to regulate negative effect over extended periods beyond the three days of writing.

Within the eminent visual artist populations there are common biographical traces of developmental adversity, personality dispositions associated with negative affect, and neurological high sensitivity. Each of these traits or experiences independently has been linked with less than desirable emotional reactivity and inefficient coping mechanisms for stress. Yet eminent artists are able to engage within the social finicky field of the arts, prolifically produce novel works, and continue this process over the bulk of their lifetimes. A large percentage of these artists engage in periodic bouts of expressive writing. Like the aforementioned studies condition that show positive mood outcomes, artists writings show a high use of causal words, shifting pronoun and expression of both positive and negative affect. This would suggest that perhaps the artists are engaging in expressive writing a  mechanism of regulating their mood through self-distance generated during expressive text.

Though expressive writing is surely not sufficient to become an eminent artist it does for many seem to be a co-variable in the process and therefore has pedagogical implications for the training of artists. More importantly if it assists the artist mitigating the impacts of developmental adversity, breaching conventions (inherent in creativity), persnickety personality tendencies, psychopathological disruptions, loose sensory gating, etc, by all means, let us embed the writing practice in MFA programs!

In the below example, the mere act of writing as though interviewing the self, both as asker and answers, suggest a for of self-distancing.


Lucas Samaras Another Autointerview (1971)

Why are you conducting this interview?Because interview is a frequently abused form and self is a seemingly virginal patch of fertile content. 

Why are you conducting this interview?
So that I can find out what is been declassified.

Why is that necessary?
It is a way to keep alert, a kind of sanitation.

Why are you conducting this interview?
So that I can protect myself.

From what?
From people’s imagination.

How can you protect yourself with words?
Words ward off oblivion.

Why are you conducting this interview?
It is a way of realizing guilt.

Why are you conducting this interview?
I want to crystalize the daily situation of talking to myself.

Why are you conducting this interview?
In order to relax my mind from daily obsessions.

Why are you conducting this interview?
In order to formalize and isolate myself.

Why are you conducting this interview?
In order to enter the consciousness of others.

What are you?
A hunger.

What are you?
A smiling hunger.

What are you?
Inwardly I am an erotic sadness, outwardly I am a home made process for unraveling meaning.

What are you?
I am an intermittent escapee from a more traditional behavior.

What makes you go away?
Desire for understanding.

What makes you come back?
Ancient uncontrollable signals.

What are you?
In the sense that I am an active irrational artist I am an early stage of mutation. Also I am a beneficial impediment.

A what?
A slightly sadistic entertainer.

What are you?
An intense superstitious lover and hater of people.

What are you doing?
I am trying to synthesize love.

What are you doing?
Trying to evaluate and use what I have got.

How old are you?
Nineteen hundred and seventy one.

Say it differently.
I am as old as the things I know.

How old are you?
I panic when I think of it.

It is a bowel control anxiety.

How old are you?
Thirty five.

How old is that?
Old enough to often get a stench of death.

What frightens you?
The separation between me and the things I see.

What frightens you?
The possibility for evil.

Are you a very moral person?
Outwardly yes. Inwardly I get glimpses of the cannibal, the selfish autocrat, the destroyer of things, the suicide.

What frightens you?
The needs of other people.

What is art?
The physical look of humanity.

Of what value is art?
It protects my adult existence.

I can be pretty abnormal without having to isolatedly receive society’s contempt or punishments. My separation is institutionalized.

Of what value is art?
It is a necessary component of being human.

Of what value is art?
It allows me to be revolutionary in a constitutional democracy.

Are you political?
Only in terms of art.

Regular society is out of my line.

Do you like society as it is now?
No, but neither do I like the weather.

Tell me a problem.
How can I get to accept, tolerate, live with and enjoy myself?

How do you cope with your body?

Is there something supernatural, undernatural or other about your body?
I sometimes control portions of it. I speak to it, telling it not to let me down. It is like another person. That is why when people make comments about my body I feel peculiar. They can’t see my separation from it.

Why do you fear about your body?
Its biology.

What do you fear about your mind?
Its passions.

What do you like about your body?
It takes me into the lives of other people.

What do you like about your mind?
Its conversation.

What is the most frequent question you ask yourself?
What am I going to do now.

Are not you an artist?
Not always, there are unfortunate pauses, periods when I am anything but an artist.

When did you become an artist?
I set out to become one about twenty years ago. I was told that I was one about ten years ago, and now I am beginning to feel unembarrassed by it.

What embarrassment?
The proximity to the great men of the past.

What embarrassment?
The jealousy of other people.

What embarrassment?
The formal exposure of my psyche.

Is it very embarrassing?
No. It used to be embarrassing. Now there is some satisfaction in not being embarrassed by it any more.

What are the first questions you ask others?
What do you want from me and what do you have that I may want.

Does it work?
No. I have to deduce their answer through their actions and it might take between a week and two years.

Do you like others?

Why do not you live with others on a daily basis?
Because I have not found a good servant master.

How come other people manage?
It is a wonder to me.

What are you?
I am everything that everybody is only differently.

Is not everybody like that.

Tell me more.
The word artist says enough.

Are you an object maker?
I am a thing maker.

What is the difference?
A thing is less clear and more inclusive.

Do you like well made things?
Yes. Well made things including well made thoughts. I also like things that are not well made, but I like them less. Sometimes I like terrible things.

Are you accepted as an artist?
By some. Most of my work was done to prove to others including myself that I was an artist rather than because I was one. Or it was the opposite. One doesn’t always know what one is.

Do you like to be called artist?
Sometimes I like it, sometimes I do not. I like antagonism and temporary anonymity.

If you were alone in the world would you be an artist?
I am alone in the world.

Are you alone in the world?
I am alone in a world full of nice and unnice people. 

For whom are you making art?
For the adults of my past, for anyone who will look and wonder and let me live, and for the unnamables who will come in the future.

Why are you making art?
So that I can forget my separateness from everything else.

What are you running away from?
From people’s evaluations.

Why are you sentimental?
Because I am unsatisfied.

What did one year of therapy do for you?
It was better than taking a course in psychology. 

What is interesting about psychology?
The adults in my past talked about it with a mixture of respect and horror. They loved to tell me that if one read or thought too much or too long one became crazy. I was interested in this curious mind that could spoil under misuse.

Why did not you become a psychologist?
The course I took in college was full of dull charts and statistics. I wasn’t interested in math.

Are you nice to people?
No. I am accurate about my feelings.

Do you want to be wealthy?
Not any more.

Wealth is a profession.

Do not you want to have wealth?
I want just enough to live and do my work without feeling that I have to give something away out of guilt or generosity.

What is wrong with generosity?
It perpetuates a moneyed aristocracy.

Do you want your work to be preserved?
Either actually or photographically or descriptively.

What is the need for a tomb?
I want my spiritual and corporeal hunger to be remembered.

Why do not you keep your problems and your pleasures to yourself?
Because I am universalizing them.

Is not that a little pretentious?
No, it is a little fatherly.

Why is it easier to make art than to deal with people?
Making art is dealing with people on your own terms. The ideal way of using people is using them like clay, but that being out of the question, except for lunatics and leaders, art is a good alternative.

Why is art a profession?
Because it is hard work. Besides, all parts of awareness are categorized and professionalized.

Since when?
Ever since humanity.

Are you a professional artist?
Well, I find it weird being called professional. After I have done some art I am pretty much where I started from even it I am not. Art stops being what I made and it has to be something I have not made. Tomorrow I may not be able to do art. There is no guarantee.

What has the acceptance of your work by others done to your character?
It has erased my ninety five pound weakling image.

Tell me a problem.
I have difficulty in understanding how the world began, if it did begin, how did I begin, if I did begin, and how does anything I do begin. I have a few minutes of intelligent perplexity whenever I bring up these enigmas and then I get drowsy and want to sleep in someone’s protective amplitude.

Who is that someone?
A conglomerate of many people from my past, particularly those who knew more than I did.

What word describes your dealings with these people?
In terms of feeling the word is eroticism, in terms of dealing the word is criticism.

How criticism?
I am question oriented. I ask why to anything that is presented as fact. It puts people on the defensive and often they expose some privacies.

Why do you like to see their weapons?
It is a kind of knowledge, sniffing them out to see if they are like me or if they are different, how they are different from the people that they remind me of.

Are you superstitious?
In my conscious dealings I always leave a margin for the unexpected.

Are you an indoors person or an outdoors person?
Indoors. The outdoors is a luxury and a drug. Going out is like going on an expedition even if I am going out to buy some bread.

Why do you dislike leaving your house?
Someone might call me.

Why do you dislike leaving your house?
I might get lost or lose all the people I have known.

Why do you like the indoors?
Because I am domesticated.

What does that mean?
It is a contemplative situation.

Is not contemplation possible outdoors?
There are too many distractions and dissatisfactions with the multiple presentations of beauty.

Why do not you drive?
I do not trust my killer instincts.

Do you kill the animals you eat?
I kill the containers in which the flesh of the animals is packed.

Do you have any animals?
Only those that come of their own suicidal accord like roaches, spiders, flies, moths and mosquitoes.

Do you have any things that move in your apartment?
The TV, gas flame and water.

What is your reflection to you?
A disembodied relative.

Does your apartment tend to be sparse or cluttered?
Cluttered. I like to have within visual and physical grasp the tools and materials that I work with.

Do you like where you work?
Yes. There is a mixing of the two.

Have you considered yourself as a work?
I have been working on that.

Are you Christifying yourself?
Everything is traceable to everything else.

Why do you want a megaphone, why reach millions?
I do not want to reach millions but the equivalent of myself among those millions.

What for?
For continuity.


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Dissertation presentation + script
Research interests
Paul Klee: Art and writing
Anouk De Clercq: when artists write