What My Grandmother Taught Me About Being a Grateful Writer

Filed in The Writing Life by on November 18, 2014 • views: 405

I’ve attended several writing events this year. Conferences, awards dinners, signings, etc.

At every one, without exception, I heard one thing:

writers complaining.

It’s an easy habit to fall into. This isn’t a cushy career, by any means. We have a number of challenges in front of us, from the blank page to the rejection letters to the overwhelming prospect of marketing a published work.

Plus, it’s not often that we get to share our frustrations with other writers—the only ones that understand.

I get it, and I’ve been part of those conversations, but they always make me feel a little uncomfortable. Within a very short time, I usually either change the subject or excuse myself.

I believe that our thoughts and words can create our reality. Too much wallowing in the difficulty of our chosen occupation and pretty soon that’s all we see—how difficult it is. It’s only a short step from there to seeing ourselves as unable to overcome that difficulty.

And that’s about as low as we can get.

So this Thanksgiving holiday, I’m wishing every writer the one thing we really need to not only succeed, but to stay healthy doing it:

A grateful spirit.

The Health Benefits of Being Grateful

Growing up, most of us were told that it was good to be grateful. We were admonished when we didn’t eat our peas because children in Ethiopia were starving, and we should be grateful for the food in front of us.

Unfortunately, that sort of teaching may have left many of us with the feeling that being grateful was something we “should” do, like going to church or cleaning the bathroom, instead of something we could enjoy and benefit from.

It’s true that being grateful is good for us—perhaps even better than those peas. In a 2003 study, for example, scientists found that participants who wrote every day about what they were grateful for were more optimistic, felt better about their lives, and were 25 percent happier than those who had written about their daily irritations. They also exercised more and made fewer visits to the doctor’s office.

Other studies have shown similar results. Breast cancer patients who reported higher levels of gratefulness also experienced less anxiety, depression, and irritability than those who reported lower levels. Insomniacs who scored higher on a gratitude questionnaire were more likely to report superior sleep quality, and also more likely to report positive emotions right before falling asleep, than those who scored lower on the gratitude questionnaires.

“When falling asleep,” the researchers wrote, “grateful people are less likely to think negative and worrying thoughts, and more likely to think positive thoughts. It appears that negative pre-sleep cognitions impair sleep, and gratitude reduces the likelihood of such thoughts, protecting sleep quality.”

Research is also underway to see how gratitude may reduce the risk of heart disease and boost the immune system.

But how can a daily gratitude practice help writers?

What My Grandmother Taught Me About Being a Grateful Writer

In addition to helping us sleep better, reducing stress and anxiety, and potentially boosting the immune system, practicing gratitude on a regular basis can help us better cope with the stress of our careers.

A 2006 study, for instance, looked at how gratitude affected the health and well being of Vietnam War veterans, some suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Daily gratitude exercises (such as thanking a partner for cooking a meal) were associated with more experiences of “feeling good.”

In fact, when researchers correlated feelings of gratitude with well being, they found that “whenever one veteran’s well-being was different from that of another, as much as 65 percent of the factors that produced that difference was attributable to his experience of gratitude,” according to the Washington Post.

Personally, I have found gratitude to be a lifesaver when it comes to living the writer’s life. Some things—like how well people are going to like our books—are just out of our control, and we have to find a way to deal with that. Gratitude helps a lot.

I often play this game with myself. I create a “worst-case” scenario in which:

  • My books don’t sell well.
  • I am unable to find a publisher for any more of my works.
  • I move into my senior years writing for no one but myself.

Before I signed my publishing contracts, this list used to include not being published at all.

At first glance, this seems like a pretty bleak future for any writer, especially after investing years of hard work into (hopefully) producing the exact opposite.

But it’s possible. We all hear stories every day of amazing artists that faded into obscurity. I’m positive that right now, there are a number of creative geniuses out there that few of us even know exist.

If this worst-case scenario were to occur, then, how would I deal with it?

My answer comes back to something my grandmother said to me once. She passed away in 1995, but she knew then that I hoped for a writing career. We had a conversation where I told her about my early attempts to create stories, and about the time I was investing in this dream of mine. It seemed a pie-in-the-sky sort of thing to me—the idea that I might ever become a published writer—and at times I got wrapped up in the discouragement of it all, so I was surprised by her comment.

“You’re very lucky,” she said. “Very lucky.”

I was confused. I wasn’t published. I wasn’t even close to it. So how was I lucky?

I looked into her blue eyes and saw…what? A wish, maybe? Had my grandmother longed to be a writer? Or was it just the idea that I could go after a dream—something that maybe she had never been able to do?

Grandma lived the life of a farmer’s wife. She and my grandfather ran a dairy farm in New York, and their lives revolved around the well being of a number of Holstein cows. When my grandfather had to take construction jobs to make ends meet, Grandma, my mother, and my aunt took over the farming chores. Grandma also raised a killer garden, and cooked delicious meals.

That didn’t leave a lot of time for pursuing artistic dreams.

Women of that generation were also less likely than women of today to get any support for developing talents outside of homemaking.

In my grandmother’s eyes, I was lucky—not to make a living off my books, not to receive stellar reviews, and not even to have a publishing contract—but just to be able to go after my dream.

I had never thought of it that way.

But I have every day since.

How Being Grateful Can Help You Through the Tough Times

I’m not saying that being grateful is something we “should” do to be good people. I’m saying that it benefits us, as writers, to remember what we’re grateful for.

Next time you’re feeling frustrated by the difficulty of the marketplace, for example, discouraged because of low royalty payments, or upset because of a rejection letter, take a few minutes to jot down 5-10 things you’re grateful for.

Not because you should. Because it will help.

Better yet, studies show that practicing gratitude on a daily basis—such as making lists, writing thank-you notes, and expressing gratitude to others—is your best option when it comes to improving mood, health, and well being.

Sometimes it’s not easy. Things can definitely go wrong, and it’s discouraging. Our feelings of gratitude may need a little more coaxing, as Dale Biron says in this quote from his wonderful poem, “Gratefulness:”

Each day the engine of my gratefulness
must be coaxed and primed into action.
Of course like any old clunker,
it would just as soon stay put.

(read the rest here)

But even on the worst of days, we can find something to be grateful for: the food in our bellies, the roof over our heads, the fact that those we love are near. And taking a few moments to list these things can really help improve our outlook, and give us the resilience we need to power through.

Barbara Crooker says it perfectly in her poem, “All that is glorious around us” (from Radiance). It expresses how we can so often take everyday blessings for granted, and how remembering to be grateful can turn an ordinary day into something extraordinary.

Meanwhile, wishing a happy and warm Thanksgiving to all readers of Writing and Wellness. I’m grateful for you!

All that is glorious around us

is not, for me, these grand vistas, sublime peaks, mist-filled
overlooks, towering clouds, but doing errands on a day
of driving rain, staying dry inside the silver skin of the car,
160,000 miles, still running just fine. Or later,
sitting in a café warmed by the steam
from white chicken chili, two cups of dark coffee,
watching the red and gold leaves race down the street,…

(read the rest of this lovely poem here)

Do you find it helps to count your blessings when you’re feeling discouraged? Please share what you’re grateful for.

Emmons RA, McCullough ME, “Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life,” J Pers Soc Psychol., February 2003; 84(2):377-89, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12585811.

Chiara Ruini, Francesca Vescovelli, “The Role of Gratitude in Breast Cancer: It’s Relationships with Post-traumatic Growth, Psychological Well-Being and Distress,” Journal of Happiness Studies, March 2013; 14(1):263-274, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10902-012-9330-x.

Alex M. Wood, et al., “Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions,” Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 66 (2009): 43-48, http://ggsc-web02.ist.berkeley.edu/images/application_uploads/Wood-GratitudeSleep.pdf.

Kashdan, TB, “Gratitude and hedonic and eudaimonic well-being in Vietnam war veterans,” Behav Res Ther., February 2006; 44(2):177-99, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16389060.

Darrin Koltow, “Give Thanks. It’s Good for You,” Washington Post, November 20, 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/11/16/AR2007111601699.html.

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