05/23/2013 11:38 am ET Updated Jul 23, 2013

Who Wants to Write?

A colleague just told me about a recent session at the American Psychiatric Association's (APA) annual conference that aimed to help psychiatrists reach the rest of us through the written word. A good, if slightly odd idea since psychiatrists ought to be experts at communicating already. Right? Write!

During the session, speakers gave practical advice. They urged writers to explain their ideas rather than use jargon or assume that readers know what the author has in mind. After all, it's the writer's responsibility to communicate effectively. I remember a teacher who summed this up nicely when she commented, "If you can't write what you're thinking so other people understand, then you don't really understand yourself." How's that for elevating the importance of self-awareness?

The speakers also encouraged writers to narrate their ideas, allowing their storyline to facilitate understanding. Writing and reading work together like members of a relay team: The writer designs and kindles the torch, then passes it off to readers (who often share written work with others, and others, and others). As writers, we need to illuminate our ideas so that they're relevant to readers and enrich experience. Lives are full of stories and ideas have narratives, so when writing about people's lives, health and emotions it behooves psychiatrists to go beyond the hardcore science and offer something heartier with which readers can resonate and relate.

There might also have been some discussion about authenticity in writing, a term that refers to writing that shows what dwells in the heart and the mind. Now, I'm not a psychiatrist, and I wasn't at that meeting. But I have some ideas about what a real voice sounds like in a writer's mind. It's the inner voice marked by passion that strives to express something valuable. For a writer, this voice won't be satisfied until words bridge internal and external realities. For many writers, there's almost a visceral sensation of needing to allow the words out in order to let them rest and allow the writer to rest as well.

Some people are naturally fluent with words, but that doesn't mean their ideas are more valuable than those of people who struggle with written expression. But it's all too easy to assume technical skill implies knowledge or wisdom. It doesn't. It's possible to bake a beautiful cake with extraordinarily sophisticated icing that tastes bland or truly terrible. There's real danger in assuming that smooth words carry deeper meanings. Sometimes, as history shows, flawless rhetoric is the harbinger of absolute evil.

But back to the APA meeting and psychiatrist-writers. I wonder whether the presenters (or participants) addressed the more complicated question of "who" wants to write and "why." Assuming basic literacy and the availability of time and materials, we each have the potential to write, and write beautifully. "Who" can be "you" if you so desire. If you want to write, then you must. Keep at it, practice, read your words aloud and hear their sounds and meaning, share and listen to your readers' responses, and then, write again.

When you're ready, you might ask "why" you write. Do you write to push an agenda or to share your experience? Do you write out of generosity toward others or to further your own pride? Do you uphold what you believe in, or dissent (without regard for truth or spirit) just to be noticed? Do you share what you feel, and see, and think, or try to convince others that you feel, see and think what they do? Do you offer your words mindfully?

There are no wrong answers here. Truly. But as writers it's important to know that "what" you write and "why" you do so will surely express "who" you are. Perhaps, that's why the APA session on writing was so powerful and pertinent for psychiatrists, and the rest of us.

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