Campus / News / Student Research / May 15, 2008

Psychology of writing, poetry of thought

Senior Matt Andersson, a double major in psychology and chemistry, is one of the few students to complete two honors projects while at Knox. His first project last year, in the psychology field, focused on the health benefits of writing while this year’s project employed what he had learned in a creative writing honors project that had him working on a year’s worth of poetry.

Though Andersson’s majors are science-focused, he said, “I’ve been pretty active in writing. I wanted a year’s experiences in writing.”

Andersson had an interesting and challenging time with the honors project, especially in terms of drafting the poems, editing them, and using the feedback he received at his meetings.

Poet Patti Anne Rogers, who Andersson described as a nature poet with a scientific vocabulary, inspired Andersson.

“I like to write with a musical ear, and she really has that down,” said Andersson.

Andersson spent a lot of time editing his work, finding that that is a key aspect of the honors project lest you end up with a large conglomerate of information without really any clear guiding thread throughout. Andersson describes his poems as “really strong drafts.”

Andersson’s poetry went through many phases. At first he was only writing “poems about how writing builds on itself.” Andersson however then experimented with bringing a more musical quality to his pieces. Andersson also experimented with the length of his lines. After cutting and organizing his poems into a coherent collection, Andersson was left with 30 poems.

“I read my poems out loud and really examined each word and also stanza, commas, everything — it’s a really tricky process,” he said.

Andersson knows at this point his poems, after a year, are working drafts rather than final pieces.

“If you want to do it right it takes three to four years to really put a collection together,” he said. Andersson plans to work on his poetry after he graduates while working at home, possibly in a coffee shop.

“What I try to do is, I try to have a really energetic poem…a confident voice that is talking and addressing the reader,” he said. His poems have “a certain amount of ambition, something valuable in the poem.”

“I use a poem for testing ideas,” said Andersson. “I like the poem to be musical, but most of all I’m aiming to flush out an idea within the poem.”

His piece, entitled “What? A vessel in a stem” is an exploration into nature, genesis, and evolution. He looks at the big questions of life within his poetry. With this collection Andersson was asking, what centers everything. His answer: “An emphatic understanding of what it means to be human.”

Andersson’s honors panel included, John Haslem, director of the CTL who has a PhD in creative writing as his chair, with English professors Chad Simpson and Lori Haslem as well.

Alternately Andersson’s project last year was “an actual experiment…I went in with a hypothesis and collected data,” he said.

For his project last year, Andersson had writing majors write three days in a row for 20 minutes a day. The idea was to see if there was any overall health benefit from the exercise. This type of experiment, to see if writing could be linked to health benefits had been tried before, but none specifically using creative writing majors.

Andersson had the participants write down something that had happened to himself or herself from the perspective of an outside observer. Andersson found that “even using the third person pronoun you can still process an event equal to first person writing.” Andersson found this out by submitting the writings to using the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) software program, a program that looks into the diction used in each of the pieces to code words depending on what category they fall into in the LIWC system and then produces an outcome. Andersson was looking at the use of “cognitive words.”

“You can put on a mask and still weave a story just as effectively as writing in the first person,” said Andersson.

There are many theories as to how people relate writing and therapy. Two major theories have dominated the field — disinhibition theory, which believes that writing is healthy because it allows people to vent, and cognitive change theory which holds that the writing process allows someone to organize their thoughts and thus better understand their experience. Andersson was focused on a newer theory that combines the two, called control-meta theory, which states that writing about an experience allows someone to have control over that experience.

“It allows you to recover from distress,” said Andersson.

Andersson was happy to be able to combine his findings last year into his poetry and take up the challenge of independently working on a piece of writing for a year.

Klayr Valentine-Fossum

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