Monday, November 14, 2011

Writing as Therapy?

Over the years, I have heard people talk about writing being excellent therapy. Not writing in personal journals mind you, but writing fiction.

I laughed. Long and resoundingly. How self indulgent, I thought, to presume one’s inner struggles would be remotely interesting to anyone else. How narcissistic, to have yourself in the starring role of every piece of your fiction.

But dear reader, after fifteen books and over 17,000 logged hours of writing time, I am no longer laughing. Turn’s out, the joke’s on me.

For me, writing has been incredible therapy, albeit not in the way people told me it would. 

It has not provided me an avenue to work out my past and my own emotional baggage on the page. Instead, the hard work I do to make my writing better has spilled out into my non-writing life. How could it not? One of the first lessons we learn about characters is that whatever conflict they are going through affects all aspects of their lives. So when we as writers push ourselves to strive and grow, of course that is going to spill out into other aspects of our lives as well.

One of the things that became clear to me over the years was that writers must not only be keen observers of human nature, but must also understand what they see. They must be able to put it in a larger context, not just record the details. In order to create satisfying, transformative character arcs and journeys, we must become intimately acquainted with the human psyche.

I have spent years pouring over books discussing archetype and theme, character traits, and the psychology of story. In the process, I have learned much about myself—what motivates me, what role story has played in my life, what makes passions are, and what my hot buttons are. 

As I struggle to drill down to my most important core themes, to find my most unique voice and worldview, I have no choice but to discard all the masks I wear for the world, to set aside all the roles I play and pare down to the essence of my Self. Not to be self indulgent, but to create work as uniquely my own as I can. To serve the Story rather than the teller. To get the hell out of the way so that the characters can come to life on the page.

For someone who has worn masks all her life, who has been only too eager to be whoever you want or need me to be, this has been the riskiest thing I have ever done. And I would never have done that if not in pursuit of perfecting my craft, of trying take my stories and my characters farther and deeper.

When I put pieces of myself into my characters it is not in some misguided wish-fulfillment fantasy, but instead to help find a point of access to that character. To use that one aspect of myself or that one vivid memory to enter the fictional character’s body and soul.  To make them real to me so that I in turn can make them real on the page. It is like sourdough starter, or the fermented mash used for good scotch.

But in order to give my characters even just one small piece of me, I have to cobble together enough self-knowledge to understand that piece and what role it will play in my character’s journey.

And all that is aside and separate from learning just how much rejection I can take and still get back up again, how badly I want something, and what lengths I am willing to go to make it happen, what it feels like to follow your dreams, and reach them, stumble, then reach for them again. I have had to learn to be brave enough to admit to wanting, then braver still to put that wanting aside and forget about it as I focus on the work. Learn to love the work for its own sake.

So yes, it has been therapeutic. Not in the way pouring out one’s past to a therapist would be, but rather in the way that going on a long hard journey shows you things about yourself, teaches you lessons, strips away some of the veneer and leaves you more intimately acquainted with your essence, perhaps more than you are comfortable with. But writing—any creative process—is not about comfort. 

But then, neither is therapy.


tanita davis said...

Gosh, someday if I ever get back to going to SCBWI things regularly, I'd love to sit and listen to you talk on this topic.

I realized in grad school that we all write our story repeatedly -- every paper I wrote had familial themes in it, every literary criticism I made could trace its arguments back to relational psychology -- I was literally haunting myself with the same thematic song over and over and over again. Unlike you, I don't think I've quite figured out entirely what to do with/about that yet, and I want to know how to best "drill down to my core self," as it were.

I flinch at the idea of writing not being about comfort. I think I'll go hide under the bed at that thought. Ugh. But, it's true.

::under bed until further notice::

Liz Michalski said...

"I have had to learn to be brave enough to admit to wanting, then braver still to put that wanting aside and forget about it as I focus on the work. Learn to love the work for its own sake."

Thank you so much for being brave enough to write this. So very, very true, and so hard to do.

Jessica Spotswood said...

Like Liz said above, this line really resonated with me:
"I have had to learn to be brave enough to admit to wanting, then braver still to put that wanting aside and forget about it as I focus on the work."

That's where I am now. Struggling to finish the second book and not think about expectations, mine or anyone else's, because that only paralyzes me.

Wild About Words said...

Another fabulous post!

The writing journey and the life journey have many parallels. Glad to have your wise words along the way . . .


Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

"But writing—any creative process—is not about comfort."
Exactly. In fact, I've found that my mission with writing seems to involve challenging myself, plumbing the material that's difficult to write about--it's the opposite of comfort. Although there is something cathartic in getting through that material and out the other side. Writing about it changes me and changes the way I view the topic, usually.

Susanna Leonard Hill said...

Writing is definitely hard work and definitely not about comfort. Like Tanita above, I haven't made the kind of progress you have, and I often despair at being able to understand human nature and put it in a larger context. But I'm still plugging away :)

Tiffany Trent said...

As per usual, Robin, you blow me away with your insight. (And also the fact that your posts always come just when I need them). Thanks for all you do, both the personal work I'll never see and these notes from the front where you do battle. :) xoxo

Karen S. Elliott said...

I agree completely on writing as therapy. Whether it's in a journal or in fiction. My primary genre is horror, so I kill abusive exes and I seek revenge on those that done me wrong. It is very satisfying. Though I would NEVER do any of those things to flesh-n-bone people, it gives me a little sense of "so there!"

Edward J. Godwin said...

I can relate so much to this article. I've discovered the same thing recently. I've wanted to be a writer all my life, but never knew something was missing. Only when a tragic loss in my family resorted my priorities was I able to return to my work and give it the heart and depth it deserved. It became a journey for me, and an immensely therapeutic experience. Thank you for sharing this.