Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Writing as Therapy

I believed, and still partially believe, that writing for entertainment shouldn't be mixed with writing for therapy.  I'm slowly changing my mind.

I wrote about what happened with my birds during a marathon writing session late the night before last.  It wasn't easy.  I was still grieving.  I think, though, that what came out was some pretty powerful stuff.  

Part of me wants to defend my original position, or parts of it, by saying that the entertainment portion of writing gets left behind when a person turns their writing into a pulpit, or a confessional, or whatever.  But I should have been the last person to say such a thing.  After all, I'm one of those sad cases that turns to the advice column in the newspaper.  I'm entertained, sometimes enthralled, sometimes appalled by the drama.  

And when I griped about one of my favorite authors turning his fantasy series into a venue in which he explored his divorce, what I ought to have realized was that although it wasn't my thing, it may well have been great for someone else.  Maybe there were heaps of people in the midst of ugly divorces that liked the way the series went.  Since my gripe about that series, my favorite example of how not to include your life experience in your writing, turns out not to be valid, I can't really hold any kind of writing-as-therapy work as a mistake.

I do think that it makes the writer vulnerable.  Sometimes opening the soul publicly can be good and fine thing, but it's not something I could undertake lightly.  Rape victims who write rape scenes ... what would criticism of that book, especially that scene, do?  On the other hand, writing about trauma might help people own it.  I know I felt better after I wrote.  It might even help someone else in a similar situation feel better too.  

So maybe it just boils down to this:  recognize the level of exposure, and remember that once the story is published, it really isn't the author's anymore.  It belongs to the reader.  If the story is too personal to be given to someone else to do with whatever they want to do ... then maybe it needs to remain private.

There's definitely a skill to it, though.  I've heard that editors and agents dread 'divorce novels.'  That's just a rumor, but I do think that it's a valid caution.  In order for a story to be emotionally satisfying for the reader, they have to be allowed to connect.  I think that's why the fantasy series ultimately failed for me.  The author wrote it in the midst of something I had never experienced, and interjected all kinds of stuff from his life I couldn't identify with.  If he'd set me up from the beginning, maybe it would have been brilliant.  But I came in at the middle, or maybe even toward the end of his personal drama, and he poured out those personal feelings in the middle of a series to boot.  With no groundwork, with nothing explained, all I knew was that the characters I'd loved started to go crazy for no apparent reason.  

I think it would be easy to over-think and doubt and all that--and that can destroy a story too.  So I've thought about it, and in time I'll internalize it into my writing.  The one thing I hope I won't do is start worrying about it every time I sit to type.  In the end, it's all about the story, whether its the story of my dreams, or the story of my life.  I hope both will be rich and wonderful things.


Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts.

If I had an opinion, it's that writing as therapy should stay just that - bottom drawer stuff, if it's good, rewrite from the start and let an editor make the decision without being emotionally attached to it.

I'm in a slightly different situation that my subconscious is inserting the same themes into my work over and over and over. My last writing project was begun as an attempt to get out of that cycle. I think it's the worst first draft I've written yet, and I should get on and finish it. I won't know if it was effective at all until (if) I get back to writing regularly again and then get enough distance from the new writing to observe whether or not those themes continue to crop up.

Some powerful writing can come out of experience written *as it happens* especially, before memory has time to modify it.
The discussion of the reader's abilty to identify with what is happening is worthwhile too. I have nil understanding of love and romance and those themes tend to go right over my head or distract from an otherwise good story. Likewise, probably no reader could appreciate the way I'd love to be close enough to the cow whose photo I saw last night to give her hind feet a trim... because I've seen enough to know she could recover spectacularly.


Kami said...

Good discussion! I think that writers are the worst judges of their own writing, btw. I'd be hesitant to rewrite something I'd written from the heart for the purpose of developing some sort of objective distance ... I think that risks losing the heart of a story. Sure, it might be rough and maybe too heavy-handed, but I'd prefer to let a first reader, or even an editor, make that decision for me. I'm too inclined to cut out the good stuff and leave the mediocre.

Having said that, everyone's writing process is hugely different. What works really well for one person may not work at all for another.

Kai Jones said...

??? One of the main things I get from reading is insight into how other people think, feel, react to experiences I haven't had. I get to practice my empathy with the aliens around me. Only rarely does a book show me somebody like me! (Jo Walton's latest, Among Others, is one of the rarities.)

Just goes to show we all seek to meet our individual needs. Meet yours in your writing and you'll find readers who also have that need.