Writers doling out writing advice sometimes say angry-sounding things about how writing isn’t therapy, and how if you’ve got problems you should go and see a counsellor rather than inflicting your shortcomings onto readers. I agree with this, but only up to a point.
The part I agree with is to do with good writing. As an ideal, or let’s say as a principle, you shouldn’t ever inflict anything on readers that isn’t well written. So, the sort of writing that I might have done in my secret diary twenty years ago, which started something along the lines of, ‘Oh dear god I am so fucking miserable, I hate myself, why am I such a dick?’ and continued in that manner for about 4000 pages, is not the sort of thing one should ever try to publish. It’s not good writing. It may have been therapeutic to write, but it isn’t pleasant, interesting, fun, revealing, or anything else that makes something worth reading. For the sake of one’s dignity, if nothing else, this sort of writing should remain securely locked away or, preferably, thrown on a fire once it has served its purpose.
But that is so obvious, it almost goes without saying. Does any serious writer really need to be told that their private, unstructured ramblings and outbursts about their personal problems are better not shared with the rest of the world? No, of course not.
That’s one of the problems with advice in general. Sometimes it’s so obvious that it’s completely useless. But this piece of advice is both obvious AND really, really wrong.
Because of course writing is therapy! It’s absolutely a way for people to discover, explore, analyse and maybe even heal the deep, dangerous parts of themselves.
Talk to any writer, ask them why they write. A few may answer that it’s fun, a hobby, a way to pass time. But the vast majority will tell you that they are driven by some unnamed and unnameable force within themselves. They don’t know exactly why they write, but they know that it fulfills a fundamental need; that if they don’t write, they are miserable; that writing keeps them sane; that they have so much to say that needs to be heard; that only when they are writing do they feel like real people.
Writing, for many writers, is a way of managing their unhappiness, their lack, their emptiness. It’s a way of making themselves heard, of being listened to and understood. It’s a way of trying to understand their damage, heal their childhood, rewrite their past or some aspect of themselves. Writers are broken people who use writing as a way of trying to mend themselves.
Now, there is probably an optimum level of fucked-up-ness for a writer to have in order to be successful. Probably just a little bit of childhood trauma is enough to create a person who is driven to write, but balanced enough to bring discipline and habit and commercialism into the mix. The rest of us may find it harder and suffer more in the process of learning how to become good people and good writers.
The more you write, of course, the more you learn about how to write, and the more you learn about that, the deeper your stories can take you. Which is why, every so often, writers find themselves completely paralysed and unable to continue. Writing is an act of faith in oneself. Writing your stories is an act of declaring one’s stories to be worth telling. And for damaged people, to act with self-worth and self-belief is something that can be very frightening. It can block you altogether. It can take time and strength to muster the courage to go on.
To say that writing isn’t therapy, especially to say it in that aggressive ‘how dare you use writing in that way!’ sort of tone, just doesn’t make any sense. It denies the fact that we are driven to write, it denies the aspects of ourselves that we are (consciously or unconsciously) trying to understand by writing. It denies the essence of what a story IS.
Stories are the way we try to know ourselves – as individuals, as societies and cultures, as people in historical and material contexts. Stories are how we create and transmit meaning, values and beliefs. Stories are what make us human. What is more therapeutic than a story? (Don’t you remember how stories saved you, taught you, gave you a way out when you needed one?) And if you don’t think stories are therapeutic, why do you even bother writing? What’s the point in being a writer, if you’re not trying to save a life?