Writing As Therapy

Drops in Drops by Steve Wall
Drops in Drops by Steve Wall

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

I will admit it–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 sixteen books and over 17,000 logged hours of writing time, I am no longer laughing. Turn’s out, the joke’s on 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. Or at least, I should say it did not knowingly provide that. Looking back over my work now, it is somewhat humbling to be able to clearly see the stepping stones of my own personal growth.

But even more than that, the hard work we do to make our writing better spills out into our 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 I’ve discovered over the years is 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.

After years spent pouring over books discussing archetype and theme, character traits, and the psychology of story, we cannot help learning about ourselves in the process. What motivates us, what role story has played in our lives, what our passions are, and where our hot buttons are hidden.

As we struggle to drill down to our most important core themes, to find our most unique voice and worldview, we have no choice but to discard all the masks we wear for the world, to set aside all the roles we play and pare down to the essence of our Self. Not to be self indulgent, but to create work as uniquely our own as we 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 to take my stories and my characters farther and deeper.

When we put pieces of ourselves into our 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 ourself or that one vivid memory to enter the fictional character’s body and soul.  To make them real to us so that we 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 our characters even just one small piece of ourselves, we have to cobble together enough self-knowledge to understand that piece and what role it will play in the character’s journey.

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

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

But then, neither is therapy.

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About Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the Theodosia and Nathaniel Fludd series. Her most recent book, GRAVE MERCY, is a young adult romance about assassin nuns in medieval France. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.

Comments

  1. says

    “But in order to give our characters even just one small piece of ourselves, we have to cobble together enough self-knowledge to understand that piece and what role it will play in the character’s journey.”

    There is so much wisdom in that advice. I find that there is a lot of “me” in my work, but it tends to come out subconsciously. I discovered this when I read through the MS of my first novel. What struck me was that, although none of the things that happened to the MC ever happened to me, much of the story dealt with my adolescent hopes, dreams and fears, wrapped up in a fictional characters. We infuse in our characters, as you suggest, what matters most in our life experiences and how we view the world. One of the great gifts of writing, as you say so well here, is to give us a better understanding of ourselves and the world around us. It is indeed the best therapy. Thanks for an insightful post, Robin.
    CG Blake´s last blog post ..Book Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)

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  2. says

    I often wonder where the instinct to write fiction comes from – and why I have it.

    When I was a kid, books came from the bookstore or the library – but not from a person. Or at least not a person like me.

    Fiction seemed like the recording of something that actually happened, not something someone made up.

    I started writing early, in my teens. Nobody else I knew wrote. Then came a very long hiatus while I went other ways, followed an aptitude for science, and life was busy.

    Now that I’m writing again, I still wonder, ‘Why me?’, but I don’t fight it. Everyone still thinks I’m nuts. I can hear the heads shaking as they go about their busy lives, and I spend hours typing.

    You put it so well: writing ‘shows us things about ourself, teaches us lessons, strips away some of the veneer and leaves us more intimately acquainted with our essence, perhaps more than we are comfortable with’ – comfort is overrated; self-knowledge, priceless.

    Alicia
    Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt´s last blog post ..Is my prose too purple, are my metaphors too wild?

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  3. says

    Hi Robin,
    Therapy is no longer necessarily about talking about our past. It is indeed, realising that we need to fnd a way to work with all our inner characters now, find out who we really are, face our ‘demons’, learn to perservere with the things we don’t like, become more authentic and look at ourselves honestly in the mirror and love ourselves anyway!
    Sounds like writing a book to me actually.
    Sherry Marshall´s last blog post ..The Pizza Eater. Food for Thought! The Discovery Diet. Chpt. 2

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  4. says

    So true! Writing has always been therapeutic for me. It’s overwhelming just how good it feels to take away the mask you often have in the real world and allow yourself to just flaunt who you are and what you’re about in your writing.
    Blair´s last blog post ..The National Writers’ Conference

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  5. says

    I don’t know if my writing is therapeutic, but it does allow me to put to good use all those painful and glorioius moments I’ve collected over my lifetime. Had I not started writing, I may have not realized how piercing a father’s words can be, even though they may seem harmless at the time. Nor would I ponder how one brief encounter with a young lady can change a young man’s self-worth for the rest of his life. All of us have a different collection. It not only defines who we are as people, it will also define our writing, how we portray our characters. It’s been said more than once that if you know all of a writer’s characters, you will have a fairly good portrait of the writer himself. That’s why millions of writers can write millions of books and no two will be quite the same. We all see a story or a character from the POV of our own experience. So perhaps it is therapeutic. By putting our characters and pieces of ourselves onto paper, we’re placing oursevles into the hands of thousands (hopefully) of therapists. After all, a good therapist is one that listens well. If our readers hear us, then our time in the chair has been worthwhile.
    Ron Estrada´s last blog post ..Top 10 Reasons Dads Deserve a Special Day

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  6. says

    Loved what you said about writing not being just about observing but also understanding what you’re seeing. That takes perspective, which often comes after hard won growth and maturity.
    LG Smith´s last blog post ..Wednesday’s Children

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  7. says

    I love the layers you reveal here, Robin. Getting the words on the page has always been the easy (fun, even) part. Well, at least when I can avoid over-thinking it (the farther I proceed, the harder I have to fight being tentative on the page). It was always the rest of it that seemed to be the trial. I still find myself questioning how badly I want it (or what “it” even is – how I am to define success). I feel like I’ve already learned so much about myself, and thereby the world around me, through the examination of what I’ve written. I have to ask myself: “when is enough enough?” Why not just keep writing without worrying so much about sharing it?

    But when I look back at how far the work has come – how far *I* have come – who am I to question that the road seems to go on and on? It’s the old “journey versus destination” issue. I have to face the fact that however I define success, and even if that definition somehow resembles a destination, it will only be a temporary one. The journey, and its obstacles and trials, will continue. Why would I ever accept anything less than my earnest and utmost effort?

    This gig is greater than a labor to get words on the page, and it’s also more than striving to make those words palatable and publishable. I’m starting to see the two sides melding. If the “spilling out on the page” is the easy part, then “fixing” what has spilled out is where the rubber meets the road, as far as testing my character goes. Time to square up and face the road again, even if it seems an uphill climb just now. And now, thanks to you, Robin, I have the benefit of knowing it’ll be therapeutic. Thank you!
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..Written To Death – Writer Unboxed Redirect

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  8. says

    Robin-

    Ask me, writing is *therapeutic* not actually therapy. But why quibble? Your point is knowing ourselves to know our characters. It’s understanding inner struggle and the stages of growth. It’s drawing on oneself to draw a character in ways realistic, moving and meaningful.

    Lisa Cron’s post yesterday touched on the true nature of story, which is not events but how events entwine with change inside a character. There’s a theme to WU posts this week.

    What I’d add to your (as always) inspiring post is that in a way a story is a dance between what happens and what that means. Plot alone is just occurrences. Inner struggle and changes that aren’t, in part, shown through visible occurrences are just mush. The two sides must twine together.

    Jim Bell commented yesterday that story can start anywhere. Jan O’Hara said she prefers not to know the point at the outset but to discover it along the way. The psychological self-awareness you’re describing is necessary and a foundation of story process, yet that foundation could be poured first or excavated later. Building story, thank goodness, isn’t like building buildings. You can start on the top floor and work down.

    For me, what’s also important is to play the inner and outer elements of story against each other, concealing from a character what they must discover inside or, perhaps, establishing an inner need and discovering the outward actions that are the only way to thwart and finally meet that need.

    Who am I, how have I changed and what have I learned? What can happen, what if and what next? Self-discovery matters and so does self-actualization. What makes us who we are is both what we know and what we do. The same is true of story.

    A day with a post by you, Robin, is always a good day. Many thanks.
    Donald Maass´s last blog post ..Congratulations to Jim Butcher!

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  9. says

    I’ll complete a book, and it may not be until it’s written, and the editing process over, and the book is out to the publisher, and then out to the world, and I’m sitting back taking a breath, and suddenly it occurs to me that I hit on something deep inside myself that I never even knew existed. Out from the black hole it arrived, spit out without any awareness on my part.

    I love that about writing. That discovery. Even when it’s uncomfortable.
    kathryn Magendie´s last blog post ..Morning Coffee on the Creating Calm (or in my case: chaos) Network . . . .

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  10. says

    Hi Robin,

    Great wisdom in your post, thank you. This is a topic I can relate to, and I imagine many of us can as well. Whether it be our earlier books or attempts at them, or appreciating the same phenomenon in other writers met on the way, manuscripts that serve as personal therapy logs are much too common. Why is that? I suppose when we write we are reaching inside ourselves, searching for that inner connection to Self – as you put it – and usually the first obstacle is, well, us. (Those that bypass this stage are truly remarkable self-actualized individuals, and likely will get a kick-start into their publishing careers.)

    Focusing on self (versus Self) is an obstacle, though, because what is much more interesting is other people. That is the true essence of Self, I think – the us that reaches beyond us, our role in the sea of others, as one limb on the elder tree of humankind. Ah, yes, that is the source story, and it is endless.

    I always feel like characters are aspects of myself, but not like I appreciated in earlier works. In fact, characters are at first strangers, individuals I want to meet and learn from, and only later do I find resonance with deeper parts of myself as I come to appreciate their archetypes. As you mention in your post, it is in writing that we see the world – and hence, ourselves – differently. We grow, we reach beyond, and, most importantly, we give that to others, our readers, to cherish in the hope that they, too, will grow.

    It is therapy, most definitely, but I have to agree with your closing: the word therapy is fittingly chosen and must be understood in its fullness; anyone who thinks therapy is fun has never been through therapy.

    There’s tears, pain, anger, times when you hate your therapist and must leave a session – perhaps even threaten to end sessions for good. There’s times when there’s no hope, or you feel it’s futile. But then there’s those time when you discover layers of life you’ve never thought possible, time when the tears are tears of joy or release, the euphoric rush of new connections, understanding why mom yelled all the time and instead of feeling fear, feeling love instead; the glowing buzz that you carry past your sessions to share with all your friends, the kind that changes how you walk and how you talk.

    Hmm…sounds like writing.
    John Robin´s last blog post ..Words with John

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  11. says

    I’ve actually never felt that using writing as a means of working through my own personal issues was narcissistic. I’m not unique – how could I be? Whatever I’m thinking or feeling or struggling with is no different from what millions of other people are thinking or feeling or struggling to manage or understand. I suppose the trick lies in finding the universal in our own emotions and conflicts and translating that to the page, and that, I think, is why it’s important to “find a point of access” to the character we’re exploring.
    Lori Schafer´s last blog post ..I am Subject: On Writing My Memoir

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  12. says

    I’ve written a few screenplays based loosely on events from my life, and in those I knew going in that just putting down the words would be a therapeutic release for me. I usually think I know what personal issues or emotions I’m working through in those situations, but I did write one screenplay where I realized after the fact that my least favorite character was the one based on me! That caused a number of rewrites both in the script and in my life.
    Brian Work´s last blog post ..Uncommon Law movie poster!

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  13. says

    Robin, I nodded my way through this essay. I didn’t realize while drafting my books that their pages reflected so much of my inner world and what I needed to resolve, though I see it clearly now. So clearly that it’s almost laughable that I didn’t see it from the start. But that’s therapy, right? Pulling away the blinders so you can, at last, observe the truth?

    I’d like to write something that isn’t buried under scar tissue because it seems it would have to make the process, which is difficult for me, easier. But I suspect this is just how I write, and who I am. It makes it harder to face the page, but makes it more rewarding to finish. It asks a lot, but strengthens in a singularly powerful way.

    Thanks for another fantastic post.
    Therese Walsh´s last blog post ..Liam’s Lovely Work

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  14. says

    Robin–so much in your post is worth remembering, but here’s one point I especially appreciate: “The hard work we do to make our writing better spills out into our non-writing life.” This is incontestable. The work itself and the rigor it demands has, I’m convinced, changed me for the better. Led me to greater self-knowledge. Of course it’s perfectly possible that I choose to believe this, so perhaps the writer himself or herself isn’t the best judge. But the idea of being caught up in the creative process of blending external and internal forces at work in characters is consistent with certain Eastern philosophies. Giving oneself to work without reservation or grasping after some reward–in other words, merging with the work (“who can tell the dancer from the dance?”)–is extremely liberating. And if that isn’t both therapy and therapeutic, I don’t know what is.

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  15. says

    Robin – your post reminded me how horrified Stephen King was after he sobered up and realized that his MONSTROUS main character in The Shining was actually HIM during his alcoholic days. Ours psyches are both thrilling & terrifying!

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  16. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    My writing is a journey. A quest for that perfect and elusive moment of understanding, amidst all the crap I have to sift through to try and get there. We’re all artists here on earth, and all junkies of the aha! We know it’s out there, somewhere, and although we’re not sure what it looks like, we’ll recognize it when we find it.

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  17. says

    Writing is my therapy. My life is in a mess in a very bad way, and the only thing that gets me through it is working on my writing career. When I focus on my career, I don’t think about the things that make me sad, and in many ways, they don’t exist for a short time.
    Christopher D. Votey´s last blog post ..IWSG – Community to the Rescue

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  18. says

    Robin, I love all your posts. After a busy day with the kids and one kid still asking me 10 million questions about the art of making cheesecake, you are helping me to let her figure things out. A part of me just wants to take over in the kitchen, but then how will she learn? Writing is the same … a great deal of examination and experimentation, but it is my lifeline to understanding what I’m trying to make sense of. Definitely therapeutic.
    Vijaya´s last blog post ..Plumb Crazy

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  19. says

    Hello Robin,

    I have been reading many of your posts via Net Worked Blogs. I have both my recovery and writer/media blogs on there as well. I have never left a comment before, but this post was all me!…LOL.

    The best advice I ever received about writing is write what you know.
    Now that was actually given to me AFTER my first and only book released on my 50th birthday. I always loved to write as teen and in my twenties, but then life gets in the way. In my mid thirties though, past childhood sex abuse and trauma came back to haunt me. Instead of being raised to know it’s OK to get help with emotional problems, but not taught where to get help either.

    So the next 9 years I began to use gambling as my “escape” from all those old wounds. Then alcohol on top of that when I gambled, and of course I slipped into the Dark World od addicted compulsive gambling. It cost me way more then money, it almost cost me my mental and emotional sanity, and my life with 2 failed suicide attempts & 25 day stay in a crisis & treatment center via the hospital.
    Long story short, I began to journal all of what I was going through, even when I tried to stop gambling before the 2 crisis stays. It’s a slow, cunning, and progressive disease addicted gambling is.

    And I wrote my personal Memoir about the whole ball of wax! http://www.amazon.com/dp/0984478485 and it was healing, helped my recovery, as I was only3 1/2 years in when I wrote my book. I now use it along with my recovery blog to help others, raise awareness, educate, and shatter stigma around all these issues that touched my life…

    Great post!
    Happiness & Blessings,
    Author, Catherine Lyon :-)
    Author Catherine Lyon´s last blog post ..A Share Given To Me By My Tweet Friends ‘The Priory Group’ To Re-Share About Gambling And Sports Betting…

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