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.