- A form of therapy.
- A chance to escape the humdrum 9-5 world.
Catharsis is important because it's why a lot of us started writing in the first place. The more I talk to authors, the more emotional pain I find sloshing around inside them. Perhaps this is true of everyone and writers are just the ones who have found a vehicle to express that? Whatever the reason, it seems to me that the books we want to write - the books we must write - are often those that scare or challenge us on a profoundly emotional level.
YA has become a de facto home for cathartic writing, to the extent that the angsty teen protagonist is quickly becoming an annoying cliché. But there is also the risk that too much catharsis will turn you into a headcase, the kind of writer who taps their own neurosis for inspiration and finds a well that never runs dry. All introspection and no play makes Jack a suicidal boy.
Escapism, on the other hand, is fun. Fun, fun, fun. But in and of itself, it doesn't carry a lot of emotional weight. There is joy, I suppose, and the excitement of discovery, but these are surface-level emotions and risk producing rather hollow work. There was a surfeit of this kind of thing in the wake of Harry Potter's massive success - lots of noise and action and magical happenings, but precious little to make the work actually mean something. People tend to forget that it was Harry's emotional journey that pulled us through those books - his guilt about his parents, his unwanted notoriety, his fear of the enormous task ahead.
I guess I'm rather jealous of writers who can shrug off the material world and escape entirely into their books, who can write about the weird and fantastical with only a subconscious regard for their own problems. Sometimes I find myself diagnosing my own neuroses in a piece of my writing and wonder if being self-aware is really all it's cracked up to be. Still, it worked out ok for Woody Allen.
Overall, I think writers can often be a bit schizophrenic, although it's a controlled kind of schizophrenia. How else to explain the fact that we are crying at the travails of our characters one minute and then cackling as we play God and do something terrible to them? To be a successful author is to be able to shift between all the points-of-view needed for our story, including our own. Maybe when we're cackling it's actually because we've identified with the antagonist for a second? Or maybe it's that we've allowed ourselves a moment to acknowledge that we have a power in the story world that we will never possess in real life.
Or perhaps authors are simply megalomaniacs who developed too much empathy.