Friday, 14 January 2011

Catharsis vs Escapism

Writing provides for me:
  1. A form of therapy.
  2. A chance to escape the humdrum 9-5 world.
But how best to balance these two - often conflicting - impulses? It's a question I've been addressing recently as I try to harmonise the light and the dark in both my latest book and my own head.

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.



  1. I think cathartic writing can be a slippery slope, sometimes leading to too many thinly disguised, self-indulgent semi-autobiographical tales. Fun, escapist adventure stories are underrated - I know what I'd rather read if I'm having a bad day.

  2. Catharsism kick started my writing, but then I found it was fun and carried on. To be honest anything I don't like I try to make funny anyway. If you can laugh at something it loses its grip on you.

    Possibly I am a laughing megalomaniac (I may use that as my next title).

  3. I'm enjoying your blog, Nick.
    This post is thought provoking - however, I believe I've always written stories because I love them, and the act of writing. Anything emotional turns into something vaguely resembling a poem.
    Good point about Harry Potter, although I think the magical world is equally as compelling as Harry's emotional journey, they're intertwined really.

  4. Love this post. I do cackle and I also do try to disguise my most obvious neurotic tics. Obvious to me and those who know me, but my readers don't know me and may find my hapless life as filtered through my characters a bit of a laugh.

  5. Interesting, Nick. I read your post yesterday. This morning I was getting ready to sit down and write, and suddenly it struck me how true your post was. Only took me a day to digest it!

    My writing tends to be very dark. Often I'll find myself bogged down in the dark, sad world I've created, and wish I was writing 9-12 pirate stories. Unfortunately, anytime I sit down to write such stories, my pirates end up with scurvy and confronting slavery. Dark dark dark.

    Perhaps it is catharsis. I love this distinction you've made between catharsis and escapism. I need more escapism in my writing if I'm going to enjoy it more. The ideal, of course, is a Harry Potter type story, pure fun, but also deep emotional underpinnings. Must work on that for the next book!

  6. During the long years when I was too timid to try and write fiction -- despite the yearning to try -- catharsis was very much in my mind. But once I'd got the ball rolling and had launched into a novel (oddly enough, a 9-12 pirate story about an escaped slave) I fell so far in love with the joy of pure storytelling that I've kept most of my own psychological baggage well out of it so far.

    I always aim for a little emotional depth, but only if it doesn't spoil a good story.

  7. I'm not a big fan of fantasy or sci-fi fiction - I much prefer real people with real challenges. Though people have pointed out that my first novel with the giant frogs is science fiction ... I just don't see it! I agree with the comment above that drawing on your own experience is fine as long as it is written as a story and not memoir.

  8. YES:) Isn't that megalomania you talk of, a way to make sense, take control in some way of the chaos of real life? And isn't that what all of us, kids included, want out of books, ie. an order to the emotional mess, not just escapist laughs or magic tricks? There's a structured cathartic sense in some of the best PBs too: Where the Wild Things Are = anger, cathartic "time out" then home to dinner.
    It's another topic, but there's a tendency for sales and marketing, in the UK/ US at least, to think that cathartic is inappropriate if not dangerous for smaller kids. As you say it gets shoveled into YA not to mention adult fiction.