Although my last post was totally flippant concerning writers' mental health (which you all seemed to rather enjoy), I wanted to change gears this week and try to treat the subject a bit more seriously. I've heard quite a few authors say they use writing as a form of therapy, and I thought it was worth exploring in further detail. What does that statement mean and is writing a good way to work through your problems?
Let's face it, a lot of writers have "issues" (myself included). Throw a rock at any writers' gathering and you'll hit someone with a traumatic family history (only don't try that for real, as they might have unresolved anger issues to boot). Even those who grew up in a stable, nuclear family have plenty of other pressures to contend with: career, relationships, kids, health issues, etc. So the act of channelling and making sense of our emotional responses through our writing seems eminently sensible.
The act of writing itself can be therapeutic, there's no doubt about it. Escaping from the pressures of everyday life into a safe, fictional world that's totally under your control? Sounds good, right? A novel can also be a sandbox where we try things out, playing with weighty questions like "What makes a good person?" or "How do you define evil?" We talk about the need to make a character face their worst fear, and very often it's our own fears that we've mapped onto them. And this is great therapy, because, being clever writer types, it's our job to find them a way out of that situation. In doing so, we are, in part, answering the question of what we would do when faced by our worst fear. This is just one of the many ways that writing can offer deep catharsis.
But amongst those benefits, there are also risks. Quite a few writers start out with a serious need for recognition and that presents an instant problem – how can you use the act of writing as private therapy, yet also expose those issues to the whole world? It's no wonder that many of us feel rejection so painfully, so personally. You wouldn't expect to see a counsellor every week for a year, only for them to publish the transcripts of your sessions for anyone to read. But in some ways, that's exactly what many writers hope for with their books!
Another risk with using your writing as therapy, is when the writing itself becomes part of the problem. This happened to me – I started writing a deeply-felt novel inspired by my experiences of depression and discovered that it began to make me depressed again. In addition, I was putting myself under a lot of pressure to get the book exactly right and as a result my writing ground to a halt. Luckily, I was also seeing an actual therapist at this point, but I felt a bit phony when our sessions began to consist of me moaning about how difficult my writing had become. It seemed like I had tied myself up in knots, making a new problem where before, none had existed.
So, in summary, writing can be good therapy, but treat it with caution. Don't use it as your only outlet, and remember that there are plenty of professional counsellors and therapists out there if you need them. It all comes down to balance - do keep immersing yourself emotionally in your writing (because that's how you'll do your best work), but make sure you also come up for air from time to time. A bit of perspective can make all the difference to a book and a life.