Creative Writing as a Refreshment to the Soul
As of February, 2014, I’ve begun working formally with persons who share my conviction that creative writing – that is, the creation of a literary work readable by others – can be a potent form of personal therapy. If you would like to enroll in this personal program, which we term fabulation therapy, please read on.
Considering how intimately they’re linked, I was surprised to discover so little written about the effectiveness of creative writing in that unhappy realm we normally reserve for psychotherapies of various sorts. “Art therapy” is pretty familiar and the quantities of gouche spilled and clay pummelled in the service of the human spirit could not be calculated. Music too is “therapeutic” and pluckings and tootlings will always be a solace to humankind.
But when it comes to the power of words applied to troubled spirits, one of our first associations is “analysis.” It’s as though language has only one role when we’re not at peace with ourselves and that’s to pick apart the shards of our life, examine them with great seriousness, then try to stick them back together. Certainly talk therapy feels pretty good at the level of everyday conversation, but it never quite escapes the suspicion that as a mode of healing it’s often ineffective — and possibly self-indulgent — in a way that singing and painting are not.
Is there any evidence that we can use words to tap into something deeper than we can reach through discussions of our childhoods and essays about our relationships? There is. The best poetry famously employs words in surprising, not strictly rational ways to achieve sometimes magical effects akin to those produced by music but with the added feature of cognition. So a great poem may produce its emotionally cathartic effect by a mysterious, non-rational alchemy, but it nonetheless addresses something recognizable in the external world, something perhaps relevant to our own lives.
Unfortunately, the writing and reading of poetry more ambitious than appears on greeting cards are not arts in synch with our times. There is however another written art — one almost as venerable as poetry — both more easily executed (if not mastered) and more widely appreciated.
You don’t need to delve far into the history of the narrative to notice that in every culture where literary fiction evolved, it evolved from an oral tradition. People have loved telling stories and listening to them for a very long time indeed, and psychologically insightful stories emerged surprisingly early. The Gilgamesh epic, the Mahabharata, the Iliad: it seems that the human dilemma was from the start inseparable from a good story. And a good story has at its root the catharsis — the experience of renewal, restoration, redemption — we associate with effective art and effective therapy. Storytelling is language purposed to produce change.
There’s a catch. Common experience suggests that yakking about and writing about our own stories — our troubles, I mean — is not only frequently and crushingly tedious for our listeners and readers, but of transient value to ourselves. Life’s raw material — even a book full of it — though perhaps titillating or usefully informative, is not cathartic at all. It’s in the nature of art to reshape, not reproduce the world and that reshaping is what works its effects on the artist and on those who consume the art. And here, as I came to see, is where psychotherapy meets creative writing.
Editors help authors produce better writing. This is a seemingly technical calling, so it was some years before I became aware that my work was sometimes — not invariably — helping not just the writing but the writer. True, this happened most often when the writing drew in some way on the author’s life, but our discussions were seldom explicitly personal. Still, it was clear that these writers of fiction were transforming life into art and the entire process was not so much instructive in its outcome (“Yes, I see now. It was my mother who undermined by father.”) as it was redemptive in its performance. It was not the recounting of actual life events that was magical, but the act of invention, writing, shaping and careful refinement of a new story, the process supported by the empathetic and informed sounding board of an editor. It was crafting, not confessing, that produced the effect.
The editor’s role in this process is quite unlike the psychotherapist. The therapist asks, “What happened then?” or “How did that make you feel?” The editor, if he or she asks anything, asks “What’s going to happen to your character now?” or “How will you solve that problem in your plot?” or maybe observes, “You didn’t quite convince us about that. How can you set it up better?” In other words, what we might term “fabulation therapy” to distinguish it from pure storytelling, is therapetic by virtue of its creativity, just as painting a painting or improvising a melody is creative, and draws on the content of the writer’s life only indirectly. On the other hand, the therapeutic component is enhanced where the editor shares an understanding of the writer’s underlying personal concerns and can work with the writer to tap into these concerns. If this sounds more like art than science, that’s because it most assuredly is. But come to think of it, so is therapy of any sort.
Finally, since storytelling is our subject, an anecdote.
A woman contacted me with a short manuscript, a story of a family afflicted by a hereditary disease and the struggle to convince hidebound medical professionals to pay the protagonist heed. The material required a good deal of outside input to develop content and a readable style. In the course of our “fabulation”, it became clear that a lot of the tale was anchored in the author’s experience, but an emotional heart to the story was missing and a plot thread hung out conspicuously. I tugged gently on that thread and a tale unravelled that lay at the core of the author’s life. The book when published was short-listed for a significant Canadian literary prize but the most striking outcome was the cathartic effect of the process on the author, who had been privately grieving for years.
The power of serious storytelling rebounds on the teller.
Phone, e-mail or Skype me. I'd be delighted to speak with you, talk about the project, offer any advice I can.
If you've arrived here from outside The Business of Words website, you'll want to click here to learn more about our free editing offer.