I have repeatedly heard from would-be writers that the stories they are working on are so therapeutic to them.
Typically I cringe when I hear this. It’s not that I don’t think writing can be therapeutic – I think it can be incredibly helpful – but more times than not those stories become self-serving attempts at justification or rationalization. The good story is sacrificed to the writer’s ego-driven desire for truth. Another personal favorite is the “I hear you’re a writer and I have a great story, and if you’d like to write it for me that would be great and we could split the money.” To which my reply is “I have too many stories of my own that I need to write, so I don’t think I can work on yours, too.” The real message here is that the person doesn’t really want to write, doesn’t really want to do the hard work, but will gladly take half the credit anyway. That has too many ways to go wrong and I want a part of none of them.
Harsh words – admitted. But really, the “I had this terrible thing happen to me and I survived and look at all the wonderful lessons I learned and how much stronger I am for it” story is only interesting to the person who lived it.
Now, if you need to write that book to get it out of your system, be my guest. However, don’t expect rave reviews and a place on the Times best-seller list. Ain’t happenin’. Sorry. And truthfully, if that’s all you’ve got in terms of writing, go self-publish it, hand it out to friends and family, and be done with it.
I know, I know – even I recognize how snarky and mean that sounds. And really, I’m not into crushing the spirit of someone who wants to write. But one book does not a writer make. And what are you working on while that book is circulating and collecting rejections? What are writing that will be better than that manuscript? If the answer is “nothing” – or my favorite: the blank stare and gaping mouth – then reconsider your purpose for writing.
For me, the most therapeutic part of writing is not delving into my own life, but rather getting swallowed in an alternate reality. For me, the chance to slip out of my own reality and begin orchestrating fictional lives and events is cathartic. Here’s a “for instance” to consider:
I’ve had a rough few weeks; working extra hours, arguing with the hubby, dealing with kid issues, stressing over money. But I also started a new novel, one that has been floating around in my head for years. I wrote the character sketch during a meeting at work (sorry, boss). I did the plot outline sitting at my desk waiting for another meeting. For the past few nights, with my mini netbook on my lap, I’ve immersed myself into another place, another time, another person’s life. Mentally, I let go of my world, my stress, and instead I focus on creating a believable set of people in a believable alternate reality.
The further away from my own life I get, the stronger the story becomes for me. Sure, bits and pieces of flotsam and jetsam drift into my story from my own life – that happens with every writer – but I really strive to leave out my stuff, my issues, my feelings, and let the characters and the circumstances take over instead.
Yesterday I wrote 16 pages – almost two complete chapters. I looked at the time on my computer and realized it was nearly 2:00 a.m. I had to force myself to stop or I would have stayed lost in this new world all night. It was a release. That, to me, is the truest form of therapy for a writer.