It’s become a cliché to think of writing as therapy, especially in these happy, shiny talk show days we live in now, where a memoir of sordid lives and deeds can get us on Oprah, the gateway to riches and fame. However, like many clichés, it has become one because there’s truth to it. What fascinates me about the idea of writing as therapy is that it usually works as such regardless of what you’re writing about.
Let’s get a little more specific. Ever write something that absolutely horrified you? Something that came from a place inside that didn’t speak to the behaviors and manners that make up the sunlight you? Maybe it was a story, a poem, a ranting screed that went off the rails of your self-image, or something that went into the darkness you didn’t expect to find. Maybe you found something better than you expected, but those discoveries usually don’t bear any kind of heft or importance unless you already thought you were scum. No, we’re talking about the other kind of discovery here, the kind that roils the waters.
As writers, we like to kid ourselves that we’re familiar with those places in ourselves that other people don’t venture. Intellectually, that might be true, but there’s a vasty depth between those ideas we examine with the rational mind and those reptilian pools we sometimes slip into when we’re not looking. Or when something inside them pulls us in.
It’s happened to me twice. My writing style and reading preferences already reflect the concept of darkness as an ever-present theme, so imagine my surprise to cough up things that could blindside me like that. I’m not saying that something grabbed hold of my hands and made me write something I would never contemplate; I mean that these pieces started from ideas I had, like most everything else I’ve ever written, and somewhere along the way, they turned out to be a little redder in tooth and claw than I thought. When I read these things now (yes, I kept them), I’m surprised by how nihilistic they feel … and how relatively well they hold up.
One of them is a short story called “Legacy.” With that one, I can at least understand from where it might have sprung; it was written shortly after my son was born, and I was still processing some of my fears and abyssal grumblings about being a father. Despite my understanding of its genesis, though, I still find it abhorrent. It’s one of the few pieces I’ve never shown my wife, and probably won’t ever, even though the version that exists now has had a small but vital change made to it. The first version was…well, troubling. I doubt that anyone else would have issues with it—hell, most fans in the field would probably find it tame—but it illustrated something I was not prepared to find.
The point I’m skating toward, however, is that until I wrote that story, there were things I was experiencing that I didn’t have a handle on. As disturbing as that was to write, having it out where I could rationally acknowledge it and examine the feelings behind the story was a good thing for me. It’s why, although nobody else has ever seen it and probably nobody ever will (it’s not bad, but neither is it particularly good), I’ve never been tempted to simply delete it and forget about it. It served a purpose, albeit a different one than originally intended.
Everything we write, every story and poem and novel and so on, tells a story not only about our chosen subject, but about ourselves as well. Writers reveal themselves in every choice, every path we take from point A to point B. While therapy is not necessarily the primary reason to write, or even in the top 10, it is a valid approach to take, and examining your own work with a critical eye and self-awareness can be both useful and revelatory. Of course, if you’re one of those artists who is fueled by repression, this school of thought regarding writing may not work for you. In that case, keep on keeping on.