My whole life, I’ve used writing as a form of self-therapy. This is common among many of the writers I know.
The funny thing is, it’s not usually intentional.
I’m not talking about journaling or mindfulness techniques or anything like that. Nor am I ultimately talking about the sorts of moments that sneak up on me while I’m in the middle of working on a novel, when I find that the things I’ve experienced in my personal life have crept into the lives of my characters. That’s a necessary preface, though.
When I was growing up, my characters tended to reflect the culture shock and loneliness I experienced whenever my family would leave our lives in Nigeria to spend time in the U.S.
When I was in high school, my fiction unintentionally mirrored my experiences of depression.
Today, many of the themes I explore involve the shadows of past trauma, or broken sibling relationships. My closest friends know how personal these things are to me.
Storytelling is no substitute for professional therapy, but it often does seem to help. For a long time, I thought the point of this story-driven catharsis was to be vulnerable, to reflect on my experiences, to express things I didn’t know how else to express. I compared it to traditional talk-based therapy (which, depending on who you listen to, may not be the most effective form of treatment).
I was wrong.
Mostly wrong, at least.
As much as writing about my experiences sometimes comforts, other times it just forces me to wallow in despair, much like a songwriter who commercializes their pain until it becomes melodrama. Readers, I believe, can sense when you cross this line. It ruins the story, and it does no one any good, least of all you.
So what’s the difference? Why does writing sometimes help and other times make your wheels spin in the mud?
As war engulfs Ukraine this week, I’ve been experiencing twinges of PTSD from my time in Nigeria. There’s the same sense of powerlessness, the same feelings of confusion and numbness as reports flood in, all of it horrific, none of it clear. I’m not sleeping well. I’m obsessively checking news sites, though I know it won’t do any good. There’s this pressure squeezing my brain . . .
I also happen to be working on a comedic fantasy novel right now. This novel does NOT reflect the current state of the world. It doesn’t even reflect how I feel about the current state of the world. The main character is not a surrogate-self, other than the tangential way in which all characters contain shadows of their authors.
Yet this is the most cathartic writing experience I’ve had in years. When I describe the hilarious hijinks and misadventures of a troll who lives among humans and aspires to be a castle chef, I feel the pressure bleeding out of me, sometimes in a trickle, sometimes in a flood.
I think I’ve found the answer. I’m currently reading The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist who spent his career researching cases of severe trauma and PTSD. He says that, when you examine the roots of trauma from a physiological perspective, it usually comes down to helplessness. It’s the person trapped in a burning car; the child who is powerless to stop an adult from abusing them; the soldier who can’t do anything to save his friends. Others may encounter similar horror and move on. If they have agency in the situation, the trauma doesn’t linger in the same way.
Writing is extreme agency. Every facet of story is up to the author. The world is molded by the author’s will; events flow as the author ordains; characters behave exactly as the author wants, even when it feels like they have a life of their own (which is really, of course, the author’s unconscious-self choosing to contravene the conscious-self’s plans).
This tyranny of choice can be suffocating, but it can also be liberating. You can choose to write about the source of your trauma and change the ending—but it doesn’t need to be that direct. This is one reason I detest the belief (common in English literature classes) that writing about made-up worlds is less serious or significant than writing about reality-adjacent events. Both are equally real; both are equally escapism. It’s okay to prefer one to the other, but people who fail to grasp this truth are suffering from an extreme lack of empathy and imagination. Those people can go ahead and . . .
Sorry. I know my rage is peeking out a bit. Believe me, I’ve trimmed a lot of the more visceral things I wanted to say about those people. I’ve met plenty of them.
I’ve found agency through writing battle scenes; through writing arguments between characters; through writing descriptions of sunsets.
Comedy, I’ve found, may be the ultimate literary agency. Comedy is rage inverted. It’s not just a chance to mock the things that hurt you; it’s a chance to change the natural order of the world. You mold reality, you make the universe ridiculous. It’s different from writing normal fiction because the suspension of disbelief is already so high. There’s no need to echo the broad patterns of existence that slave us all to their whims, as there usually is with epic fantasy or literary fiction.
One last thought.
I grew up in the church. Every denomination and religion will have its own definition of what constitutes a miracle, but, by and large, it usually involves a suspension of the natural laws of the universe. That’s EXACTLY what writing comedy feels like.
And—perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not—most canonical miracles involve an act of healing.