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Against Catharsis: Writing Is Not Therapy

22 March 2019

From The Literary Hub:

I heard the boy scream before I saw him. Walking 125th Street, alone, I heard him cry out. Mom, he screamed. Mommy, please. The street was dark; the winter drafts wicked. I spun around to find the boy, no older than six, standing outside a Volvo station wagon, fists banging against the backseat window. Mommy, please. The boy kept pounding, slapping at the glass, his face a crumpled knot of agony, his knees giving out until he dropped to the pavement, begging. A man, or, a silhouette of a man, rushed toward the boy. I’m not sure where the man came from. He picked the boy up in his arms and the boy kicked, flailed, screaming with his little arms reached out for that car, for his mother.

I turned around and kept walking.

*

Throttled, was the word I used when I described the boy’s screams to my therapist. I’d waited a full week to tell this story. I hadn’t even told my fiancée, Hannah, whom I met for dinner just after the incident, and to whom I confide everything. I was throttled, sick, I said. Couldn’t breathe couldn’t think couldn’t help couldn’t do.

That boy at the car, he’d throttled me back in time in a way nothing else had for years. As he pounded on the window, I pounded at a window. As he screamed, I did, too.

Mother, Father, Let. Me. In.

. . . .

It must be so healing to write memoir is something I hear no fewer than a few times a day. It must be so therapeutic, so cathartic. These are the most popular words. The people who use these words mean well (for the most part). The people who say these words to me are saying them because I wrote a memoir about being a child—and now, an adult—on the other side of the glass.

. . . .

Nothing has healed. The glass, still, hasn’t a crack.

The Story is not The Life.

. . . .

Writing, for me, is no catharsis.

Writing is work. Writing is my job. Writing is the only divinity or spirituality I have found, a medium through which, at my best, I can speak through time and space; I can communicate across state lines and oceans, find my stories pressed between the hands of a girl in a waiting room, or the woman on a train, or a grandfather of six reading passages aloud (these are some of the letters I’ve received) and those hands will hold my stories safe.

Art is a superpower that allows creator and consumer to be in dialogue regardless of circumstance or logistics or miles, a shared experience, a third plane found when two people meet by seeing one another through the page (beautifully and more thoroughly described by Alexander Chee in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel). But to render the art, to render the experience, does not, in my practice, involve “bleeding into the typewriter.” It does not entail a writer spilling or spewing the memory onto a blank page, nailing it down, healing. Why not? Because that is literally impossible, and, while I can appreciate the romance of such proposals, the hypothetical possibility of this would not make for effective or moving literature.

. . . .

I am not proposing that we ignore the healing benefits of creation. What I am proposing is that we get real about what it means to render an experience for the sake of art, for the sake of sharing. To craft something and chisel it until there’s room for more than catharsis. What I want is the space for you, as you’re reading this essay, to read these words and supplant your own knowledge where mine breaks, to apply these ideas to your own work and your own opinions and purposes.

. . . .

Documentary photographers are still lighting their shots. They are still choosing just the right angle to allow us—the viewers—to take in the glory of the subject, or the absolute despair. There are other people and other scenes just inches outside of the frame, other ways to focus the lens. The photographer is not choosing the low speed film and wide shot to dupe us, they’re making these choices to show us the truth.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

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4 Comments to “Against Catharsis: Writing Is Not Therapy”

  1. ‘Writing Is Not Therapy’

    Like beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder.

    Some write because they can, some write because we must – isn’t that a definition of therapy?

    (And some are strictly in it for the money, but we won’t hold that against them. 😉 )

    • I feel a lot better mentally when I write regularly. Though it could be that I am able to write regularly when my brain isn’t foggy.

  2. I wouldn’t call it therapy, but it sure does help me get a handle on my emotions sometimes. I work out issues in my books, and while no one else might ever realize it, I do get a catharsis from it sometimes.

    And this: Writing is the only divinity or spirituality I have found, a medium through which, at my best, I can speak through time and space; I can communicate across state lines and oceans, find my stories pressed between the hands of a girl in a waiting room, or the woman on a train, or a grandfather of six reading passages aloud (these are some of the letters I’ve received) and those hands will hold my stories safe.

    I recognize that some people write to be read, but that mindset is a little difficult for me to understand, to be honest. To each our own! 🙂

  3. I did my master’s thesis on writers and catharsis from the standpoint that we use our writing as narrative therapy but unconsciously, only visible with hindsight. I was in my 50s when I did it and went by the writers’ own admissions on this, including myself, Stephen King and Sherman Alexie as case studies. Only the writer’s own POV counted, not what others thought we meant. Many writers I’ve discussed this with say it shines a light on why we choose to write about the subjects we do.

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