Writing as Therapy

During my years as an English instructor, I often read interesting and thoughtful essays submitted by my students. Sometimes, though, a student would submit a long, emotional paper about a personal problem. I remember papers written by students who were trying to make a decision about breaking off a relationship or accepting a marriage proposal. There were students nursing broken hearts or mourning the loss of a parent or grandparent.

Their raw emotions made powerful reading, but they didn’t match the goals for the course I was teaching. No matter what was going on in the hearts and souls of those students, they were still looking to me for help with their writing skills.

What I used to do was meet privately with them, listen to what was going on in their lives, and then gently guide them into other writing topics. Sometimes I offered to set up an appointment with a counselor from Student Services. I’m happy to say that most of those students were grateful to be offered another chance at a good grade. The yearning for a college degree was motivation enough to try again with a less painful topic.

As time went by, I started to see that those outpourings pointed to an important paradox about writing. Barbara Johnson is a brilliant scholar who expressed it succinctly and powerfully: “To mean…is automatically not to be.”

Language can communicate meaning and convey emotion. What it can’t do – at least not very well – is convey both at the same time. When we’re using emotion-filled sounds and words to vent what we’re feeling, we may not be communicating the meaning of what’s going on. Someone who’s listening may need details and context in order to help – and those things require sentences.

But expressions of emotion can be valid and important. Language is truly one of the great therapeutic tools (as Freud recognized when he instituted his “talking cure”). Over the years I’ve often done a kind of “talking cure” on my own, retreating to a private place to download my deepest feelings onto paper. Often there have surprises when a new perspective or insight seemed to write itself on the piece of paper in front of me. Writing – even when it starts out as an incoherent jumble of words – can take on a life of its own.

So there’s nothing wrong with emotional writing, even though it doesn’t fit neatly into a college composition course. And what I’ve gradually come to realize is that good writing requires both emotions and ideas. Often I’ve started to write something, only to abandon it halfway through because I was still in an emotional place and hadn’t yet uncovered any ideas to explore. And sometimes the opposite happens: I’m working on an interesting idea with lots of potential – but I can’t do anything with it because the passage of time has drained away all its energy.

I’m convinced that one of the biggest challenges we face as writers is finding that middle ground between being and meaning. We need a gut connection to the subject we’re writing about, but we also need to be able to think about it.

And that raises an interesting question: Is there an element of therapy in every writing task? I need to think about that. I hope to have more to say about it later.

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