If writing is so therapeutic, why are there so many miserable writers?
When I was earning my creative writing degrees, the idea of writing as therapy was anathema. The phrases “navel gazing,” “mental masturbation,” and “self-indulgent prattle,” are attached to my memory of that time. The derisive attitude toward therapeutic writing is understandable, even desirable, if you consider the context of my degree work. Though stated as “creative” writing, the program’s goal was literary writing. We did not look at commercial writing or popular writing in any sense, except as contrast. Put another way, its the difference between art school and graphic design school; my degrees were clearly on the “art” side.
Writing as therapy is writing only for the writer. It is a pouring out, a gushing forth. Page vomiting. Even though it may be read by an audience and even though its writers often seek an audience, the goal is unburdening of the self. I don’t tell people I have ADHD for their sake, so much.
Therapeutic writing is self-indulgent, but that’s a feature, not a bug. Literary writing seeks an audience, a greater form. I can hear Jack Kerouac fans hoisting their bongs in protest, but the writers of the Beat generation succeeded because they were both talented and brave. Their writing process, though, does not lend itself to timid hackery. If you can’t tell the difference between a poem by Allen Ginsberg and something written by a caffeinated bipolar monkey at a typewriter, you need to read more.
Writing as therapy has a place. As a part of therapy. Trying to shoehorn it into a literary writing program creates problems, one of which is the difficulty of critiquing a person’s therapeutic efforts.
This is not to say that writing cannot be both therapeutic and literary. I’ve had poems published by literary journals that felt very therapeutic when I wrote the early drafts. But I went beyond those drafts. The questions “what will make me feel better” and “what do I want to say” produce early or private material, whereas “what would make this a better poem” starts to produce literary work. So it’s more accurate to say that writing which is merely therapeutic doesn’t belong in a literary writing program. There’s plenty of confessional literature, but it is still literary in that it has some sort of accomplishment. In the wrong context, writing that is merely therapeutic is like hearing about someone’s current toenail infection within five minutes of meeting him while he’s standing too close to you blasting hot sauerkraut breath into your nostrils.
Writing as therapy is also risky for the writer who seeks publication. Literary publishing, poetry in particular, for most everyone is usually an exercise in enduring futility. To be a successful poet, you have to have talent, persistence, and absent “star backing” (a well known poet who will help you network), you have to live long enough. From first submitting a successful poem through publication, longer than a year is not unusual. For publishing a book, two or three years. Pour all your self-esteem into that work, and you’d better load up on Xanax every time you open your email. (Note to self: track down some Xanax.)
So I write (I think) literary writing and (definitely) therapeutic writing. I particularly fond of the big, black book of evilness practice for the therapeutic part, and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone seeking writing as therapy. I go to it when things are particularly difficult. There’s not actually one such book, I have many of them, because I can never be sure I have one nearby when I need it.
These are the rules for the big, black book of evilness:
- Entries must be dated
- They must be handwritten
- Nothing may be held back
- Nothing may be false
- The book cover must be black.
It is harder to follow these rules than you might think. For one, despite much evidence to the contrary, I do fancy that I will achieve literary success one day. It’s a pipe dream, but one part of a literary person’s legacy is his or her papers. That is, if I ever become Mr. Super-Famous Poet, when I die people will want to read my journals. It is difficult not to adopt a pose in my big-black-book-of-evilness journals if I have the slightest inkling of an audience when I’m writing it.
The second difficulty is that in order to follow these rules, the book must be kept absolutely secure. I’m not able to be completely unvarnished if I think someone might stumble across my writing accidentally, and, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m not exactly great at keeping track of my things.
Handwriting is essential. I feel it is more honest and deliberative, probably because my handwriting is poor. It feels more raw and self revealing to scrawl out things on paper.
The book must have a black cover because black covers are the best and a big Hello Kitty book of evilness is just stupid.
The keeping of a big-black-book-of-evilness journal has therapeutic effect for two reasons; the articulation of the present and the long view. It’s somewhat of a relief to unload bad thoughts somewhere, especially without judgement, and it’s good to read back for perspective. (Moleskine large ruled notebook, in case you ever need to buy me a present or twelve.)
Here’s an entry from my first “real” semester of teaching:
Sunday, Sept. 29, 1996
Still in a funk—can’t shake it. Parents were here—couldn’t really relax. They left early, well, 11:00, and I went to the office and played with the computer for 5 hours, came home, watched the Packers/Seahawks, ate, called Laura, ate, watched more dumb T.V., ate.
Now I’m going to bed
I need to get outside.
I need to get organized.
I need to write.
I need to pay bills.
I seriously thought about driving off to Mexico, taking my paycheck tomorrow and just going. How long could I live on $1200? In Mexico? Six months? Two days if someone robbed me? I don’t think I could leave Laura like that—but there are times I’m sure she’d go with me.
Laura and I talked wedding today. Almost picked a date (after 4 years). Looking at Spring of 1998. And we want to have a great honeymoon. Fiji, or the continent. I’d like to go camping. Tonight this is all babble. Boring diary drivel.
Gotta do every day—
Five days, that’s all.
Get poems together—I know I’ve got a book.
Ferris State Technical College (oops I mean University) is taking up to much of my time. When R— said they were going to abuse me for a semester, they weren’t kidding.
Gotta read more.
When I look at this now, it’s not one of the darker entries. (Those do not go out to the world yet.) There is a bit of posing going on: I used the phrase “the continent” unironically, after all. The escape-to-Mexico fantasy is just that: fantasy. I’ve had running away fantasies since I was twelve but never once did anything to act on them. (I knew that there’s no way Laura would go with me.) The closest I ever come to running away is not showing up: not answering email, calling in sick, avoiding the phone. In fact, though I did not include it then, I clearly remember the reason I was uncomfortable with my parents staying over that weekend: I was behind on a credit card payment, and the company kept calling all that weekend, and I was too embarrassed to talk to the creditor while my parents were there. I just kept hanging up, saying “oh, it’s an ad calling.” My mom was astonished that a telemarketer would call on Sunday morning. I felt guilty for lying.
I remember why I was behind on that bill, too: I worked at my new job for a whole month before I got paid, so it was actually five weeks between paychecks from my old job as a temp secretary, and that first paycheck got eaten up with bills right away. It would have been perfectly reasonable to say I had a hard month because of that, but I couldn’t for some reason. I thought, being twenty-five, that I should have had everything figured out. Silly me.
The sad part here is the things I “need” to work on are exactly the things I feel I “need” to work on 17 years later, except for getting outside. I walk to work and it’s been cold; I’m good with inside. And I read plenty enough now. But I’m 41 and I need to get organized, I need to write, I need to grade, and I need to pay bills.
Having the time and date are really helpful. I remember that semester that my Monday morning started with an 8:00 a.m. class and I lived about a half hour from campus. At 9:25 p.m. I would have really started to fret about the beginning of the week. Same as every Sunday night. Still.
Some of the things I worried about then seem quaint now. We did get married in June of 1998, and we honeymooned in St. Lucia, which was a pretty amazing feat considering our financial resources. At the time, I considered that job my temporary gig, hence my dig at the University. I wanted to get a book out and get a “real” teaching job: creative writing, not academic writing. This many years later, still no book, and the “temporary” job became my career. I do like my job overall. Though the grading troubles were never, ever temporary.
In fact, in retrospect, it’s hard to see how I couldn’t have realized that I had ADHD. This period in my journal, though, marks an important change. Near Thanksgiving that year, another outpouring, much more negative than the surrounding entries, and an aside: “I think I may be clinical.” I read that now as the first time that I thought there might be something really wrong, other than just, “I gotta get it together.” It only took me nine years or so to do anything about it.
BTW, here’s the answer to my opening question.