I was influenced years ago by Richard M. Eastman’s Writing as a Discovery of Outlook. Eastman believed that writers don’t know precisely how they feel about a subject until they’ve written about it. This idea came to mind as I read “Maggie Nelson: ‘There is no catharsis… the stories we tell ourselves don’t heal us’” in The Observer.
Nelson (“The Argonauts” and “The Red Parts) wrote about the trial and conviction of Gary Earl Leiterman for the 1969 murder of her aunt, Jane Mixer. In The Observer article, she said of The Red Parts, “I felt horrible after I finished it, and it was difficult to read from [publicly]. The book is really a long critique of catharsis. But the irony is that my catharsis was writing down that there is no catharsis. The stories we tell ourselves don’t heal us, but I also think that if I hadn’t written it, I wouldn’t have processed the experience: writers tend to be people who process things by writing. The problems of the book don’t weigh on me so heavily now.”
Writers and others are often encourage to create journals, essays, articles and even fiction as a way of “freeing themselves” from the angst of personal tragedy. I’ve never found these solutions to be successful. But as Eastman and Nelson suggest, I understand the situations much better after having written about them. No, there wasn’t a monumental epiphany or catharsis even though I felt after writing that I understood myself and the situations better.
Perhaps writing serves as a more complete therapy for others. I’ve heard that it does, though I’ve yet to meet another writer who was, so to speak, “going nuts,” wrote about the causes of his or her discord, and ended up cured. Perhaps that’s too flip. Maybe we simply get a little better–and that’s good enough.
What about you? Do you keep a diary and does it help you over the rough spots? Or, perhaps you found that fiction works better or, perhaps, becoming involved in a nonprofit dedicated to a problem you faced or encountered that includes your writing essays and grant applications.
As for me, the writing helps even though it hasn’t been a cure.