The Therapeutic Side of Writing Fiction

I’m always a little wary when someone asks me if I write as a form of therapy. They usually expect a yes or no, but the answer is complex…

First of all, I don’t want to give the impression that writing is a substitute for talking therapies or other kinds of mental health treatments. While using any kind of art as therapy can be helpful, I think it’s appropriate as a complementary strategy rather than a complete treatment for mental illness in itself. (Sidebar: in my experience, there is no such thing as a complete treatment, but medication and talking therapies come closest, in my opinion).

Secondly, I write for readers. If I write something just for me, it stays in my journal or folder. If I submit stories, I want other people to read and enjoy them. Regardless of whether a particular story has been therapeutic for me to write, the audience is one of my top considerations. This consideration always affects the story and may prevent it from being as therapeutic as it would be were the readers not taken into account.

With those caveats in mind, my answer is yes. I do write as a form of therapy, but there are also many other reasons why I write.

 

Not all writing is equally therapeutic.

To make things a little less complicated, I’m solely talking about writing fiction and specifically short stories, since they constitute the main body of my work to date. However, the therapeutic value of any given story varies a lot: many of my stories have had no therapeutic value, whereas some have been very helpful as therapy.

Can you tell the difference? I have no idea. I like to think I write to a high standard regardless of whether a story has been therapeutic to write, but that might not be the case! Do the more therapeutic stories have more emotional impact? Again, I can’t tell. I hope all my stories have some emotional impact, though the emotional effects depend on the individual story.

 

The raw material, whether it is inspired by life or not, is transformed.

When people hear “therapeutic” in regards to writing, they automatically think of memoir or autobiographical fiction. They assume that in order to be therapeutic, the story needs to bear a strong resemblance to the writer’s lived experience. Often, the opposite is true.

Amanda Palmer, in her excellent book The Art of Asking, talks about the transformation of life experience into art in terms of putting raw material into a blender. She typically uses a low blender setting when songwriting, such as level 3 on a scale of 1-10. In contrast, her husband (the author Neil Gaiman) uses a very high blender setting — often level 10.

I love this analogy. It’s a simple but effective way of demonstrating how two pieces of art can be equally as personal, but very different in terms of recognising the raw material from the finished work.

For me, the more therapeutic the story, the higher my blender setting. I know what raw material has gone into the story, but other people (even those who know me best) would find it all but impossible to tell.

 

The transformation of raw material is the most cathartic aspect of writing.

While pouring out my emotions in my journal can help me feel a little better, it’s the process of transformation that I find most therapeutic. I suppose it correlates with talking therapy: if you recount your experience to a therapist it usually provides a sense of relief, but venting your feelings is just the first step. The most useful part of therapy is questioning and evaluating. There is more value in learning to reframe your experiences and think about them in different ways. Ditto writing.

Transformation is crucial for the story itself, too. In order to be most effective, you need to select and adapt material (whether from life or another source).

You need to choose a focus for the story, to tease out a plot and create characters (even if they are heavily inspired by life) who serve the story. It doesn’t matter if, as many new writers complain, “that’s not how it happened!” Your task is to find the emotional truth at the core of your story and make it shine.

 

Writing is a constructive way of using your experiences — which can help you value them.

Many experiences are awful. Writing is one way I can find value in them — it almost gives them a purpose. This provides another way of helping me to reframe those experiences, so the therapeutic effect continues.

As I said at the beginning of this post, the therapeutic effects of writing fiction complement the other ways ai manage my mental health. If you would like to try writing — or any other art — as therapy, go for it. However, my main reasons for writing have nothing to do with my mental health (except indirectly) and when I approach writing fiction, therapy is never foremost in my mind.

Writerly Expectations

I recently read a fantastic book called Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. It is a compilation of advice columns Strayed wrote anonymously as an online agony aunt. It covers a variety of topics, but a particular letter from a writer in her 20s who felt she ought to have been more successful by now struck a chord with me. As did Strayed’s advice, which can be boiled down to the title she gave to this letter and reply: write like a motherfucker.

The problem with writerly expectations is that so much is outside your control.

Life gets in the way of writing and as Strayed says, you need to let go of your grandiose ideas in order to write well — you have to focus on your art and approach it from an attitude of humility. Many writers have a strange mix of arrogance and insecurity: we paradoxically believe that we should be accomplishing great things and that we are incapable of achieving those great things.

This mindset is not conducive to productivity. On one level, you expect to write well and on another you expect what you write to be shit. It’s no wonder so many of us procrastinate or start stories we discard before finishing!

There also seems to be a process of gaining life experience and trying to make sense of life before many writers are able to complete their first substantial piece of work. This process might take a couple of years or a couple of decades, depending on the writer. The consolation is that things somehow work out:

“I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn’t have written my book before I did. I simply wasn’t capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person.” — Cheryl Strayed

 

All you can do is concentrate on the writing — nothing else is guaranteed.

As a writer, you hope that your work will be published and affect people’s lives. You hope it will earn you money. You hope people — especially people you admire — will like your writing. You may have bigger dreams — winning prizes and/or becoming a bestseller.

But what if this doesn’t happen? Is your writing enough for you?

Let’s be blunt: most writers fail to achieve the big goals like winning the Man Booker prize or selling over a million copies of their novel. There are many examples of writers who were hailed as geniuses only after their deaths. If you knew you would never be published, would you still write?

My answer is yes. I’m a writer. It’s a calling and part of my identity. I still hope for success, of course — I’m human! — but my writing is more important to me than the potential rewards it could bring.

The only thing you can do is what Strayed advises — get down in the dirt and write so well that it transcends everything else. She says:

“Nobody is going to give you a thing. You have to give it to yourself. You have to tell us what you have to say.”

I recommend you buy Tiny Beautiful Things for this column alone. Strayed’s advice on writing is fantastic and I would love for her to write a book focusing on writing. However, the rest of it is amazing, too. Go read it now!

And remember, write like a motherfucker.

Let Your Stories Grow Organically

One lesson I have had to learn again and again when writing stories is that they need to grow at their own pace. Maybe that sounds precious and stupid, especially to non-writers, but each story develops in its own way and when I try to rush the process, it shows.

Word limits are not your friend when drafting.

Word limits are necessary for most competitions and publications, but when I am preoccupied with staying within a certain number of words when drafting stories, they suffer. I tend to rush towards the end, as if I’m afraid the story run away from me. It’s ridiculous — especially considering I rewrite stories several times — but it’s an impulse I can’t resist.

The solution is to try not to have a specific word limit in mind when writing a first draft.

If this isn’t an option (during my MA I needed to write stories within word limits and usually didn’t have time to try out a few different stories), just be aware of any similar tendencies and think about how to fix them. For me, this means paying extra attention to the ending of my stories and ensuring I have let the plot and characters develop at a believable and comfortable pace.

 

Drafts develop at their own pace.

Sometimes a story comes to me in its entirety quickly and the draft is very similar to the finished piece. Other times, the story reveals itself gradually and takes a lot of work to uncover, often undergoing several transformations throughout the rewriting process.

I have no control over the speed in which a particular story develops and when I try to speed it up, the story feels forced. It’s also more likely to become clichéd.

It can be frustrating when a story isn’t developing as fast as I would like, especially when I’m trying to hit a deadline, but rushing it along never works.

The only option is to work on other stories and hope to find one which develops quickly so that I can hit the deadline.

 

Structure is an essential consideration, but isn’t a priority in the first draft.

Some stories have a clear structure from the outset, but others need to find their way. Examining structure and seeing how (or whether) your story fits into a satisfying framework can be a very helpful during later drafts, but trying to force a story into a certain structure during the first draft is likely to make it feel forced and/or cliched.

Let your story develop its own structure during the rewriting process. 

When you don’t consciously think about structure when writing the first draft of a story, you will often discover a more interesting and effective structure than you would have chosen. Go with it — even if it seems weird or scary. You can always change it in later drafts if it doesn’t work.

 

Thinking time is vital.

Even when a story develops quickly, the structure is sound and everything seems to be in place, it needs space. It needs time to breathe and grow between rewrites. You need to get away from it for a while — if you can only spare a few days, that’s better than nothing, but take as much time as you can to get some distance.

Getting distance isn’t just about being able to appraise your story with a cool, critical eye. It also allows ideas to marinate in your mind.

When you return to your story, you will have fresh eyes and fresh ideas about how to develop it. You will have appraised more options and your story will be stronger for this extra consideration.

 

Letting stories grow isn’t a mystical process.

It might sound mysterious when I talk about stories growing organically, but it’s really about giving your creative thinking the time and space to come up with interesting choices. You can think of effective solutions when the pressure is off, whereas forcing the process means you are liable to choose the path of least resistance — clichés.

Giving your stories time to grow and yourself time to think will make you a better writer.

My Writing Goals for 2017

I enjoyed some small writing successes in 2016, but I think I should have done better. Perhaps that’s the perfectionist streak in me speaking, but when I look back I see lots of room for improvement. Here are the key mistakes I made:

 

  1. I wasted too much time doubting myself

I would have written a lot more if I had just gotten on with it, instead of unleashing an inner monologue of “this is crap, you are a terrible writer, this is a terrible story. Seriously, just delete it all right now. You know nobody will ever want to read it, right? You are wasting your time. If you actually complete this shit and submit it, you will be wasting other people’s time. Who do you think you are, anyway? What right do you have to try and be a writer? Just stop. Right now.”

I know I don’t ask to listen to all that negativity, but I could be more effective in dealing with such unhelpful thoughts.

I find it much easier to ignore the diatribe when a deadline is fast approaching, so I must have some control over whether to listen. The voice also pipes up when I’m preparing to submit something, telling me not to bother (especially if I have to pay a competition fee). I let it win too many times.

 

  1. I didn’t submit enough

Self-doubt aside, I simply didn’t put my work in front of people as often as I should have done. I should have entered more competitions, submitted to more literary journals and anthologies, etc. When I got rejections, I let time slip by before resubmitting stories.

I limited my chances of success by not submitting as much or as often as I could have submitted.

 

  1. I neglected my major project

In the midst of rewriting my novel, I got stuck. I didn’t know whether the plot was working or if it was worth trying to fix it. Something stopped me from giving up completely, but I set the novel aside for a long time.

Towards the end of the year, I did an online novel editing course with Writers HQ and realised that I wasn’t alone in getting stuck and that I could fix the problem. I created a clear plan for rewriting my novel – now I just need to rewrite it!

While I acknowledge that I didn’t have the tools available to fix my plot problems earlier in the year, I regret neglecting the novel for so long. I’m sorry that I lost confidence in it.

 

So here’s what I aim to do differently this year:

 

  1. Prioritise my novel

I need to complete the novel to a decent standard ASAP – for my own sanity, if nothing else! It’s partly a test of whether I can make it as a novelist: the only previous novel I have finished turned out to be a 50,000 word novella after editing. I need to prove to myself that I can write a novel.

Of course, ideally, it will be good enough to get me an agent and a publishing deal… But it’s the completion which matters first and foremost, which means I must prioritise the novel above all my other writing projects and most other things in my life.

 

  1. Submit frequently and regularly

The more I submit, the more chance I will have of placing in competitions and/or getting stories published. It sounds so simple when I write it out, but takes a lot of effort to put into effect.

I will strive to complete work and submit it, then continue submitting each story until it succeeds.

 

  1. Consider my choices carefully

I’m becoming more aware of so-called opportunities which give writers a raw deal. These include competitions with relatively high entry fees and a low prize pot, which are obviously best avoided, but there are some grey areas. For example, many literary journals don’t offer payment for publishing stories. They claim that the writer gains “exposure” which can help their careers, but the value of this is uncertain.

I have been published online without getting paid, which I didn’t mind because it was for a website which I respect and I had only one publishing credit at the time. It also allowed me to show my work to people who had expressed an interest, such as acquaintances and friends of my parents. However, nowadays I would have to be convinced that publication has definite benefits for me at this point in my career if I’m not getting paid.

So my goal is to consider which opportunities are best for my career and which aren’t worth the hassle.

If I get the chance to be published in a literary journal which doesn’t offer payment but which I respect and has a good readership, for example, that would probably be a positive step for my career. However, you can bet your bottom dollar that I will try my luck in paid markets first!

 

My writing goals for 2017 will change and adapt as the year progresses, but I’m driven to do better than last year. I suppose my main goal is simple: improvement.

Writing, Validity and Vulnerability

I received my contributor’s copy of the 2017 Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual this week.

Aesthetica 2017 Creative Writing Annual

It’s only the second time I have had a short story published in print, so it’s a great achievement for me at this point in my career. My story, Things I Have Wasted Money On, previously won the Devon Prize in the 2015/16 Exeter Writers Short Story Competition. I enjoyed writing it and liked experimenting with its quirky format, which I hope tells the story and expresses the narrator’s emotions in an interesting way.

I also recently won 3rd place in the Erewash Writers’ Group 2016 Open Short Story Competition, which was judged by Patsy Collins. Again, this is a big deal to me because I haven’t had much success with writing competitions. Partly because I don’t enter as many as I should.

 

Submitting writing means being vulnerable.

When you enter a short story competition or submit work to a writing journal, you are inviting rejection. Most stories will be rejected. Very successful, established writers get rejections, so when your career is embryonic, rejection is not only expected – it is inevitable.

Exposing yourself to rejection is never fun, but it is necessary. The alternative is to write purely for yourself, to lock your stories away in a drawer and never let anyone read them apart from yourself. This isn’t an option for me, because I am passionate about literature and writing. I want people to read my work. I want them to like my stories. I want my fiction to evoke emotion and raise questions for people, to challenge their thoughts and assumptions. I would also like to earn a living from writing. All of this cannot be achieved without allowing myself to be vulnerable.

This is difficult for every writer. Well, maybe a few writers are super-confident and genuinely don’t care if everyone hates their work, but I have never met them. However, it is doubly difficult when you have mental health problems which make you constantly question your ability.

 

Small successes provide validity.

Hence these small successes mean a lot to me. They offer evidence that my work is worth reading, that I’m not wasting my time and energy. They are a small counterargument to that voice in my head which says “you’re kidding yourself, you can’t write” and “don’t bother submitting stories, because you’re wasting everyone’s time.”

It would be nice to not need or want such validity, to have utter confidence in my writing, but that’s not the way it is. External validation holds a lot of value for me.

So as much as I enjoy these small successes in and of themselves, they convince me to keep going. To keep submitting my work in the hope that someone will like it, that someone might believe it has value.

Ultimately, vulnerability and validity are two sides of the same coin. Part of me wishes I didn’t feel so vulnerable and that I weren’t so reliant on external validity, but it shows that I care. Writing is important to me and I want other people to believe my work is worthwhile. If just a few people enjoy my stories, that makes me happy.