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.