Thursday, 15 October 2009

Writing as therapy

Writing about painful experiences that have a strong bearing on the author's life may be seen as writing as therapy. People often say that a therapeutic act of writing should be kept private. Whilst I agree that writing purely for therapy is quite different from writing for publication, I do believe that sometimes the raw material of therapeutic writing can be transformed into a creative act and crafted for publication.

When I was young, I kept detailed diaries and, although I didn't see it as such at the time, I suppose what I was doing in them was writing for therapy. As teenagers often do, I pored out my thoughts and feelings, filling my diaries with teenage angst. Writing things down helped me to make sense of what was happening in my life. These diaries were never intended to be made public, and rightly so. They were for my own benefit. It didn't matter that they weren't well-crafted, edited, or proof-read to iron out any grammatical errors or sloppily-written parts. It also didn't matter if the content would bore other people to death. For me, the diaries served their purpose as catharsis.

My diaries also served another purpose later. They helped me to gather together material for my memoir 'The Dark Threads'. Perhaps when I began writing my memoir I was writing it as therapy, but then I decided I wanted to share my experience with others. No longer just writing for myself, I began to write with the aim of publication. It was a tentative dream at first. I knew that the odds of getting it published were stacked against me, but what I aimed to do was write a book to the best of my ability, and aim for a publishable standard.

By the time I'd nearly finished my manuscript, 'misery memoirs' were popular. If, by this term, we mean a sensationalised account that piles misery upon misery, without analytic reflection, then I definitely did not want my book to be categorised as such. It is not a misery memoir, but perhaps I need another posting to discuss this, so I'll leave the topic for later. And no, no, no, it is not ghost-written!

Once I had decided on writing a memoir, truth, of course, remained paramount (truth in memoir will make a good subject for another blog posting at a later date), but now I had to stand back and try to view the quality of my writing objectively. I had to discipline myself, hone my writing skills and work hard to learn and apply the craft of writing, so that I could take my raw material and turn it into something creative, something that would, hopefully, grab hold of and maintain the interest of others: something publishable.

Have I succeeded? Well, I did succeed in getting published. Others are actually paying to read my book! I went into Waterstones and Borders the other day, and there it was on the shelf. But have I succeeded in writing a book that others, people who don't know me, will find worth their while paying for and reading? That has to be left up to readers to decide.

My book is reviewed in the latest edition of 'Therapy Today', along with two novels about patients in psychiatric hospitals: 'The Secret Scripture' by Sebastian Barry, and 'House of Bread' by Amanda Nicol. The reviewer describes me as 'a powerful representative of that disenfranchised group - psychiatric survivors. But what about the silenced? What about their stories? We, and they, must hope that Davison will continue to use her compassion and talent to tell their stories too.' I like reading nice things about me like this (of course I do), though I don't really see myself as a spokesperson. I would much prefer that people were empowered to tell their own stories than have someone speak for them, though I know that, for many people who were silenced by the mental health system, speaking for themselves is sometimes, sadly, never going to be possible.

The review in 'Therapy Today' concludes with words that are relevant to what I've been discussing in this posting. If I have done what the reviewer says in the last two sentences, then I am well satisfied that I have achieved my aim for my memoir: 'The characters in "The Secret Scripture" find writing therapeutic; the telling of their stories is the restoration of narratives ruptured by their histories. The authors of "House of Bread" and "The Dark Threads" also restore the ruptured narratives of their lives in the writing of these books, making them therapeutic acts. But these are also works skilfully crafted from the raw material of personal experience and stand as books in their own right. These three books demonstrate that writing is both a therapeutic and a creative act.'


Lorna F said...

Excellent and thoughtful post, Jean. Congratulations on getting the review - and such a good one. I agree that the vogue for 'misery memoirs' has done those of us who wish to write honestly about our pasts a disservice. There has been a competitive sensationalism going on, but it does look as if that fashion is on the fade now. I too keep diaries and find them enormously useful for making sense of things - I write them for me and only for me.

Fiona Mackenzie. Writer said...

I have had similar experiences. I don't know if i could write about them. I think you're very brave.

Jean said...

Lorna - Thankyou. Yes, it does seem the glut of sensationalism is on the fade now.

Fia - Brave or foolish I'm not quite sure which, but it was something I felt I had to do.

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