Writing as Catharsis

Writing as Catharsis

Main Points
• Fiction can help us grow, learn, heal, and experience catharsis.
• Writing fiction can be equally if not more cathartic than other mediums as we get to decide what we explore.
• If writing becomes too emotional, it’s always good to take a break and write something easier or happier.
• Writing can allow us to share our true selves without having to put ourselves on the line.

“Truth at the end of a pen.” I’m not sure who first said that. I’ve tried looking it up but to no avail. I had a friend tell it to me once when I said I was writing a novel. He meant that people often try to get truth by writing. He might have been speaking more about writing a journal, about how when we actually put down our thoughts and feelings down on paper, it can change our perspective and give us new insights and feelings.

I’ve had strong feelings of catharsis when reading, watching TV, or playing video games. I become involved with the characters. I start to live inside their head, to feel their emotions, to taste their suffering. When my favorite character in my favorite TV show or book dies, I feel real pain at their loss.

This shared suffering isn’t without merit. Fiction can shape who we are, how we feel, and who we become. A study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that reading Harry Potter actually increased empathy, especially towards marginalized groups (here’s a great article on it https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-everyone-should-read-harry-potter/). We have this sense of Harry overcoming difficulties and choosing value driven friends over wealthy vapid ones, of Hermione dealing with being called a mudblood. As a real and measurable result, we grow from and actually change–it’s catharsis in action that leads to becoming more.

Sharing the Journey Catharsis together
I didn’t realize the same experience could be had when writing. It may even be more powerful than other mediums since I intimately know the deep corners of my characters’ minds and hearts, things that never make it in the book. More importantly, every character is a part me, some piece of my own experience that I’ve breathed life into. As such, I suffer with them, I have joy with them, and they become my friends and companions.

The most significant experience of this happened when writing my second book, which involves a hard-nosed investigator named Sandra in a magical setting. I was writing it at one of the lowest points of my life, when I was struggling emotionally and even physically to just get through each day. My mind and heart were exhausted from outside forces I couldn’t control or contain, so I dove into my writing as a means of escape.

I wrote up to a part where Sandra is forced to face a harsh reality she’s been trying to ignore. Confronted with the horror of what’s she’s been avoiding, her world shatters, and she breaks. The careful walls she put in place to hide her support for this evil comes crashing down and she’s forced to see how she’s contributed to mass suffering. She spends the rest of the novel trying to find her bearings, heal, and find the courage to fix her wrongs and try to make a better world.

I remember writing that scene and feeling something break inside me when she did. It wasn’t until the next day, however, that the floodgates opened. As I sat in my cubicle at work trying to analyze some data, the weight of my fictional and real-world problems came crashing down. I started crying in my cubicle, my eyes blurry as I kept typing and wiping away the tears.

This has never happened before to me. Thankfully, it was right before lunch so I took an early one and went outside the building to write. I had to get to the next scene. I’d gotten Sandra out of the horrible place but the next scene was her dealing with the aftermath. More importantly, it’s when a friend comes to try and comfort her because he’s seen the awfulness she as she has.

I started writing about her numbness as she sat alone in her apartment, as she tried to find anything to overcome the feeling of suffocation surrounding her. When her friend came, he tried his best to not only speak comforting words but also to say, “I’ve been there. I know that feeling. I’m so sorry you have to face it too.”

I broke then as well and began bawling as much as from the impact of the scene and how desperately I wanted something like that in my own life, someone to share the pain with, someone who could help me hold my burdens in this insurmountable thing that could swallow me whole.

I put on sunglasses to hide the tears. They immediately began fogging so I had to wipe the insides from time to time.

But I had to write that scene, I had to see her comforted so I could receive my own comfort. Her pain was somehow tied with mine and I couldn’t be whole without her becoming whole. I wrote like a maniac, just to get her to the next level and next stage of healing. I finished the chapter before I had to get back to work but something had changed. Somehow, I felt hope for my current situation in real life, even though it was bleak and the prospect of fighting it was the most daunting thing I’ve ever faced.

When I got back home after work, I immediately started writing again. I had to see Sandra through her journey.

I wrote frantically over the next few weeks, eschewing every responsibility I could reasonably avoid just to finish, just to see her in a better place. Her healing became mine and I wasn’t able to throw off my own numbness until I typed up the last few words of the draft and wrote, Fin.

Sandra wasn’t broken anymore, but she wasn’t fully healed either. Instead, she’d gained wisdom from her journey and was something better than she had been. She couldn’t go back to ignoring reality and burying her head in the sand, but then again, neither could I.

I felt real peace for the first time in a long while after I finished, after I knew she was okay. Because if she had gone through all that and made it out the other side intact, so could I. If she could experience posttraumatic growth (PTG), maybe I could too even though my own journey was far from over.

Sharing our Journeys Catharsis made real
I’ve since had this happen with other books I’ve written, though none have been as poignant the one with Sandra.

My third book followed a lot of my current life at the time. I was reeling from huge changes in my life that shook the foundations of my core and made me question everything I’d ever learned. So I put that in my book where the main character has to find his own way through his a similar crisis. I didn’t find the same level of healing as I did with Sandra, but I found the shared suffering with my character helped me get through my troubles.

Sometimes, however, the stories we write can be a little too close and singe a little too much. I have a friend who puts a lot of her own emotions in her writing, and it can sometimes get too difficult to continue. I can definitely commiserate with that.

Another author that can is Robert Asprin. His book, The Cold Cash War, was so dark for him, he started writing something happier on the side. The happier project became the Myth Adventure series which ironically became much more popular and successful than his original project. Sometimes it helps to step back and focus on something different, something not related to the trauma you’re processing, or the emotions you’re trying to convey.

Sometimes it’s best that the writing never been seen by anyone else. That’s can definitely be okay. Mark Twain and others were famous for writing excoriating letters to their enemies but didn’t send them. That too can be cathartic and healing.

Writing as Truth Fountains at the end of a pen
I love the line from Evey from V for Vendetta, where she tells V, “My father was a writer. You would’ve liked him. He used to say that artists use lies to tell the truth . . .” Though writing fictional worlds and characters are obvious made up, those “lies” can be us closer and closer to actual truth.

We can explore our most intimate thoughts, sharing our true selves without having to put ourselves actually out there. Whether we intend our words to be read by others or to just remain as testaments to our innermost thoughts, we can discover truth along the way and in a safe environment too, because we get to create it.

But what about you, dear readers? Have you found writing to be cathartic? Have you used it as a way to self-heal or explore new ideas? How has fiction helped you with healing or other forms of catharsis?

Comments are closed.