Writing as therapy . . . or not

by Pari

From the beginning of my time as a writing being, back in the wee single-digit years, I have always used this form of self-expression as a way to make sense of the world. Whether it be through poetry, lyrics, journaling, nonfiction or fiction, there has always been that element of wanting to learn or explore my own emotional maze — and wanting to come away from the experience understanding more than when I entered it.

I wouldn’t have survived certain periods of my life without writing. Most of my adolescence, for example. Those were rough years filled with so much angst I could’ve made Jane Eyre look like a Katy-Perry California girl. Through jilted relationships, a year in France and a year in Hong Kong, through anger at my mother, fights, self-hatred . . . all of it, I put pen to paper or tapped on my old Olympus typewriter or used a computer to get it all out.

And yet, the works I’ve written specifically for publication don’t fall into this category. Perhaps it’s self-preservation that impels me to draw an emotional line between the truly personal and what is for public consumption. After all, for most of us, our personal dramas and insights are rather banal vis a vis the rest of the world. Sure, we think we’re interesting . . . but I long ago learned in PR that most of the time that doesn’t translate to other’s perceptions.

So why am I writing a novel right now about a woman finding independence in divorce after decades of marriage? Shouldn’t I know better? It’s odd, but somehow — in spite of everything in my life that might be applicable to hers — this story isn’t about me.

Instead, I’m exploring emotion — my protag’s — and letting myself really go in and look around at the human experience at this juncture in her life. Sure, sometimes while I’m writing a scene, I burst into tears because it touches on my own experiences . . . but the world I’ve created is hers, not mine. Her reactions aren’t mine, though they often move me to examine my own.

Is this a more subtle form of personal therapy? One could argue that any creativity is therapy for those of us who yearn to create. But I think something else is going on here, a kind of hybrid newness in my approach to writing. Whatever it is, I’m grateful for the process.


  1. What form of creativity have you used for your own personal therapy?


  1. Have you ever read a book and felt like the writer wasn’t so much telling a story as figuring out something for him/herself?


8 thoughts on “Writing as therapy . . . or not

  1. Barbie

    I've written as therapy. As a teenager, I'd write endless poems about how life wasn't worth living instead of cutting myself. It WAS a better alternative, and it helped with the abstinence when I was quitting self-harm. I'd literally write dozens a day sometimes, it was crazy.

    Nowadays, I write differently, I write fiction that is non related with myself, but characters can lead me into a fantasy world that is not my own and I don't have to live my life and deal with my pain, so, I don't have to deal. Besides, I don't have to be alone. That, is also therapy. Not exactly figuring my own problems out, but as I fix their own, I push mine aside.

    Sometimes it translates in the story. I bet you'll find pieces of me in every story I write, sometimes, these pieces take over the whole thing, and I don't think that's necessarily bad. It can help you, and your reader.

    I hope you'll figure things out and your characters are friends through the way 🙂

  2. Shizuka

    Through my mid-teens to mid-twenties, I poured anger, irritation — the things I didn't want to talk about — into journals. I even burned some of the pages that felt really heavy. As an adult, I'm able to channel and verbalize things without destroying everything around me and I don't need the journal so much.

    I thought I didn't put my personal stuff in my fiction, but when I read it later with a cooler eye, I can see my life bleeding onto the pages.

  3. Lisa Alber

    I also use writing as a way to process my life and the world. It's my way of relating. I've still got all my journals since childhood. I was a meticulous scrapbooker and photographer too, for the same reason.

    I don't write fiction related to myself…Well, not true. I did write one novel that related to aspects of my life. It did feel like therapy while I was writing it, so I've never gone back to it. However, that said, I don't think there's anything wrong with writing novels that are inspired by our emotional landscapes. Plenty of novelists do this. Those are the stories they want to tell. I remember reading CAT"S EYE by Margaret Atwood and wondering whether she'd been bullied by mean girls in her youth.

  4. JH Gordon

    Creativity flows, that's what I know. My writing style comes out on the digital page as an entertaining surprise to me at least. I watch it happen. Sure there are parallels to the life I've lead, and since my approach to life has always been "what's the worst that can happen?", I just allow my imagination (or muse or channel or whatever it is) to flow. The answer to 'the worst' is; there's a lot that can happen. In my stories, it does. And again, I'm surprised by it.

    As to what stimulates an idea? I call it being born twisted. I've written on the subject of foreclosures and raised the question; why not just burn them all down? Seems to me a few carpenters could use the work… And too big to fail banks rely on law abiding citizens. But they would not fair well in a society where justice and ethics actually matter. Somebody might burn their barn.

    And I've written a detective series (I used to do that too) but I couldn't do a hard boiled super hero who gets dents in his skull. I had to write what I could about the worst thing that can happen. I've noted that with government, society, nature, and the human soul, the worst can and usually does happen even though we seldom hear about it. And perhaps since I put things in print, I lose any plausible denial should I ever consider 'acting out' what I imagine. Premeditated they'd call it; and they'd be right.

    I think you're absolutely right in saying writing is cathartic. I think that's especially true of fiction. Fiction isn't a bastion of wishful thinkers though, some of us use it to prevent mayhem perhaps. Others vent and restore. And some understand that hours spent writing are the most pleasant and pure of our existence. We are who we are when writing.

    Thanks for a thought provoking blog. You're on my list.

    JH Gordon
    Joe Detective

  5. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari
    Great post. I think all writing is cathartic, whether you're writing about your own experiences or not. It's a form of self-expression, where you create a world with your own boundaries and rules, and although we all know that our characters rarely do exactly what we want them to, at the end of the story things have usually worked out as they should. Writing offers closure, however metaphorical that might be.

  6. Sarah W

    I've always written stories (or execrable poetry) or made little crafty things–dolls, animals, dollhouse miniatures, samplers, knitted oddities,etc.–as a sort of self-expressive self-medication.

    Writing in particular isn't just catharsis and closure (as Zoë said better than I could)–it's an escape.

  7. Pari Noskin

    I hear you. I doubt we ever completely divorce ourselves from our works . . .

    Just what I was implying with the comment above. I think it's a matter of degree and whether it's intentional or not. When we're trying to make ourselves the star through our characters, I'm not sure it works so well <g>.

    That's true. I think we build on what we know and we constantly interpret the world through our own emotions — so it's rare we won't bring that to our writing. But, like you say, there's nothing wrong with that approach.

    It also gets to the question of fiction as stealth autobiography and whether writers are being honest with themselves as they create.

    Something else to think about!

  8. Pari Noskin

    Wow, what a wonderful comment. I do wonder sometimes about that premeditation thing; I used to joke that it was insurance for my husband because I'd always be the FIRST suspect.

    But it was your last large paragraph that really got to me — beautifully written and expressed — about fiction and our relation to it. Optimists, wishful thinkers, dark visionaries. I can't claim to know why others write, but all of the reasons you postulated have driven me to do it at one time or another.
    Thank you.

    Yes, it is cathartic. Perhaps the most wonderful part of the creativity . . . the release and clearing, the moment of closure. In the pure creating, whether it satisfies the reader is immaterial; it's the act that brings the pleasure.

    Writing as fiction is escape for me because I build the worlds and events; nonfiction doesn't have that same effect — though I enjoy it very much. I think the same holds true for journaling as not an escape.

    Another thing to think about and explore. Thank you.

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