Are you the sort of person who listens to music that reflects your current mood and reads novels that imitate your life, or do you prefer your listening and reading choices to challenge the status quo? I’m certainly in the former camp: I want mournful music when I’m anxious or depressed; uplifting tunes when I’m happy. I don’t want to be cajoled out of my sulk; I want to wallow. My reading material has to mirror my current frame of mind and, if I’m going through a particularly blue period, it should suggest an escape, or a way forward.
Committing thoughts to diaries and journals is an established method of exorcising our demons. Writing negative feelings on a sheet of paper, wrapping it round a stone and throwing it into the sea or off a cliff is still a popular way of ridding ourselves of bad vibes, so could the same effect be gained from writing fiction? Just as we use reading novels and listening to music as therapy, can we use writing to ease the kinks out of our lives?
I attended a Reminiscence workshop a while ago. It was part work related, part personal odyssey, and the purpose was to explore how memories resonate with dementia sufferers. Halfway through the morning the facilitator asked each person to write a poem about some aspect of their childhood. Cue group groan and lots of complaining. However, when we got going, the results were stunning. The poetry and free verse this bunch of (mostly) non-writers produced was fascinating and revealing, witty and heart breaking. Committing our memories to paper had opened a conduit and we came away having learned something about ourselves, as well as about dementia.
That morning threw up lots of questions. Did the writing process itself have any therapeutic value? If you’re angry about some aspect of your life, do you hammer away, venting your frustration on the keyboard? Or do you find a way forward through the subject matter itself? Do you skip ahead and write a new scene completely out of sequence just because it contains a row between two characters and you are so in the mood for a fight, albeit fictional? Or do you keep the angst reined in and obediently write the next chapter, which happens to contain a love scene?
Can you actually ride above it, or does your irritation or lethargy have an effect on how you write your characters? Does it leak through your fingertips and infect the storyline? Do you find yourself sorting your own life out through your characters? In fact, do you inflict your problems on your characters on purpose, so you can solve them together?
If you’re in a buoyant frame of mind, do you use the positivity to explore a darker world, knowing it won’t draw you into a downward spiral of unhappiness? Or do you channel your mild discontent, slipping into the minds of characters with similar problems and writing pages of argumentative dialogue that will ultimately be deleted?
If I’m agitated, I find myself writing short, choppy prose littered with incomplete sentences, ideas all over the place. When I’m calm, I write in a much more composed manner, using long flowing sentences full of sensuous description. So predictable. So cathartic.
I’m now going to give my keyboard a good battering…
I certainly do think the writing process itself can have therapeutic value. I’ve kept a journal for a few tears now and I write on my blog and I find that writing when I am disturbed or upset about things can have the effect of “leaving ” those things on the paper and they no longer take up space and energy in my thoughts. I did once write a letter on a train journey to someone who had harmed me in the past and the memory was buried deep and still festering. I said everything I needed to say and then in ritual fashion tore the piece of paper into hundreds of small bits after which I ceremoniously dumped the lot in the bin. Doing it away from home seemed important too.
Exactly what I mean, Maz. I recently came across some journals I’d kept during the breakup of a previous relationship. The writing was so raw I could hardly bear to read them, but they served a purpose at the time. It’s about time I threw them away, but I hold on to them because one day they might be useful aides memoires for a writing project and I don’t think I could conjure up those feelings again without being in that precise situation. Maggie