Writing as therapy
All my life I have never thought of writing as therapy. I’ve always thought of writing as a job.
Something you sat down to during the day and worked at for as many hours as you could afford. It was a seven days a week job and it had nothing to do with my emotional life.
Even when I wrote two memoirs, they were more about what I had experienced than how the experiences had impacted on me. I was a journalist witnessing life. In fact, the original title for my memoir about the first democratic election in 1994, The Waiting Country, was ‘A South African Witness’. In the end that became the sub-title.
Recently I’ve realised that writing can also be therapy. It can help you through some pretty hectic traumas. It doesn’t solve anything necessarily but it encourages reflection, creates a context and gives perspective and, most importantly, gives back a feeling of control. You might not be able to change the situation but you can at least understand what is happening and why.
A couple of weeks ago I started writing a piece about a dreadful situation that had developed in my life. I knew this wasn’t going to be a full-length memoir so what was it? And then a friend sent me an article by US academic and writing coach Uddipana Goswami and I realised there were other forms for life writing. The essay, for instance. Sometimes we need to have the obvious explicitly pointed out.
The personal essay
The personal essay has a long tradition and has been joined in recent times by the confessional essay. Female writers have been at the forefront of this. As Goswami notes, “…confessional writing might not connect the personal to the political or social through its content, [but] its form itself is a political statement: it empowers women, hitherto marginalised, to tell stories that were never given any space in the ‘mainstream’”.
Both types of essay can be therapeutic. As soon as I started writing I realised the value of the personal essay. I also realised the value of building a story chronologically. There is a pattern revealed in the succession of events. And that pattern can help clarify what is going on.
I also realised that publication did not have to be the end goal – as it has been all my writing life. Also, the content would be open to charges of defamation so publishers would be understandably wary. Instead this document could be a legacy. At some point in the future it could reveal to others involved in this disturbing time my perspective of what happened. And because I was incorporating research and original documents of record into my essay it would carry an authenticity beyond my version of events.
There is much to be said for writing as therapy. Here again is Goswami: “In other words, though shorter in length and smaller in scope than a memoir, the personal essay, like the memoir, is not a self-absorbed self-analysis but a commentary on and connection with ‘something bigger’.”
Get more out of your writing.
Click here for a course on writing a memoir, Writing Reality. Click here for a course on Writing Fiction. If you’re looking for supervision while writing your memoir or novel, join The Writers’ Masterclass. There’s a new class starting in February 2021. You’ll be in good company.