Writing As Therapy
The Yellow Wallpaper, one of Gilman’s most popular works, originally published in 1892 before her marriage to George Houghton Gilman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Today my students started reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman‘s The Yellow Wallpaper, an early feminist story about a woman who is not allowed to write because it might upset her “delicate condition”. This started me thinking about what writing means to me beyond the overall joy of seeing my ideas and crazy plot lines taking on a life of their own. I had a strange epiphany that possibly one of the larger reasons I began writing in the first place was for therapeutic reasons.
I decided to make a list of ways that writing can indeed be therapeutic, and how this relates to my overall mental health. So here goes:
Teenage Angst – Let’s face it. I wasn’t always the handsome, dashing man that my wife sees when she wakes up every morning. I was once (as we all have been) an awkward teenager. I began writing as part of a creative writing class in high school, and soon discovered that the reactions I received from my peers for my half-thrown-together horror tales were always favorable. At that point in my life I was kind of a loner, had a few close friends, and generally didn’t care for the drama of the high school scene. I guess I’ve always felt like someone on the outside looking in, and up to that point in my life it had been the source of all of my misery on a social level. That teenage angst erupted into violent stories of monsters, ironic vampire tales, and whispers of vicious black cars with red tinted windows that hunted down their pedestrian prey (yes, I ripped off “The Car”, except in my story it was a herd of them). Getting this stuff out of my system and onto paper was very good for me, and gave me the writing bug. I’m still waiting for its venom to wear off.
Soapbox – As my writing skills matured and I entered college I began to write stories about more realistic topics, mostly about farming and my love for environmentalism. I read Wendell Berry and loved the things he discussed in his essays. I was also a Christian who began to see the hypocrisy of my fellow believers, longing for a world where they simply “got real” about their beliefs. I’d read an essay by someone that sparked my political or philosophical interests and then go to my notepad or my computer to write a short story that illustrated what I thought about those ideas through allegory or object lesson. I studied Jonathan Swift, gobbling up everything he wrote, paying close attention to how he would use satire to scream at his society about change. I wanted to write like that, but with a more modern flare. Sometimes I would not be able to find a soul on my campus with which to discuss Swift, but could write a short story from the perspective of William Congreve who has a debate with Swift over the poverty of the Irish. Like any college kid, I soon started to mellow as I rounded out my senior year, and once I graduated, my writing life changed again.
Supplemental Material – Today I am finding out that my writing is taking on more than therapeutic purposes. I write for the joy of it, but I have a few regimens that I follow. I write 1000 words a day whether I want to or not. I take time out on weekends to relax with my family, but the call of the keyboard is so strong that often look for any spare time to churn out a few paragraphs. When I’m writing, I am able to go away to my little fantasy world, whether that is a future world where the apocalypse has happened, a far away universe of my own making, a tribal society living in the remains of a large city who think they are living inside a “cliff”, or inside the mind of a mentally challenged teen whose IQ is exponentially increasing. The troubles of the world just melt away from me, and I’m off in my own created world. As I revise my novel as per my agent’s suggestions, I sometimes get bored with what I’m doing and write a short story about the backstory of one of the characters in my novel. This then informs my novel and helps me to tighten it up and give more depth to it. The short story may never be published, but it is my way of exploring aspects of characters that I would have otherwise missed. This creates supplemental material for my novel that is invaluable later, and may be the seed by which I grow a sequel.
Currently, my son is going through some difficult things. I knew what to do, but it took the prodding of a friend to get me started. I went out and bought Conner a hard bound journal with Marvel heroes on the cover and a very nice pen. I gave it to him with instructions to write whatever he wants in it whenever he feels strong emotions. I will not read it unless he wants me to, and so far he’s been writing in it nearly every day. Writing is indeed therapy. Use it. For me it has been invaluable.