In every class I teach, someone says they like to write because it makes them feel better or helps them work through things. The more sophisticated among them (and the psychology majors) say, “Writing is therapeutic.” Honestly, I have to usually restrain myself from rolling my eyes at this point in our conversation. Not because what they say isn’t true (it is – more on that in a second) but because sometimes when they say that, they mean, “In this class, I’m going to write whatever I want because it helps me, and I don’t care what you or any of my other readers think.” This is not a helpful attitude for a creative writing class.
However, sometimes I let this attitude seep over into my own writing or into the writing of people I know who are not in my class. I seem to have developed this mindset that therapeutic writing is not “real” writing, and that’s a shame. In fact, that idea should be buried in the same pit with the idea that “genre fiction” is not “real” fiction either. Both ideas create this hierarchy of words that isn’t helpful except for the most elite readers and writers among us. And in fact, this hierarchy might be part (a small part, mind you) of the reason fewer and fewer people read today.
One of the results of this mindset is that I don’t usually sit down to write things out for myself, even if they are heavily weighing on my mind, because I don’t want to use my writing to help me through things. I don’t know why this is, but it is a pattern I need to break, especially since it is often in writing that I gain the most insights about myself and others. There’s something about laying down words on the page that makes me think ideas through more completely than if I was just wandering around in the chaos that is my mind.
So while I will still push my students to realize that a creative writing class is not the place to put their primary psychological needs first, I will tenor my comments about writing as therapy with a little more compassionate awareness of how true this idea is. Maybe I won’t have to restrain my eye roll, and instead, I can just talk about the value of revising when it comes to pouring out our souls.