When I entered my MFA program in 2014, I had no idea what a cathartic process writing is to most people who write. Sure, there had been times as a preteen or teen where I’d thrown some anger down on a page and called it poetry. But writing to me was something I loved that was separate from my personal feelings. Stories were all around us, and I reveled in the romance of bygone eras and Cinderellas waiting to happen. I didn’t need to be a maligned scullery maid to cheer when the heroine became exalted to her rightful place of respect and security and happiness. When my life was bad, I escaped into someone else’s by reading, or I escaped into some made up world I had created. Writing for me was about creating a story that someone wanted to read and those stories were all around us, but my life didn’t seem “bad” enough to intrude onto my pages.
So when I got to Lesley, it was almost remarkable to me how many of my fellow students openly embraced the therapeutic aspects of writing. My program includes five genres – Writing for Young People, Writing for Stage and Screen, Fiction (adult, because, of course you wouldn’t need to specify that), Creative Nonfiction, and Poetry. I think that the Lesley program is, at least among low residency programs, one of the more diverse in this broad range of writing disciplines. Yes, many of us overlap from one to another. I write poetry. I’ve written personal essays. And the program is designed to allow us to work within our genres but also to interact meaningfully with each of the other genres. Friendships cross genre lines, they cross semesters, they cross borders. It didn’t take long for me to realize that many of us, especially those in Creative Nonfiction and Poetry, viewed their writing as a therapeutic detox and residency as a form of emotional rehab.
Within days of coming to my first residency, people were spilling their guts all over the place-in classes, in their writing, in the dining hall. I began to see the way writing is, for many, many people, a type of therapy. People even half-joked on our student Facebook page about their MFA being better than their therapist, and cheaper.
Then, somewhere along the way of my MFA and post MFA years, my life became a soap opera without me being able to stop things from spinning out of control. There were days when it seemed that the harder I worked to stabilize things, the worse they got. Every day became an emotional war zone, and 2016 was, without a doubt, the worst year of my life to date. And somewhere along the way, my writing began to reflect this.
Last year, a Lesley alum who graduated from the program before me released a young adult book about a girl whose mother is a novelist who turns the girl’s mistakes into a bestselling YA book. In Katie Cotugno’s 99 Days, the protagonist is returning home for the summer before college after having fled town when her mother’s book exposed her betrayal of the boy she loved and his whole family. It’s a great premise, mostly because, when we use writing as therapy (whether through fiction, nonfiction, or poetry), we usually aren’t just telling our own painful secrets.
Creative nonfiction writers in particular grapple with these questions of how much is acceptable to reveal and whose truth matters. Placing the personal into a fictional setting allows us to circumvent some of those issues, but even then we are often faced with revealing more than we should if we dare to tell the story we really want to tell. Often we can’t take the risk, we can’t be the selfish mom in 99 Days who sees her daughter’s intimate life as marketing fodder.
The down side to not using writing as therapy, though, is that it stunts our growth, as both human beings and writers. Since my time at Lesley, I’ve realized that my writing has changed. It has become more personal, even when the subject matter is not explicitly linked to my current life. For instance, my latest WIP is a contemporary realism about a girl in mourning for her mom. I haven’t lost my mom, but 2016 was a year of deep grieving for me in other ways. Somehow, that grieving has found its way into the pages of my story, and my story is better for it.
I know what I want my next story to be about. But, like the mother in 99 Days, the story is just a little too personal. There are people it would hurt who don’t deserve to be hurt, and that means that I can’t write it. At least, I can’t ever try to publish it. I may write it for my own healing, or at least bits and pieces and scenes. I may write it as a type of therapy, like so many of my colleagues at Lesley have done. But even if I don’t write it, I know that the emotions that are roiling inside of me right now will somehow find their way onto the pages of my next book, and that’s a really good thing. Because writing is cathartic. It is a way to heal. And so is reading, which is why so many people love to read. In the end, these human connections we make through writing and reading enable us to process emotions that are sometimes too vast, too oppressive, too taboo. Through writing and reading, we label these beasts inside of us, corral them, and tame them.
So write the story you cannot tell. Write it any way you have to, and burn it afterward if that’s what is best for the people you love. But leave the seeds of those emotions in your writing garden, and grow them. They are what make your stories real.