Monday, May 21, 2012

Writing To Heal - Opposing Viewpoint

If we're being honest, most writers write for one audience: themselves. Whether writing to vent, for fame, for praise, for money, or just for fun, we write, first and foremost, for ourselves. And one of the main reasons we write is to heal - from loss, from tragedy, from trauma, or any of the main pains that plague us throughout our lives. We right to give meaning to that pain. We write to make sense of it all. And we write to help others understand analogous pains.

According to Wordserve Water Cooler, that's exactly what we should not do. In The Art of Bloodletting, Lesley Fields argues that there are three things we should not do when writing about pain:

  1. Don't write to heal.
  2. Don’t write to redeem, to turn inexplicable pain into sense and salvation.
  3. Don't write for yourself alone.
I have no problem with the third rule whatsoever. It brings to mind one of my favorite maxims on writing, from Gertrude Stein: "I am writing for myself and strangers." But the first two rules fly in the face of everything that makes writing great in the first place. The primary purpose of writing is to heal. The ultimate purpose of writing is to redeem, to turn inexplicable pain into sense and salvation - and by proxy give meaning to our greatest struggles. In Midnight in Paris, Stein's character says, "The artist's job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence."

Though this line was actually written by Woody Allen in his portrayal of Stein, it accurately surmises the purpose of drama. As Allen himself said in an interview, "one could make a case for that -- that the job of the artist is to show why life, despite all its horror and brutality." It's not enough to simply write about your pain in the most gruesome detail possible - that's the job of a journalist. An artist doesn't just show your something, he tells you why it matters. The Art of Bloodletting isn't just wrong in its thesis, it's the exact opposite of how a writer should approach his craft.

Write to heal: Fields writes, "Recognize that writing into affliction brings its own affliction. And even more importantly, recognize that when we are predisposed to heal ourselves, we will not be fully honest in the writing."

There's a truth in this that Fields corrupts to make her point: writers, when writing about their pains, can become too self-absorbed, sacrificing the art for the message. Yes, maintaining perspective is of primary importance. No, it's not good to put yourself before your craft. These truths are self-evident. Their logic is impeccable.

The flaw is in the conclusion: that because it is easy to fall into a trap, that because it is difficult to walk our path, we should then abandon that path completely. Make no mistake: writing an honest story that gives solace to the pains of your experience is the hardest task a writer can undertake. By no coincidence, it's also one of the most important and significant journeys we can travel as individuals.

We may not succeed in avoiding the traps of self-aggrandizement, of pandering to our need, but this is always the hazard in writing. Not to put too fine a point on it, but to avoid our greatest mission as writers because it's too tricky is a coward's excuse. To explore our greatest fears, to confront our greatest demons, to slay them on the page; these aren't the overambitious dreams of an amateur. These challenges are the only reason why artistic writing exists. They aren't even challenges. They are your responsibility.

Write to redeem, to turn inexplicable pain into sense and salvation: Fields writes, "We want to bring beauty from ashes. We want to make suffering redemptive to prove its worth. But this is God’s work, not ours. Our first responsibility is to be true to what was, to witness honestly to what happened."

I'm not religious. I don't even believe in a God, so maybe my viewpoint is skewed irrevocably on the subject. But it seems to me that if God gave us free will, sentience, and critical thinking, then the sole reason he would do so is to allow us the ability to overcome pain - for the sake of sense and salvation. Finding ourselves, finding our truths, finding our purpose in existence; are these not our purpose on earth?

We are all handed trials and pains; these are the what our lives. The struggle to overcome them is the why. It's the fuel for art, joy, love. The things that make us great, that make life worth living, and make writing worth reading is the portrayal of this journey. No, you don't always have to provide a moral in your art, to turn pain into joy, or pain into salvation. But if you want to do anything great, you damn well better try.


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