Art Imitates Life Imitates Art: Writing Fiction as Kind of Therapy
I was recently listening to a radio program talking about a classical piano competition in Moscow where competitors from all over the world were tasked with playing works by composers like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. The commentators were talking about whether there were rivalries between nations, like in the Olympics. And while it sounded like there sometimes were, they said that the audience generally fell in love with artists, not nations, and that, on some level, it was the musician’s job to sweep the audience away and envelop them in the music, bypassing geographic, ethnic, and racial borders. Music has that power.
Stories also have that power.
They’re obviously more dependent on language than music, but like a good piece of music, a good story has the power to bridge differences in time, upbringing, political affiliation, race, and many other human identifiers. Stories also give us a safe way to explore situations that may be difficult to discuss otherwise.
It’s probably no surprise that many stories aimed at children are often allegorical in nature (i.e. fables, fairy tales, myths), with animals or other stand-ins for humans. It’s certainly easier to talk about lazy rabbits and plodding tortoises than abstract concepts like consistency, hard work, and persistence. But let’s not forget that many of these stories, as outwardly simple as they are, have a dark side that we probably glossed over as children but may give us pause as adults. Little Red Riding Hood gets eaten by the wolf, something that would probably traumatize most children. The years of neglect and abuse piled on Cinderella would probably not be so easily erased with the magic of a pumpkin and glass slippers. And how many frogs, kissed in hopes of freeing the princes inside, stay frogs?
My point is not to pick apart these stories for failing to be realistic. Rather, what they do instead is make realistic (and thus unpleasant, murky, or complex) things easier to understand. Although children probably have a greater capacity to understand difficult and nuanced things than we adults generally give them credit for, there is a time and place for everything, and trying to explain why neglect or sexual abuse happened to a child is not the easiest thing in the world.
But the world is not always kind, and those are realities for some children … as are equally uncomfortable realities like racial discrimination, gender nonconformity, and a host of other supposedly “adult” issues. What can be done to give children (and former children) a way to describe those experiences honestly in a way that doesn’t chase people away?
As our recent racially-sparked incidents have shown in the US, we aren’t great at discussing issues like race in a frank and nonjudgmental way; nevermind equally squirm-inducing issues like how mental illness, poverty, and privilege impact society. Of course, our identity as a multicultural nation with people from all over the world is a factor, but our failure to openly resolve these challenges probably has as much to do with our humanity as it does our history. We, as humans, avoid the uncomfortable, and even if the status quo isn’t that great, the unknown can sometimes seem worse.
But our humanity can be part of the solution, too. Because we are human, there are some commonalities we share, like it or not. We are born. We have parents and families, though it may vary how involved or positive a presence they are in our lives. We, as a species, take a long time to mature. In those years before our brains have grown up, we sometimes do dumb and impulsive things in our quest to figure out who we are, where we came from, and how to find love, because, after all, we want to be liked for who we are, not for who other people want us to be. Though we don’t always admit it, in our moments of quiet desperation, we hope too much bad shit doesn’t happen to us, but we know sooner or later, it will, and that’s life. And we know the same thing will happen to our children, and we really prefer not to think about that at all. Then we get older. And a part of us wishes we could be off doing the dumb and impulsive things that our mature brains say might cost too much money, lead to pain, land us in the hospital, or earn us our very own mug shot. And then, of course, we all die, and we can’t always choose how or when. That sucks, but that, too, is part of life.
These common aspects of human existence have the potential to cut through barriers imposed by race, socioeconomic status, culture, and upbringing. These stories that weave our lives together are powerful on their own. But they are equally powerful, perhaps more so, when used as the fuel for our uniquely (as far as we know) human trait – our creativity, something we all share on some level.
Journaling and drawing are often suggested as ways to help people process difficult experiences or emotions, so creating fiction, whether written or illustrated, isn’t that much of a stretch as a therapeutic activity. After all, fiction takes the “you” out of the equation. Yes, the characters you create may be thinly veiled versions of yourself, but they’re not you, and that leaves you free to put them in all sorts of situations to see what could happen. It gets you out of your head and into the heads of others, and because of that distance, there is the potential of avoiding the audience squirming in their seats after reading something that has TMI (“too much information”) stamped all over it. It’s possible to write about incredibly awkward, embarrassing, and difficult personal experiences, because in the guise of a fictional story, it’s not actually real.
Though, in a way, it is. When we allow our minds to walk down these imaginary paths, it’s almost like these situations were real. Maybe in a parallel universe kind-of-real, but by giving our minds the freedom to wander, we may avoid some regrets, Monday morning quarterbackery, and “what ifs.” It’s kind of like downloading the pictures taken on a digital camera so there’s room to take more pictures. And the nice thing about sharing this story forged by the crucible of your experiences is that others, too, get the vicarious benefit of your hard knocks.
Well, great, you say. So how do I go about doing this? Although that’s the subject of whole different post, one of the biggest things to keep in mind when writing therapeutic fiction is that it is the epitome of writing for yourself. But wait, you say, I thought this was about writing so other people get the benefit of your hard knocks. And yes, that’s true, but only after you’ve done the hard work of translating what you’ve gone through into something people can easily digest. Remember, we humans shy away from things that are too uncomfortable, one of which is working hard. If you can’t figure out what’s going on in your own head, the most another person can do if offer guesses. But you will always be the expert on you. So as you create your characters, repeatedly ask yourself what that person is thinking, and look for the “whys” behind his actions. This process will help not only create more fully realized characters but may help you gain insights into your own experiences. Unlike in life, where sometimes things just happen without a clear reason, you are now in control. You have the chance to rewrite the story of your own experience in the way you wished it could have happened. In the process, you may even discover actions your characters take (which you actually thought of, either consciously or not) that can help you in your own life. Think of it as art that imitates life that has the potential to come full circle by imitating art and giving you life.
In the end, am I saying that if only we wrote more stories or drew more pictures based on lousy things that happened to us, we’d all be better off, and all of our problems would go away?
No, of course not.
Well … now that I think about it, maybe a little bit.
See, when people have discussions on what to do about our societal problems, for example, the discussion inevitably seems to boil down to, “Well, we just have to be better. We need to come together, discuss our problems like adults, and … just be … better.” And that’s all well and good, and everyone leaves feeling great, but the fact of the matter is, it’s really hard for people to be on their best behavior all the time. It’s a damn high bar to jump over. So no wonder we inevitably fail.
But we as humans are wired for stories. Young, old, rich, poor, downtrodden, privileged – we all love a good story. And when we find one that speaks to us – that touches on that central core of what it means to be human – we feel all warm and fuzzy and less alone in the universe. We want to share the story with people we care about. The coming together and discussing happens on its own. Maybe after millennia of sitting by the fire, telling stories, it’s now ingrained in our DNA.
So to all out there who create stories and trod the sometimes lonely road of figuring out how to get the stuff inside your head into the world, take heart! In those moments of quiet desperation, those days when the most you can do is figure out what you wrote yesterday is garbage, remember there is power in what you do. Not only are you taking part of yourself and setting it free, you’re doing it in such a way that requires you to draw interpretations from your experiences in order to create a story. And that not only has the capacity to help you personally but may help others as well. So keep spinning your tales and weaving your webs with their plot twists and intrigues, for as long as there are people, they will always be some who are looking for that story – your story – to make their own.