We were writing to confront what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself.” And not just any hearts. Our hearts.
~ Steve Almond
I’ve been walking around in a daze since releasing The Love Essays, humbled by the heartfelt, thoughtful responses and, honestly, a bit adrift now that the work is done. I miss them, the essays; I miss the work of them… and not for the reasons I thought I would.
Writing about the year of my Love Project was not the experience I imagined it would be. I’d envisioned a very literary, artistic exercise, playing with form and voice and language to create something entirely new with each essay. I wanted to stretch myself as a writer, try things I hadn’t done before, attempt a sort of literary fierceness that I felt I’d fallen short of in the past. And while, in the end, I think I did that, I was only a few paragraphs into the creative process when my focus shifted, viscerally. In minutes I was out of my head and into my guts, which is where I stayed for all the weeks of writing.
Sifting through 2011’s blog posts, photos, notebooks, emails and a downright staggering number of physical cards and letters, I began to understand that the essays were not going to be a summary of what I’d already been through, but a continuation of the quest I’d started over a year before. I’d only gathered together the pieces of the puzzle; to discover their meaning, I’d have to figure out how they all fit together.
In his NYT piece, Why Talk Therapy is on the Wane and Writing Workshops Are on the Rise, Steve Almond talks about how writing is often a form of therapy for the writer, and while I’m not sure the rising popularity of writing programs has anything to do with the decline of talk therapy, I have come to believe in the therapeutic value of writing. I didn’t always, and until about three years ago, I never kept a journal. I started then because I was reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and I got hooked on writing morning pages, the whole point of which is to empty your mind of all the crap that gets in the way of your creativity. In Cameron’s words:
Although occasionally colorful, the morning pages are often negative, frequently fragmented, often self-pitying, repetitive, stilted or babyish, angry or bland – even silly sounding.
Yes, indeed. Mine are all that, and worse. And how can excising all that passionate drivel not be a good thing? The therapeutic value of morning pages, or any sort of journaling, is obvious. It’s like pouring your heart out to a therapist, only better because your notebook doesn’t judge you behind its practiced, unfaltering, professional gaze.
But I think the therapeutic value of writing goes far beyond our journals. I think it lies in the act itself, in the attaching of words to emotion, in the translation of experience into language. There is a distillation that happens then, and a sort of hopeful logic is imposed. We make sense of what might otherwise confuse or overwhelm us – grief, sadness, joy, love – by breaking it down and then arranging it into poems, stories, essays, art.
At the end of his New York Times piece, Steve Almond refers to a student writing about her family under the guise of fiction. He says:
I have no idea whether my student will do the lonely, dogged labor necessary to get her novel published. I’m not sure that’s what matters in the end. What matters is that she and her comrades have found a way to face the toughest truths within themselves, to begin to make sense of them, and maybe even beauty. In a world that feels increasingly impersonal and atomized, I can’t think of a more thrilling mission.
I had no idea when I sat down to write them how necessary the Love Essays would be for me. I knew that I was a different person at the end of 2011 than I’d been at the beginning, but how I’d changed and what it all meant to me didn’t become clear until I wrote it down. In writing the essays, I’ve begun to make sense of the (beautiful) mess inside me, and if that’s not therapy, I don’t know what is.
I’d love to hear your art-as-therapy thoughts. My guess is that this doesn’t only happen with writing.