One of the things I appreciate most about my MFA program is my reading list. Each semester, I have to present a list of 8-10 titles to my mentor and then write short critical essays on each one throughout the independent study session. The best part of this is that I have control over the list. I am an avid reader and have a ginormous book collection, but there have definitely been times when I was assigned books that I didn’t like. Having the freedom to read what I want to read is close to heaven.
Right now, I’m reading Lauren Slater’s “Welcome to My Country,” a memoir about her experiences as a therapist as well as her own history as a patient. I picked it because I’m writing something similar–a collection of essays about my work with abused children and how it coincides with my on experiences as a domestic abuse survivor–and I came across this quote a few minutes ago:
There is no way, I believe, to do the work of therapy, which is, when all is said and done, the work of relationship, without finding your self in the patient and the patient’s self in you. In this way, rifts within and between might be sealed, and the languages of our separate lives might come to share syllables, sentences, whole themes that bind us together.
At first, I paused on the quote because it fits so perfectly in what I’m trying to do with my own writing project, but then as I thought more about it, I realized that it fits in with everything I write, and with the act of writing itself. Think about it. Most of us came to writing by the way of reading, and we fell in love with reading because something, a book or poem or essay, touched us in a permanent, transformative way. When we are invested in a book, we lose sense of the distance between self and character; often, we see ourselves as the characters. (I know I do, at least–I am Jo March and Anne Shirley and Lisel Meminger and Hermione Granger and Luna Lovegood and Danaerys Stormborn, among others). Good writing, effective writing, seals rifts and binds readers to words.
While I recognize that writing can be therapeutic, and have used it as such, I detest how the two are so often confused. Especially in nonfiction and poetry, when the idea of “confessional” has become “spill your guts” and when the age of the navel-gazing memoir meant “memoir” and “diary” were meshed into one. If a writer is writing only for therapy, it is evident in every single word on the page. By all means, if writing makes you feel better, do it. Just don’t think it makes for a publishable, readable piece. Trauma stories, abuse narratives, etc–they all have their place, but they have to mean more than just telling your story. Tell it, please. Just tell it in such a way that it means more than just confession. When a piece is well-written, it is not the act of writing that is the therapy but the finished product–the book itself has the power to transform a reader’s life.
Reading is not a passive act. We may look like we’re still and calm when digesting a story, but really, we are participating. We feel what the characters feel, react to their reactions, celebrate their triumphs. That is where the themes come in and bind us together.
Everyone needs connection. Every last one of us needs to feel like we aren’t alone in the universe. The writer telling her story needs to be read; the reader reading the story needs to be a part of the story. Language is transformative.
If you’re out there reading this, what do you think?