I was listening to the radio on Sunday night when they played ‘Don’t Cry Out Loud’ by Elkie Brooks. Many, many years ago my mum used to sing that song and (ironically) it always made me well up, even though I was probably too young to really understand it. Listening to it today, I suppose the lyrics sound a bit corny, but it’s still poignant for me. There’s something about being a strong woman, or at least appearing to be strong, picking yourself up and carrying on, that I can really relate to.
However, as a student of psychotherapeutic counselling, I’m not advocating the advice in the song: “Just keep it inside, learn how to hide your feelings.” (For a more recent take on a similar theme, by the way, check out ‘Turn It Off’ from ‘The Book of Mormon’ – and if you haven’t seen the show, do so as immediately as is possible – it’s brilliant and hilarious). Doesn’t seem a great recipe for emotional health. But we can’t all walk around Sainsbury’s sobbing into the cauliflowers when we feel a bit low, however much we might like to. So writing can provide a brilliant outlet.
This is not news, of course: many of us found pouring our teenage angst into diaries a source of comfort (and a source of hilarity in later years if, like me, you’ve held on to them – which just goes to show, perspective is all). Therapists working in hospitals, prisons, schools and care homes work with people to encourage them to put their thoughts to paper as a form of catharsis.
It’s not always easy. When I was going through the most upsetting year of my life, a wise friend asked me ‘are you writing?’ I was surprised to find the answer was ‘no’. I couldn’t write, I told her. It was weird. Of course, I scrawled the odd furious diatribe that thankfully never went anywhere (a confessional hangover from my diary days), but creative writing wise, I was empty. I’d lost interest in the activity that was most important to me, and it took a long time to get it back. But I was grateful that its absence had been pointed out, and when I was ready, the page was waiting, like another old friend.
What is it about writing that makes it such great therapy?
Escapism – you can go anywhere in your imagination, in a story. You might not be able to afford that holiday to Thailand that you know would make you feel better, but you can dream it up and you can write it down. You can get away from everyday pressures, even for a short time. You might not get a tan, but you’ll save money, and your subconscious can’t tell the difference between imagination and reality so will probably start to perk up.
You can use your anger, hurt, whatever negative emotions you’re feeling, and turn them into something else. Something good, maybe something that will one day even help someone because they’ll read it and think ‘Oh! I feel like that, too. I’m not alone.’
This is the biggie, for me. It’s all very well writing down the ‘real’ stuff, in diary mode – I still do this, and it’s particularly useful for getting intense emotions off your chest ‘in the moment’, for ordering your thoughts, and for saying all the things you really shouldn’t or can’t make public. But taking real feelings and turning them into fiction: this is where the magic happens. I was thrilled to be given the feedback recently that in my writing, the emotion is ‘right there on the page’ – I hope that’s true and I’m not sure how it’s achieved except that if you face your feelings (sorry Elkie), notice them, and write about them with honesty, you can create something special. My characters aren’t me; their situations are different, their personalities are different, but in a lot of ways, their feelings are real.
Maureen Freely, who taught me Creative Writing at Warwick University, once wrote on a piece of my work: ‘writing well is the best revenge’. Look at it this way: if you’re going to feel shit, you might as well get a good book out of it.
You can make your own ending. In tough times, whatever the cause, the overwhelming feeling can be that of loss of control. In your story, if not in life, everything can turn out just as you choose.
And if someone has really pissed you off, you can always write a thinly-disguised version of them and kill them.