Writing to confront the human heart in conflict

At last, another writer has excavated an issue about writing that has been worrying me. Does the desire to write and publish spring from some creative well (that is the hope) or does it spring from neurosis (that is the worry)?

In Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Steve Almond, story writer and essayist, argues convincingly that the rise of writing workshops parallels a decline in talk therapy. He claims that what brings many individuals to writing, and to MFA programs, is less an interest in craft than a location for their “loneliness and sorrow.” About himself as a young writer, he says

I figured I had gone into the literary racket because I had urgent and profound things to say about the world and because I was a deeply creative person. But looking back, I can see that the instigating impulse for me, for all of us really, was therapeutic. We were writing to confront what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself.” And not just any heart. Our hearts.


copyright: Pina (2011), by Wim Wenders

A few weeks ago, Jimmy and I went out for a quick dinner at Mantra (definitely on the down curve) before seeing Pina in 3D nearby. This you should see. Determined not to talk about the children or money, we discussed our side projects: he’s working on a novel about a discontented middle-aged man trying to reconcile himself to his life with antics both professional and personal, and I am working on a YA novel about a family of three children who have been abandoned by their parents and are trying to make it on their own, without revealing their situation to concerned adults around them. The more we described the characters and events to each other, the more concerned I became.

“Um,” I finally said, “Don’t you think this is really, really messed up?”

“What’s messed up?” Jimmy asked, perhaps having more fun with this conversation than I was.

“That maybe what we’re writing aren’t really novels, but just projections of our own subconscious conflicts and desires? Like maybe we should quit writing and straighten ourselves out?”

copyright: Pina (2011), by Wim Wenders

Jimmy responded with a writer’s answer: “In my writing, I’m trying to go to the places I fear to go.” Apparently, in his novel, the protagonist’s wife is killed, and this is upsetting to Jimmy, and so he’s writing into the terror. Armchair psychologist that I am, I speculated to myself that he also secretly and occasionally fantasizes about the disappearance of his own wife. (That’s okay, as long as I can remain alive in another dimension.)

And, hey, my subconscious is besmirched too. My protagonist may be a 13 year old girl and not a middle-aged married woman, but the mother of this girl — and the father — end up abandoning their kids in a series of events both planned and unplanned. What does that say about me?

I actually paused in the writing of this novel for a while, so distressed was I about my motives. Maybe time would be better spent playing cards with children or crafting artisanal yogurt for them while simultaneously meditating on my blessings. I could wear a rubber band around my wrist and snap it every time I feel the urge to document a thought or explore an image.

It’s not only writing’s effect on me I fret about. There are other people involved: readers. Am I inflicting on them — and that includes you, if you got this far — what I should be pouring out weekly to an audience of one, for a $20 co-pay? I don’t see a therapist, but perhaps the fact that I write and blog so much is a symptom I should.

Steve Almond writes, “Literary endeavor has supplanted therapy as our dominant mode of personal investigation.”

copyright: Pina (2011), by Wim Wenders

I sit here sighing. I’ve reached the point in this post where some kind of resolution — some way to make peace with this upsetting correlation of writing with what Almond calls “the writing cure” — is due. Almond himself, in his essay’s final four paragraphs, ends up calling his work as a creative writing teacher a “thrilling mission.”

I look for reassurance, a way to go on writing, which I don’t want to quit. Earlier in his piece, Almond reminds us that the writing workshop, which is more his subject than writing in general is, should ideally be part “of a larger creative process that involves reading, reflection and writing. It is this solitary work that marks the writer’s most sustained investigation of the self.” Later, he admits that he doesn’t know if a determined but novice student of his “will do the lonely, dogged labor necessary to get her novel published.”

Which brings us back to loneliness. And maybe that is the thing, the real test that one must submit to in order to produce an essay or story or book worthy of a reader’s sustained attention: solitude, often lonely, and dogged labor. Those I don’t fear, although my motives may continue to unsettle me.

12 thoughts on “Writing to confront the human heart in conflict

  1. I read the NYT article and thought of my many writer friends – ha, ha. So what if your writing is a form of therapy? It’s cheaper than therapy or could supplement therapy for those already going. If a piece of writing actually gets published, then it’s serving two purposes – therapy and entertaining readers. Sounds like a better deal than most things to me.

    I’m more worried about another article in the same week’s NYT Magazine – there was a little quiz about how much enjoyment you get from caring for your kids. The average man’s score was 60. The average woman’s score was 67. Mine was 45. . . Maybe you should interview me to get some character development ideas for your YA book!

    • Okay, if it serves the writer and the reader, then I can live with it.

      I did read that other article on enjoyment from caring for your kids. I just went back to the quiz and took it, and I hoped I would get close to the average. Guess what, Susan? I got a 45. I checked my addition twice. Is it such an illuminating quiz, though? I got dinged on the two shopping questions — do you like buying clothes for child? buying toys and books for child? I gave each a 1 — and would have liked to see questions about things I really do enjoy, like helping the kids with their homework, cooking with them, and doing chores together (really).

      So, if I interviewed you, and I would, it would turn out more to be a conversation between two less-than-average women. (Maybe that makes us more than average in other ways?)

  2. I’ve tried to write a response to this for about a half hour, but there’s too much to say. I’ll boil it down to this:

    1. Well done.
    2. I think it’s good that you feel unsettled, but I hope that won’t stop you from continuing with your project.

  3. I have on and off over the past several years written to muses, all of them being viral, attractive males with whom I am not romantically involved (yet perhaps wish one could if they were not such complex and difficult individuals!) Consistently, I experience some great curiosity about them, for mixed reasons, and that desire to understand “us” encourages me to write to them. I am not sure if this holds any logic, but who ever said that desire is logical? The longest muse relationship probably lasted almost 2 years. I was “done” writing to him a few months ago. It was mainly diary material, and also had a lot of my own personal philosophizing about what is and is not OK, etc. I tried putting some of this into a blog but no one ever read it, and, I must say it was so personal, that I rather hoped no one I knew would. Hmm. This is not the purpose of a blog. Or perhaps for me at the moment it was.

    This most recent muse (an extremely attractive pueur) mentioned that the writing I was doing at the time was reminiscent of a video game. So now I am researching video games that have moral and ethical bases. Maybe we can talk about this sometime during our single minute dialogue before and after class, before the next long round of “silence”.


    • Writing reminiscent of a video game? Yes, I would like to talk about that.

      And this I am reflecting on: “Consistently, I experience some great curiosity about them, for mixed reasons, and that desire to understand “us” encourages me to write to them. I am not sure if this holds any logic, but who ever said that desire is logical?” Because I pride myself on rationality, I often try to force desire into logic. I know, I know, I must simply accept, but I think I do this so that what I feel does not overwhelm me.

  4. Pingback: Alone time and its treats | leaf – stitch – word

  5. Pingback: Imagine a point in the future when you will look back at this moment | leaf – stitch – word

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