Writing as Therapy
When doing various book events and talks, I get asked one question, by far, more than any other. I’m sure statistically it is not remotely close to whatever #2 may be. I get asked this same question nearly every time, and it came up again last week, at Chautauqua. That’s fine; it’s an important question. The question is this: Was writing your book therapy?
This question is deceptively simple. I, too, was fooled by it, the first several times I answered. But the more I have considered, the more I have parsed the assumptions inherent in both the question and my own experience, the more my answer has changed. It will probably change again in the future, but let me provide the current version, anyway; a blog version, which will be more edited than my verbal response in person, but far from scholarly or complete.
The short answer is, yes, of course it was helpful. But also this: No one wants to read a catharsis, and not every veteran has to write a book to achieve the same effect. That’s not where the therapy lies.
The satisfaction of putting a war story down on paper comes not from the creation of the literary work but rather with the relief of forgetting. Whatever event or action or image that has haunted you is now out of your head and on the page. You don’t have the responsibility to remember anymore. If you want to recall that day, read whatever you wrote. But it doesn’t need to be perpetually at the forefront of your mind.
I felt like writing my first book was a very biological process, like there was something inside that needed to get out, but once expelled fully gone. I wrote notes for visits with my shrink, I wrote occasionally in a journal, but writing the book was different, and this is where I originally made assumptions and conflated motivations in my own head.
I never separated the therapy of writing from the decision to write a book and seek a publisher. I wanted to write a book (any book) because I wanted to be a writer, because I wanted to change professions, because I wanted to pursue a dream. I had to write the book I did because it was a story that needed to come out. For the year of writing the book, for the months of editing that followed, in the initial book events and publicity, I never separated the need to get my story out from the desire to become a writer. They were inseparable, though only because my assumptions were unexamined.
Why do such distinctions matter? Because I was constantly conscious of writing my book the very best I could, for an audience, for some future reader (even if that reader was only my children, though I would occasionally dare myself to hope for more), to produce a story that was interesting and effective. The writing was therapy, but I was also trying to tell a tale well, to learn to write more in the future.
It perhaps goes without saying that not every veteran needs to do this to gain the therapeutic effect. The benefit lies in the sharing and forgetting, not in any composition skills learned. Which is why veteran writing programs across the country are providing such a valuable service to returning soldiers and their families. When I was in Seattle I met with students in the Red Badge Project, a program for men and women still on active duty at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Sue Diaz, my partner for this spring’s Silicon Valley Reads, runs veteran writing programs in San Diego. And, in a timely plug, I’m happy to now be involved with the new Words After War program in New York City.
Words After War is the brainchild of Brandon Willits, a former sailor and writer who has secured funding to provide veterans and their families the opportunity to just get their story out. Their first seminar starts in late September and is accepting reservations now. I wish I could go – it is being taught by the excellent Matt Gallagher, author of Kaboom and editor of the new Fire & Forget short story collection. I hope to be leading classes soon as well. In the meantime, if you are a veteran in New York City, or know a veteran in New York City, sign up for the Words After War program. Give yourself (or your loved one) the space to forget by getting the story out of your head and down on paper.