I love words.
I believe in their power to soothe, to comfort, to heal. I believe in their ability to inspire, to capture the unthinkable, to help us cope with the unimaginable.
As a psychologist, words have been my tool. They have allowed me to take the experiences of police officers and military personnel and translate them, turning responses that are visceral, often cruel, into a logical process, our cognition at work.
Words can help us give structure to traumatic events. When we experience a shooting, a car crash, an armed robbery, our brain will often store these occasions in a piecemeal format. We may recall images, flashes of color, smells, sounds that apparently come from nowhere. But we are humans. Humans need stories like they need air. So to experience that, to have this event in our memory that makes little or no sense, can be excruciating. We can experience flashbacks, recurring dreams, and can find our daily lives tainted by these little sensory snippets that refuse to retreat.
Words can help.
Allowing and encouraging people to tell the story of their experiences can, in some instances, help them remove themselves from the center of it, enabling them to gain some distance, some perspective. Sometimes, it is the physical force of writing that does it; forcing people to form a coherent narrative from their darkest, most traumatic experiences can sometimes bring relief and even understanding.
There are some exceptions.
I believe in meeting people where they are. Not everyone uses words to heal. For some, being forced to talk or write about their hardest times is tantamount to forcing them to relive it. It does not bring closure. It does not bring relief. Not everyone heals in the same way, and that’s okay. It’s the way it should be. So, for such people, other means must be found.
The other point I have to make is that, yes, writing can be a great healer. That’s what diaries are for. Writing that is meant for public consumption is something else entirely.
I gave a talk at a public library recently and was approached by someone who was in the midst of writing her own novel. This person passionately wanted to be published, but said that so far, no agents or publishers had been interested. Devastating for her, as the story she was telling was her own. As she talked to me about her difficult childhood, it struck me that perhaps the reason she was struggling to gain interest in her writing was that she was trying too hard to use her novel as therapy.
It can be tough to make characters come to life when they are constrained by your experiences and your traumas. If you are writing about your own heartaches, your story often does not get the opportunity to develop as it should because you are forcing it to conform to a certain set of criteria.
The other problem is that readers can be tough. Really tough. It is hard enough to hear the fiction you have come up with be pulled apart by a reader who wishes it was something other than it was. When that fiction is in fact your own life, laid bare for all to see…ouch!
Do you want your deepest fears, your most painful memories ripped apart in a one-star review? No? Me either.
We all put bits of who we are into our writing. But the danger is, trying to then use that writing to fix us. If you are hoping your writing will be read by many, that can be a recipe for disaster!
Writing for me is redemptive. The act of forming words, even if they are words that make up a story I am telling, soothes me and makes me feel whole. But when I write a novel, that is what I am doing. I am not trying to battle my demons or trying to seek public sympathy with my troubles. I am telling a story.
The rest of it, I’ll save for my diary.
Emma Kavanagh is a former police and military psychologist, and author of After We Fall: A Novel (Sourcebooks).