|Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Portrait of a Woman, via Wikimedia Commons|
There's a whole school of thought out there that says writing can be a form of therapy: if you experienced something bad or complicated or painful, you can write about it, and this will allow you to process your feelings and move on.
I never thought much about this idea until recently, because -- well, I'm not sure why, but part of the reason is probably that when I feel discouraged or unhappy in a substantive way, it's almost never consciously linked in my mind to something that happened in the past. It almost always takes the form more of general melancholia/what's-the-point/this-goddamn-vale-of-tears and not oh-this-thing-that-happened. Writing about that would just be blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.
I had occasion to think about it recently, though. For reasons having nothing to do with therapy and everything to do with oh-maybe-that-would-be-interesting-and-fun, I took a couple of memoir writing classes through the Gotham Writers Workshop. To my surprise, I found that writing about things made me experience them in a worse way.
For example, for one assignment I wrote a really short piece about how when I see an ambulance rushing somewhere with its siren on, I'm often reminded with a jolt of the night my father had a heart attack, when I was fifteen. Because we lived in a condo complex with complicated intertwined streets, as the ambulance was on its way the suggestion was made that I should walk through the dark quiet streets to the entrance to flag them down and show them the way to the house. And that's what I did.
I wrote about this experience, and I wrote about learning a few hours later that he had died. I wrote about how when I would see an ambulance on its way somewhere, I would often be cast momentarily back to the fear and sadness of that night, and I would picture some other family, waiting for this ambulance, and I would imagine their fear and sadness. I wrote about how I would often then be briefly suspended in time, reminded of the fragility of human life and human happiness.
The teacher liked the piece. She suggested I might submit it to be published, in an online literary forum for very short pieces, after making some revisions. As I made the revisions, I had a mix of feelings. The changes were improving the writing as a piece of writing, but at the same time, I felt like crafting the narrative into the right sort of narrative meant shifting my understanding and perception of what had happened and how it had felt.
Its a recurring problem for me with writing. When it comes to memoir, the shaping of a narrative feels a lot like lying. Every piece I ended up writing for those courses, I felt like I had to turn a series of "well, I don't know, there was this, but there was also that"; things were happening that were unrelated but felt important; who-the-hell-knows-what-is-going-on into some story about How I Changed or What I Learned.
After all that narrative shaping, I felt like I had trouble getting the confusingness of the original memories back. Instead, I had these new memories, organized in a neater, tidier, more standardized, more McMuffin kind of way.
It was like the old messy and less interpreted memories had been overwritten.
After I revised the short piece about ambulances, I submitted it to the forum my teacher had suggested. A couple of weeks later they rejected it. Honestly, when I found out it was rejected, I wasn't as disappointed as I'd thought I'd be -- I almost had a sense of relief that the mood of that piece wasn't a mood I'd be putting out into the world. But still. Being rejected always sucks.
Now when I see an ambulance, instead of thinking about fear and sadness and the fragility of life, I'm reminded instead of writing this piece, and I'm reminded of the experience of having it rejected.
In a way you might think this would be an improvement, replacing a very painful and sad memory with a merely annoying one. But it doesn't feel like an improvement at all. It feels like a total loss.