Therapeutic Writing

By Jeannie Campbell, LMFT

Every novel is a part of you.

No, I don’t mean in some philosophical sense that they each hold a place in your heart. I mean literally. Pieces of you—quirks, pet peeves, life experiences—are in your novels.

An unforgettable cab driver you had while on vacation pops up in a city scene. A teacher you had in junior high reappears in your YA. Your own affinity for caramel popcorn becomes a charming addiction for a main character. Your character gets worked up over the same injustice that lights your fire.

Some say this is simply writing what you know. And yes, of course they’re right. But it goes deeper than that. Writing is a way to make sense of the world you live in, the world you know.

In this way, writing is therapeutic.

In therapy, counselors often assign writing as homework to underscore an important topic from the session. Journaling can get a client to think deeper. You’re unlikely to censor what you write in a diary. Unlike a person, a journal won’t make you feel guilty for what you expressed, try to get you to change your mind or talk back to you. (If the latter happens, email me and I’ll see if I can pencil you in.)

Writing is an unadulterated form of communication to self. You write from the heart, for the heart.

And isn’t that what a book should be?

Donald Maass, in his book Writing the Breakout Novel, wrote, “…Novels change us because their authors are willing to draw upon their deepest selves without flinching. They hold nothing back, making their novels the deepest possible expression of their own experience and beliefs” (p. 39).

When you hold nothing back from your novel, there is no barrier between what is you and what is the book. The book is an extension of you—a part of you. And yes, here I do mean philosophically speaking.

I’m convinced the reasons mentioned above are why it’s so hard to take criticism from others about our “babies.” Just as our child carries our eye color or height, our books bear our likeness, our stamp, our genetics. Even the toughest-skinned parent would feel a twinge (and likely much more!) at some well-meaning, but critical, remark about their offspring.

So are you wondering now how can you write for all you’re worth—without flinching, as Maass wrote—during the editing and revision process?

The answer is YOU CAN’T. Just as severing off your baby’s finger would be painful beyond belief, so would cutting that scene or chapter or backstory dump. Switching points of view might be like swapping your toddler for another on the street because you have such an attachment to the one you gave birth to!

Of course, the analogy can only go so far. A book is NOT a flesh-and-blood child. In learning the craft, we realize a “finger,” “hand,” “torso,” or—gasp—the whole of our electronic baby is completely unusable, unpublishable, and in general, plain rubbish.

If this happens to be the case, archive these sections. Not with the hope of resurrection, but for the sake of posterity. Besides being hard to delete, the writing itself—if written from an honest, vulnerable part of your self—is still valuable therapeutically.

So hold a funeral service for those writing endeavors that didn’t make the grade. Bury them inside a graveyard file on your computer.

Then rename the file Therapeutic Writing.

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Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFC # 45366) in the state of California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit in Humboldt County, and enjoys working mainly with children and parents. Two of Jeannie’s “therapeutic romance” manuscripts have garnered the high praise of being finalists in the Genesis Contest for unpublished writers, sponsored by the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), of which she is an active member. She writes a popular monthly column for Christian Fiction Online Magazine and has been featured in many other e-zines, newspapers, and blogs.

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