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Is Writing Cathartic?

  • Published in Writing

Much depends on what you’re writing, your intended audience and why you’re doing it. Some of us feel such a compulsion to express our thoughts, ideas, feelings and visions in the written word that a day without tapping out a few hundred words is like going without our beverage of choice.

Does that imply writing is a drug? In a way I suppose it is but a healthy one. If you are overwhelmed by unprocessed feelings then keeping a journal is one way of making sense of them and it provides a reference point for when you feel better. I’m not a diarist, partly because I no longer write legibly by hand but I am a list maker and someone who likes to jot as the very act of seeing words appear before my eyes helps alleviate stress and tension.

Back to my original question. What does catharsis actually mean?  Providing psychological relief through the open expression of strong emotions; causing catharsis. Like tears.

When I wrote The Cruelty of Lambs and more recently my new novel, The Future Can’t Wait, I experienced catharsis by the letting go of anger and hurt through my characters. It allowed me to pour everything out then stand back and assess their responses to some terrible situations nobody wants to find themselves facing. Some of this was definitely an outpouring of my subconscious and there were times I had to stop writing because despite it being fiction I could relate personally to some of the events and I know other people could too. Some reviewers described The Cruelty of Lambs a painful read. It was meant to be because only by getting under the skin of people who have personal experience of a situation can we find empathy with them.

I think it’s empowering to incorporate a difficult period in your life in your novel even if you don’t think it’s very much – you know the argument- well people have had it worse than me. Readers are often looking for ways of handling difficult periods in their own life and can be inspired when they see your suffering character finally find relief and hope.

I devour psychological thrillers like I do my morning cornflakes – greedily and left eyeing up more! The fact that someone faces grave danger, comes face to face with their deepest fears, biggest nightmare or suddenly wakes up to the fact the way they are being treated really isn’t normal or right can resonate with most of us. Ask any novelist if there is something of them in their books – a broken heart, failed marriage, teenage angst etc and they are most likely to say ‘ well a bit maybe.’ When pushed they will also tell you it was a relief, better than therapy and it has helped them find closure. That’s certainly true of writing both of my novels.

I wrote The Cruelty of Lambs during another bout of depression. Instead of ruminating on past injustices or traumatic thoughts, I channelled them onto the screen which helped give them shape, order and a semblance of objectivity. We write because we want to make sense of the world even if it’s through fun children’s books, a How-to guide or a personal journal.

The memoir is the ultimate in writing for catharsis I think. We take a period in time, usually something that was challenging at the time and write our way through it. The experience can evoke old feelings about that time which become easier to process the more time passes. In some cases, memoirs are written for family alone, as a record of the period but many memoirists want to share their experience for the benefit of others.

Diving into a dark, skeleton- filled pit isn’t for the faint hearted.  Don’t write painful stuff if it’s going to trigger unhealed trauma. I waited 15 years before writing my first novel after being diagnosed with ptsd.  Have someone close at hand you can talk to about what you’ve written or are about to write. Think carefully about whether you want to go public or not. The misery memoirs and true life stories are still very popular from A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer to Damaged by Cathy Glass. Writing this kind of book provides a healing for the writer but it can cause tremendous pain for whole families, relatives, friends and even unsuspecting strangers once the book hits the stores and moreover the press.

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Can't Sleep? Join the Club!

An imaginative novel, Café Insomnia by bestselling author, Mark Capell, has helped me cope with another period of sleeplessness over the past few days. Twenty five year old Justin Brook opens an all-night café for those who can’t sleep. Strange things happens in the shadow hours just as they do in your head when you are jolted awake at 2.21 am for weeks on end.

When I was active, raising children, running a business, a home and doing the red-eye run to New York on a regular basis, I had no difficulty in sinking into blissful slumber as soon as the clock struck nine. I’ve always been an early to bed and early to rise kind of girl. I think the rot set in when my girls were teenagers. Half an ear strained for the phone, one eye on the clock as it ticked through the early hours before a ‘Mum, no taxis and I’m cold,’ broke through my semi consciousness.

You would think that once they left home I would relish long lavender baths, cups of hot chocolate a good book and hours of delicious sleep. If only.

Instead I suffer from chronic periods of insomnia which are taking a toll on my energy, my mood and no doubt my health. I’ve tried out all the recommended tips: lavender, camomile tea (yuk) some herbal stuff that smells like cheesy feet, a brisk walk before bed ( lethal in my case), stretching, turning off the radio, a boring book, getting up to clean the kitchen floor or God forbid to do some ironing. Nothing works.

A doctor told me said, ‘You can’t sleep because you’re depressed and you’re depressed because you can’t sleep.’ Helpful. Not. Depression and anxiety can cause early morning waking and I do experience periods of both. Illness, trauma, fear and any powerful emotion can break a sleep pattern up to the point it becomes a nightmare (sorry)  to correct it. The more you worry about getting to sleep the harder is it.

Some changes to my routine have helped a bit. These are my top three. (These don’t necessarily apply to shift workers or people with broken sleep because of babies or demanding relatives who also can’t sleep and ring you for a chat.)

  1. Saying to myself it doesn’t matter if I don’t sleep tonight. It’s about taking the pressure off the need to get to sleep by a certain time. Ok so you will feel scratchy the next morning and shattered the next night but by taking the pressure off to ‘perform’ as it were can induce relaxation which is the key to sleep.
  2. Listening to a meditation tape. Ten minutes of shut-eye and a few stretches while your mind floats off to Fantasy Island where your horrible boss is eaten by a shark. Maybe. I don’t have any boss, fortunately.
  3. Creating a suitable sleeping environment. I always have my window open a crack even in the winter to keep the air circulating. Black out blinds or curtains are a great help in the long, light nights. The biggest change you can make in my opinion is turning off all gadgets, especially with screens, an hour before bed time. I don’t even have mine in the room. Quiet, soothing activities prepare the mind and body for a restful night.

I do get up in the early hours if I’m struggling and no I don’t clean the kitchen floor. I write a hundred words as I’m doing now. It’s amazing how the eyes just want to close when work is in sight.

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