Friday, February 8, 2008

Should Writing Be Cathartic?

When I asked Alice Sebold about whether or not writing Lucky (her memoir about her brutal rape) was cathartic, she said no--that she had worked through those feelings before writing the book. She said, "I had already done my personal work. Memoirs should serve the people reading them, not the author writing."

Consider that comment in contrast to Robert Frost's famous insight about writing and feeling: "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader."

I've been writing poetry and memoir for the past two years about my parents' illnesses and my father's death. Feeling is essential to me while I write. So is discovery. I can never claim I've worked out my feelings and thoughts in advance of writing--be that memoir, poetry or fiction. (That doesn't mean I write only to serve myself; I almost always imagine myself speaking to others as I write.)

Poet Ellen Bass addresses this as well in a recent online Poets & Writers intervew. I like how she says that her writing comes from something she's "trying to work out." To me, if I already have the thing settled, there's no reason to write about it.

Here's what Ellen says:

P&W: How did your mother’s death affect your writing?

Ellen Bass: Writing poetry for me was one of the primary ways that I grieved. I found that working with the poems was more natural to me than any other outward rituals or ceremonies around her death. I just thought during that whole period how fortunate I was to be a poet. I don’t know what people do who don’t have a way to sit with their experience in a tangible way. . . . Very often a poem comes from something that I’m trying to work out in my own life. Often I’ll write the same poem many times if there's an idea I’m grappling with. I’ll write it over and over in poems that don’t ultimately succeed until finally I have some entry into the poem.


Collin Kelley said...

I've worked through plenty of stuff, but only in the last fews have found the words (or maybe the courage) to start committing it to paper.

Montgomery Maxton said...

my writing is therapy

Lisa Nanette Allender said...

I adore Alice Sebold, and read "Lucky", and of course "The Lovely Bones"...What an opportunity to speak with her.But I tell ya, I think writing DOES surprise the author, always.There has NEVER been a time that I am writing(blogging, writing memoir, a play, or a poem) that I'm NOT truly surprised, made more aware,or become suddenly "enlightened" by that process--the process of DISCOVERY, inherent in ALL writing.
Perhaps Ms. Sebold is a bit more evolved than I am--she works it out, then displays it/sets it free-- for that "communion" we get when a connection is made with the reader...

Kate Evans said...

Wow, these are great comments, all three of you. It seems like we could have a great AWP panel on this. (That is if I felt like bothering!)

Yes, I think it does take courage, Collin. And MM, it is often for me, too.

Lisa, ME TOO. And the point you make about Alice reminds me a bit of Steinbeck: he worked out a lot of his books in his head for years before setting them down on paper. Although in Journal of Novel--which is about his writing of East of Eden--he makes it clear that at times the characters would have their own way. His surprise.