I have focused a lot on art for therapy on this blog, but have mentioned less on writing for therapy. I have mentioned that keeping a journal or writing stories are good for stress and for healing, and they are. Keeping a journal can be easier than writing stories in many ways, but in others, it can be much harder. When you write in a journal, you are writing facts and your emotions directly onto the page. You are summarizing your day and exploring your experiences, and that can be simultaneously painful and cathartic. When you write a story, however, you are generally putting a character in place and forcing the character through experiences that they adapt to and learn from. This gives a larger, overall view, and also allows for distance between the person writing and the experiences being written about.
Writing stories can be even more challenging in other ways, too. If the author has an intention for their stories to be read by others, then grammar, narrative voice, and all of the other aspects of story writing come into play, which requires knowledge, education, and a situation of constant learning. Even after writing for years, the author will be learning new things to make their stories better for a reader.
For instance, today, I discovered that my stories have issues with passive voice, and I found out that bringing my stories from past tense into present tense helps me eliminate passive voice – as well as helping me to pare down details to only what is necessary for each moment in the story. Now I have to do this to the whole book, and after I am done, I have to decide whether I want to bring the story back into past tense afterward, or leave it in present tense and possibly even make present tense my default writing choice – which might help me to avoid the passive voice and heavy detail pitfalls in the first place.
Learning and editing does not end once the grammar of a story is perfect. I once thought that was all that was really needed to make a story good enough, and I have long since found that assumption to be almost laughably wrong. There are so many aspects that make a story work, and each aspect must be adhered to. I have found that writing groups on social media are very helpful – for me, they are even more helpful than creative writing college courses, in that sometimes you are dealing with successful authors, and that you can access them for much longer periods of time than a college semester.
In these groups, the feedback is from other writers who are all trying to do the same things as you are, and have as much – and in some cases, more – experience in crafting stories as you do. There are writers there who are at all different levels of learning and crafting, from those who still haven’t written anything and are still just contemplating the idea of writing to those who have written dozens of books – and they all help each other.
You can have your writing read and critiqued, you can get feedback on how to work on syntax or change the dynamics of a paragraph, or you can get ideas for character-building, plot creation, how to create a story outline before you begin writing, and so on. You can find advice as to when to begin editing, how to get an editor, how to write a query letter to an agent or a publisher, or how to self publish. People in these groups will even help you pick character names and attributes, give you ideas for special powers, give you ideas for how to have your character overcome an obstacle, and show you examples of fiction in the genre in which you have chosen to write.
The assistance of fellow writers is possibly the writer’s most valuable asset. Progress in this craft can be slow and even frustrating at times, but some aspects can also be quick and very rewarding. Many authors are also writing for stress, or to share their story with the world. Some are just writing for the love of writing. Some are writing with an intention to help others who may be experiencing things they’ve lived through before, and still others are writing self-help books for people who want to be successful authors. There is variety, from fiction writers, to nonfiction writers, to poetry writers, children’s book writers, bloggers, article writers, and everything in between. This means there is a niche for everyone.
Most people understand what they are getting into when beginning a diary, but few people understand what they are getting into when beginning to write stories. I remember when I began. I thought the writing of the story was the hardest part. Tapping into creativity and making a full story was difficult. Writing without stopping to go back and edit after every chapter was hard. I butchered my stories before they were much more than begun. And then I joined a writers group on Facebook. There, I met someone who recommended an audio-book by the famous author, Stephen King, called On Writing, which was his direct advice to aspiring authors.
I learned two things that changed everything for me from that book. Number one was not to stop to edit while writing – just keep going and don’t look back until it’s done. Number two was to wait after finishing a story for about six weeks before going back to edit, so that there would be distance between myself and my story and I could look at it more objectively when editing instead of being immersed in it while editing. This allows the writer to see more of the flaws in the writing and correct them.
This advice is what finally allowed me to finish writing my first entire book – and what a book! I wrote a novel that was 89,000 words long in rough draft. I skipped a lot of details and scenes when writing it, so my first revisions to the story (after my six week wait) were to flesh out those scenes, add dialogue, and so on. This brought the book’s word count up to 169,000 words. My editor and I are now working on breaking that enormous Lord-of-the-Rings-for-teenage-girls style book down into four or five smaller books.
Little did I know when I started how much time would be spent in revising this story. It has now been over two years since I wrote it, and I am still working on it. Of course, my book was enormous, so that is different from a short story writer, and possibly the length of time working on it is a result as much of length as of learning new things to make it better. Still, I had no idea how much I would learn, or what kind of journey I was embarking on, just in writing a story. Most people who write don’t know when they begin, either.
This project, even though it is written in the teenage fantasy genre, has been very healing for me. I kept a journal all growing up and well into my twenties, but there came a point where I was no longer gaining relief from it. The story projects I have undertaken, however, provide a different kind of release – different yet still satisfying. They allow me to live out daydreams while hoping one day to inspire young people do to the same, through the books I hope to one day publish.
One of the most important things to remember as a person who has high stress levels is not to overwhelm myself. I do not give myself deadlines – I believe that giving yourself unnecessary deadlines leads to anxiety and stress and is counterproductive to the exercise. I do not allow myself to be spread too thin – I believe that if I am trying to do too many things at once, I will add stress instead of relieving it. For this reason, I do not work on multiple stories at a time, or do heavy research while writing – research either comes before writing or during revisions after writing, but I do not interrupt the writing to go on an internet goose chase. Most of all, I certainly do not start looking for a publisher or allowing myself to stress out over what comes next while I am still writing and revising the story.
While I am writing and revising, the story is my focus, and only the story. Not what comes after, or anything else. This means that the writing and the process of writing brings me a feeling of peace and well-being rather than adding stresses to my life. I can fully fall into my story while working on it, and each time is a bit of an escape into a fantasy land where I know how the story plays out and everything is both expected and understood – very unlike real life.
Art and writing for therapy can be used in two ways. This is true for each. The first way, and often the place we all start, is to directly address something we have experienced. For instance, we can paint a scary person in the dark after we were assaulted, or we can write about what happened to us. This method offers a direct, yet often painful process to healing that really works. The second way, and often a place we gradually move into, is to provide ourselves a means of escape from stress. For instance, we can paint a peaceful meadow or flowers and forget about the darkness in our lives for a while, or we can write a fantasy or daydream story and lose ourselves in it like we would with reading a good book. This method is less effective for tackling trauma, but more effective for finding peace and tranquility in life.
Some people do both approaches. One painting will be darkness and another will be peaceful, and the painter alternates between them, or the painter includes in individual paintings the contrast between the two in some kind of metaphysical representation. In a previous post on this blog about starting tips, I recommended doing both – I recommend tackling the hard stuff first and then following up with something lighter so that you are not left in a dark mood.
I fully transitioned over from writing and painting my darkness to writing and painting what I enjoy. It has taken me half a lifetime to do that, but that is where I am at, now. I discovered at an early age that reading for pleasure is an escape from the trials and tribulations of life. In writing my own stories, that escape is even more heightened, because I am creating the story as I experience it in my imagination. I have also found in my life that everyone needs ways to escape the stresses of the world – not merely people who have emotional baggage or damage. Many people do this by watching movies or tv series, these days. My preferred method is still in art and writing, though, because I am now fully attuned to the creative aspect of this kind of escape.
I hope that this blog post has been useful – I truly love the idea of helping others get into art or writing for therapy – knowledge is helpful for growth, and I would like to share mine in the hopes that it might encourage others. With all of the darkness that comes with life, and all of the stresses of politics, violence, and war that exist in our world, we need light to balance that out, and there are ways to seek light out and bring it into ourselves. For me, art and writing have done this, and I continually use them to maintain the light in my life.
Allowing ourselves to dream gives us the ability to grow, and for me, writing children’s stories and teen fantasy fiction allows me to re-embrace the childhood innocence once left behind, all over again. This makes me a happier person than I once was, and I have grown so much over the years as a direct result of it.