'Through writing, suffering can be transmuted into art.'
Louise de Salvo, Writing as a Way of Healing
My father, like many of us, was afraid of death. So much so, in fact, that he refused to live. He was a sick man with a weak heart and a fear of almost every aspect of life. After surviving six or so heart attacks and an anuerism in his brain, he still clung to life, even joining a second church in the final years. 'Double indemnity,' I used to joke. Needless to say, we didn't get on too well. In fact, fathers - cruel, absent and sick, have been a major theme in my writing to date.
When Christian theologian, Parker Palmer wrote, 'the greatest paradox of all: that to live we have to die', he was most likely referring to the obvious scientific fact that death is an inescapable part of life; in a sense it is the only certainty we have in life. Life is full of paradox. That is part of its beauty. But Parker Palmer's statement isn't simply about the certainty of death; within it we can also find the ancient idea that in order to live well one must symbolically die to one's self and be reborn into a new self. This is found in religious stories and myths across many cultures, such as the death and resurrection of Jesus and the Babylonian story of the goddess, Innana's descent into the underworld. This idea is also deeply embedded within more contemporary story, within the arc of character and the transformation that may or may not occur in the course of the character's physical and/or psychological journey through the story.
As I wrote in an earlier post Digging Deep – Writing Character, there are a number of metaphors for this journey of transformation and they are powerful reminders that each of us is meant to evolve, to embrace change and to learn from our experiences. There are key moments of change in the journey of major characters – turning points or moments of catharsis. These are moments when a character is forced, or chooses to turn away from what is familiar and face the unknown, and in so doing comes to a realisation of some sort. In a sense they are a purging of an old way and an opening to the new. They occur at various points in a story and thus relate to the movement of plot but importantly they also relate to character development. In Flight, each of Fern's emotional breakthroughs represent a reclaiming of a fragment of self, providing her with the opportunity to become whole again and discover a new way of living (more on the character arc in a later post).
Catharsis is a word that means vomiting up or purging, and is a term that was originally associated with Aristotle and Greek drama, which was, according to Christopher Vogler, 'constructed with the intent of triggering a vomiting up of emotions by the audience'. During the nineteenth century Franz Mesmer began to use hypnotherapy with his patients and discovered that part of the cure often involved a healing crisis in which blocked emotions rise to the surface. A century later, Freud began provoking catharsis in his patients, and now the concept is widely used in psychotherapy. While catharsis is a common element in story, writing too, can be a cathartic process for many people, a way of expelling or simply becoming acquainted with, the demons that haunt them, or as Jung would call them, the shadow aspects of our selves that we bury deeply within us. As a teacher of creative writing I have seen many times how the simple act of framing a story or of understanding the motivations behind a character's actions can challenge the foundations on which a person has lived their lives, forcing them to question the stories that they have told themselves about who they are. In Writing as a Way of Healing, Louise DeSalvo explains that we are the accumulation of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. So changing our stories. . . can change our personal history, can change us. Through writing we often revisit our past and review and revise it. What we thought happened, what we believed happened to us, shifts and changes as we discover deeper and more complex truths.' So in separating a story from ourselves, in writing it down, we are changing our perspective on it and are therefore able to see it differently, without the burden of emotions.
In the writing of Flight, I could feel the cathartic process working its magic on me as I purged and released myself from a good deal of the past, just as Fern, my protagonist did. The process of writing, of weaving fact and fiction, memory and imagination into a story, helped me to learn lessons from the past, thereby enabling me to evolve as a human being. Writing about my own parents (albeit in fictional form) enabled me to step into their shoes and thus begin to feel empathy for them. In so doing, I began the process of forgiveness. According to psychologist, Jean Houston, forgiveness can have 'a momentous and evolutionary potency' and its roots are located in the discovery of the Larger Story. This is a process I have frequently observed with students when I run character workshops. The most profound exercises are always the ones in which I ask students to shift their perspective and step into the shoes of another character, usually someone to whom their main character is opposed. It is an excellent exercise in empathy and in developing an understanding of the often unconscious motivations behind human behaviour (more on character motivation in a later post).
In a sense catharsis underpins the transformative potential of the process of writing and of story itself. While catharsis provides an emotional clearing the character must then take the next step and integrate what they have learned, in order for change or transformation to be possible. Karen Armstrong wrote that 'a novel, like a myth or any great work of art, can become an initiation that helps us to make a painful rite of passage from one phase of life, one state of mind, to another.' Story then can be transformative, helping us on our journey towards individuation, as Jung describes it, a journey that is not taken automatically when someone reaches a certain age, but rather is dependent on our willingness to comprehend the nature of self and become true individuals. Flight started out as a story of alienation and anger, but it became instead a story of love and forgiveness, and in the process I liberated myself from much of the past and from the weight of unresolved memories.
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