Catharsis and Literature

I wanted to share this chapter from one of my favorite writing books, Views From the Loft: A Portable Writer’s Workshop (edited by imagesDaniel Slager) from The Loft Literary Center.  There’s a chapter called “Negotiating the Boundaries Between Catharsis and Literature” by Cheri Register.  It got me to thinking about my writing, working on the memoir, over and over, doubting what I’m doing and my reasons for it and why I’m writing it and what’s the point and all that jazz.  Writing about abuse and mental illness, yet making it literary–how damn tricky.  I’ve realized this is going to be a much bigger project than I’d already fathomed.  Yeah, way bigger.  I really need to think it through more.  What I’m thinking is how NOT to write it ABOUT mental illness and incest and abuse but focus on something bigger and more universal, and making the other issues just issues, adding to the theme or acting as motifs.  ?? Any thoughts, fellow writers?  Here are some citations from the chapter:

“..think hard on what makes an account of personal suffering worth reading?  Why write about suffering in the first place?…A writer who expects to transform catharsis into literature has to involve the reader in a negotiation of boundaries.  If work merely invites the reader to witness the catharsis, it may come across as a tedious display of the writer’s endurance.  …”There is no virtue in enduring hardship.”

“I have come to believe that all writing about suffering–or any emotionally charged personal experience–must initially be cathartic. …The first draft has to be an emptying out of all truths, some so closely held that we can’t see them until we get them down on paper.  If we don’t do this, uncontrollable revelatory outbursts or the tension of secrecy itself will impede the work.  That doesn’t mean we’re obligated to tell all, but that we can’t select the truths worth telling or find the best form in which to convey them until we’ve done an honest and careful self-examination.  …Writing it out also helps to contain the experience of suffering, to give it form and coherence.

…Making suffering coherent doesn’t by itself turn it into literature.  To move it from the private to the cosmic realm, we also have to find meaning in it.  It’s not so much WHAT happened but what we KNOW BECAUSE OF WHAT HAPPENED (quoted from Natalie Kusz).  The point of communicating this to others, Kusz says, is to ‘enlighten the real world and to help move it forward.’

What readers needs to know is NOT what I do, but what chronic illness does to daily life.

Having an experience of suffering doesn’t obligate us to write about it, however.  Choosing what use to make of it gets us into some tricky boundary negotiations.  Even those of us who accept disability or illness as the normal condition of our lives have trouble writing it that way–there are few writers who assert the normality of disability…”

and so on.  The entire book is fantastic.  And it’s so true how we normalize our illness and the changes it causes in our daily lives, perhaps not even noticing that what we’re writing about on it isn’t what “normal” people understand without that guidance.

So, to move suffering from the private to the cosmic realm by finding meaning in it…What is the meaning in my suffering?  I’m even embarrassed to say I suffer.  I feel like I’m trying to say I’m Special.  And that’s so not the case.  But I want to write it because I have learned so much, I have something to say, and to relate to others and be a voice for others who can’t write it out.  I’ve never tried to be an advocate, but in a way I am (particularily with my PTSD blog).  That’s another thing there–why am I embarrassed to say I suffer?  Hmm, something to explore.  “It’s not what happened, it’s what we know because of what happened.”  What have I learned?  Maybe that’s why I’m so stuck, because I’m still learning.  And I’m still figuring out what I’ve already learned.  And maybe there are still truths I’m still too afraid to face–I know there is.  If I could write down a list of truths…(Hemingway’s “Write one true sentence.”) and a list of

MandyLynneDesign @ etsy
MandyLynneDesign @ etsy

what I’ve learned–that’d be hard.  You know, I’m afraid to write down that first draft, that’s why I only have bits and pieces of essays and pieces of essays and stories.  I’m afraid–what if I have nothing to say?  Have I been fooling myself?  What if it sounds like a pity party?  Or a cathartic trip? Or I’m bragging?  Yet deep down I know that won’t be the case, because those things just aren’t true about me.  Anyone else feel stuck?  Have advice?  Know of good places to go to research/read/relate?  What are your troubles in starting your story?  Be in essay or creative nonfiction or memoir?  Or even poetry?  What about catharsis–what are your thoughts?  I do believe it has to be when you first write, that is true.  It can be cathartic, but to be literary–it’s about style and form and theme and meaning and universal truth.  Hmmm

5 thoughts on “Catharsis and Literature

  1. Great post – especially for us writers who write about themselves. I didn’t want to load up the comment with links but I think you know where to look if you need to. I think catharsis applies 2 ways. Initially the piece is a catharsis for the author in dealing with the stimulating event. ((see my post “Hurricane”))
    There is also the point of providing catharsis for the reader or spectator of the artwork. For poetry I see this as a collection of poems with a thread between that take the reader through an event and may offer some epiphany by coming along with the author through their experience. This was actually one of the themes of a recent piece I did called “Immolation.”
    I’ve very much enjoyed sharing this cosmic world with you through your words and look forward to where they lead.


    1. Those were excellent thanks for sharing!!! It’s tough to capture that passion of/in writing in a poem, don’t think I’ve ever tried it. Too hard. Nice job!


  2. Thanks for the posts, Amy. I agree completely with the author insofar as you have to be able to share what you have learned from the experience. The trick (for me) is to do this without that arrogant, self-righteous didactic tone of “I definitively know.” This is where having a true sense of humility comes in handy – your truths are only your truths and someone else, looking at the same written details, may come (will come) to different interpretations. I find that if I really continue to allow myself to be humbled before the “life lesson” I can keep my ego appropriately small, while still hopefully connecting with my reader.

    Fascinating ideas and will put this book on my wish list.



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