On the first of May, 2012, I wrote the following in my journal:
There’s something therapeutic about this writing your thoughts and all that. It helps, getting them down on paper. It’s not a good idea to read them back, mind, not if you’re still feeling emotionally compromised by the situation, but later you’ll be able to.
Putting things into words makes them easier to bear. Because it means you’ve beaten them. If they’re words on paper, they’re just like the stories you write. Which means they can’t be real. I mean, stories are just things you think up.
If you can control a story with words then capturing an emotion means you can control that too, right?
Maybe that sort of belief is why we write dark books, sad books, books that draw on the worst experiences of our lives—because if we turn them into stories, they can’t hurt us any more.
In a “mock interview” for studying English at Oxford, a friend of mine said that he believed books ought to be depressing, because they were born of emotions and the strongest feelings were the negative ones.
I write tragedies. I always have done. Even the stories I wrote when I was ten were bloodthirsty and devastating; my first novel was one of the few I’ve written to have a happy ending. I nicknamed my series “Death and Fairies” because those were the two elements that formed it: there were fairies, and a lot of people died.
This journal entry is the only time I think I’ve ever really put on paper how I feel about that sort of thing, and I didn’t remember it until, reading through the journal recently, I found the entry again. But it reminded me of a scene from the end of the second season of the Australian show “Dance Academy”.
After losing one of her closest friends, Tara (a promising dancer who had been set to compete in a prestigious competition, but came close to pulling out because of the loss) is told that when she can learn to channel her grief into her dancing, she will truly become a great dancer. Instead of using ballet as an escape so that she doesn’t have to think about it, she has to use it to work through the pain of losing her friend.
With writing, it’s very tempting, when things go wrong, to use our novels as a way out of thinking about that, a way to deal with our characters’ problems so that we don’t have to deal with our own. I know I’m guilty of it. I also know that I’ve tried to use fiction to approach my own issues, but have ended up distorting them so much through the lens of a character’s life that it didn’t help at all.
It’s hard to use fiction to work through issues. But it’s also necessary.
I know there are struggles I’ve faced that have been so beneficial to my writing, even while leaving me incredibly miserable. Grief when my grandparents died helped me to understand my characters when they lost people, and it’s a lot easier to write angsty, lovesick teenagers when you’re one of them yourself.
But I think sometimes I’m guilty of feeling that I’m turning my emotions into fiction and therefore I don’t need to deal with them any other way—they belong to a character and I ought to be fine. That’s not enough. Two years later, when they come back to haunt you, you realise that it isn’t.
And I think at other times I am so afraid of broaching the subject with myself that I’m incapable of writing a character realistically because I won’t let myself access that part of my brain. It’s too much like reliving it. I don’t want it down on paper because that’s a reminder.
Realising that writers use novels as therapy as much as an escape kind of explains why so many of them are dark and miserable. I’m certainly no exception … my beta readers would probably tell you that I don’t believe in happy endings, and the closest I’ll come is something bittersweet.
Yet sometimes I think we need more happy books. There are emotions that are just as overwhelmingly positive as there are negative ones—but the grief is easier to write, since we can see how everyone else has done it. How do you write happiness without sounding cheesy and cliched?
This year for NaNoWriMo I’m writing a novel that’s set in one of the places where I felt the happiest over the summer: the Cliffs Of Moher. The day I spent there was a day where negativity and fear seemed completely absent from my mind. Yet the book itself is quite dark and angsty. Am I scared that it’ll change how I feel about the place? Maybe I am. I think probably. But I’m also hoping all the positivity I associate with that place will temper the bad things, and it’ll come through as an undercurrent.
This novel doesn’t look at issues I’ve faced, really. But it does look at issues. And I’m going to try and find it in me to give it a happy ending, a positive resolution, rather than the doom and gloom I usually finish on.
I guess what I’m saying is: be brave. Writing happy things is harder, and it’s often less appealing. We want to use fiction as therapy. And that’s great, and it can make you a truly great writer because you can turn all the bad things that happen to you into bestsellers. But just occasionally, maybe try writing something that isn’t a direct transliteration of all your hangups and insecurities onto paper, and convince yourself that positive emotions are just as strong as the negative ones.