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FEATURE - November 2019
Shift Happens: Writing as Therapy
by Angela Yuriko Smith
What if you could find a way to transform negative energy into positive, joyful energy?
Meditation, medication, mediation… there are multi-million-dollar mega industries dedicated to profiting from of our need for positivity. We often avoid consciously processing what we perceive as negative emotions. Culturally, we are taught to ‘keep a stiff upper lip,’ and that we are most attractive when we smile. This is a wonderful sentiment, but not very practical—or healthy.
It’s an unavoidable that bad things happen to good people. Despite building a safe space and acting with love, the world is not always a participant in our positivity mindset. Negative bosses can make life miserable. Toxic family can taint our peace. Just brushing against a random stranger’s bitterness can color an entire day.
For many, the expectations of the holidays bring out the worst in our loved ones. I think everyone has wanted to just walk away from it all at some point and find refuge in a monastery in the mountains. For a select few, that might work. The rest of us need more practical solutions to process our less joyful emotions.
Luckily, one of the most effective ways to transform our dark energies into creative ones is also one of the easiest and most accessible: writing. The simple and private act of putting our uncensored thoughts down in ink relieves the burden from twisting around in our minds. The paper won’t judge us. There are no repercussions for our private written thoughts. We don’t have to worry about censoring ourselves, hurting someone, or losing jobs.
J.K. Rowling understood this concept. In Chapter 30 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, her character Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts wizardry school, removes his tangled thoughts from his head with a magic wand and drops them into a magical artifact called a “pensieve.” He is then free to sort his thoughts objectively once they are out of his mind.
This is precisely what many of us do every day using pen and paper or a keyboard. We tease the tangled thoughts from our minds and set them on paper or screen where sort them out.
It may seem counter-productive to achieving peace, but I advise my creative writing students to role play a negative response in their work. If a mother-in-law has been pestering about a less than perfect house, burn it down in a story. If a boss has been unfair, have him kidnapped in a story and sent to a deserted island. Release to paper the darkness building up inside and experience the freedom that comes from it. This fictional mayhem really is therapeutic. It's good for the soul to write 'bad' things.
I discovered this for the first time years ago when I had a terrible boss. He regularly humiliated his subordinates, blamed them for his lack of organization, and blatantly disrespected women. He made everyone who worked under him miserable.
Things had reached the point one night where my co-workers and I were half-seriously discussing violent and anonymous repercussions for his actions. I realized then that I needed to manage my anger, or it was going to manage me.
That evening, I went home and wrote him into a short story called the Injustice League. Three managers are involved in that story, but I took particular pleasure and care to describe my real-life manager, who comes to an unpleasant end. Because I didn’t have to censor myself, I could let all my pent-up anger and frustration loose.
The therapeutic effect for me was instant. The manager never changed. His tirades, idiocies, and insults continued until the day he was finally fired. Although he still tossed demeaning comments at me, I always smiled as I remembered the terrible end I’d written for him. The only thing that had changed was my attitude, but it made all the difference. Years later, I sold the story and experienced great satisfaction when I realized I had transformed my negative experience into something very positive.
When I related my personal example of writing as therapy to one of my creative writing classes, one student decided to write about her husband whenever he made her angry. Her marriage was at the point of separation, so she really had nothing to lose. By the end of our semester, she came to me with a stack of paper.
“I did it,” she says, “I killed my husband 16 times in the past month, and now I have 34,808 words written. We also decided our marriage was doing a lot better and have decided to keep trying.” She attributed writing to saving her marriage. Instead of keeping her anger bottled up where it was prone to blow, she let it all out in words.
Like a steam valve, it kept the pressure from building while rewarding her with some passionate writing. She started the class thinking she wanted to hone her skills writing romance. “After killing my husband so many times, I realized I‘m actually pretty dark,” she says. And a horror writer was born.
For those who become adept at this magical method of transformation, they find that life provides a never-ending source of material. Writing is a positive and empowering step toward releasing pent-up negative energy. Just change the names and details enough so your story doesn't get taken as a threat, and then reap the therapeutic benefits of writing bad endings for difficult people.
Poetry and fiction are both brilliant ways to release negative emotion. Poetry allows us to tell the truth while retaining our privacy. Fiction allows us to consider how things could be different and role play our thoughts. Journaling is a good way to work with the truth as it is, along with our responses to it. Whichever way you decide to use it, writing for therapy is a powerful tool for processing life’s lemons.
Angela Yuriko Smith is an American poet, publisher and author. Her first collection of poetry, In Favor of Pain, was nominated for a 2017 Elgin Award. Her latest novella, Bitter Suites, is a 2018 Bram Stoker Awards® Finalist. She co-publishes Space and Time magazine, a 53 year old publication dedicated to fantasy, horror and science fiction. For more information visit SpaceandTimeMagazine.com or AngelaYSmith.com.