How many times have you heard that statement in some form or other from authors? From the famous to the avid amateur writer, they have often said something similar. Many writers will describe how they feel calm, or whole or even someone how integrated and at peace when they write, or shortly after. So is writing fiction really therapy? Here’s the deal – it is.
Elements for a Good Fiction
There are mountains of literature that have analyzed “basic elements” to a good piece of fiction. For me, a good story has an interesting plot or series of plots that often deal with conflict, danger or at the very least something that has to be dealt with directly. There has to be movement in the story.
More often, there are characters in a story that hopefully have some depths, color and room to develop. These characters are interesting, relatable, and are people we can invest in. Maybe we love them. Maybe we hate them. They are dynamic. The worst character is the one we just don’t connect with, we are indifferent towards, or they just don’t do anything. And as Elie Wiesel might conclude, the opposite of hate, faith, ugliness and even death is “indifference.” To have a character who you don’t care about is a bad thing.
Depending on the writer’s talents, a vivid world is created to contain the plot and characters. It is a world you can smell, touch, taste, see and hear. You can feel it’s wind, touch its ground, smell its odors, see its sights and taste its fruits. It is a world that is viscerally experienced. It stirs the reader’s internal world to embrace the writer’s world.
Armed with textured characters, interesting plots, and a vivid world, the narrative launches as the story-arc flies. Altogether, you have key elements of a story:
• A plot, a reason or a change or a series of actions to go from point A to B
• Characters we can emotionally connect and relate to
• And a world they inhabit that engages all of our senses, envelopes whole.
But there is a catch to good fiction; these key elements have to make sense to the persons writing it and reading it.
Therapy Made Simple
So what about therapy? To greatly simplify the growing field of neuroscience and clinical theories, therapy could be described as helping people think in new ways that aew healthier for them. It is the process where a person can make sense of their thoughts, feelings and behaviors so that they can either be happier or function better at work, peers and loved ones, or both. For more on this you would benefit from looking at the work of Aaron Beck.
While the idea of laterality in neuroscience might be old school it still holds true that parts of the brain are assigned some key functions. It is still thought that the amygdala is the seat of anxiety for example, while the hippocampus holds the earliest memories of our lives in some semblance of order. These two parts of the brain are part of the limbic system while the neocortex, the larger cerebrum that encases this more primitive system , organizes, time-codes, prioritizes and executes complicated plans and actions that let us navigate through our complex lives. There still is evidence that logic, reason, language and words tend to consolidate in the higher neocortex, left hemisphere of the brain, while the lower brain of the limbic system, right hemisphere is better geared towards managing emotions, socializing, instinct and reading the audience and predicting what they might think, feel or do. For those wanting more depth, you have to check out the works of psychologists Louis Cozolino and Daniel J. Siegel. Another way to look at it might be like this:
• A person who wants to change will need to have their brain parts align up
• When the limbic system and neocortex are in unison with the right and left hemisphere, thoughts, feelings and behaviors make sense
• When people understand their thoughts, feelings and behaviors, they can function better, be happier or both.
But there is a catch to therapy; it has to make sense to the person living it.
The higher functions of the neocortex need to make sense of the raw internal and external world that the right hemisphere processes. For therapy to work there needs to be a cogent narrative, a believable story, where the thoughts feelings and behaviors are arranged to deal with the world, peers, conflicts and our lives.
Fiction is the Same as Therapy
So why is writing fiction therapy? Writing requires the author to use their amygdala, hippocampus, and the right hemisphere’s raw emotions, struggles and angst to build the textured characters, the conflictual world, and the struggles of the narrative. Meanwhile, the higher level, left hemisphere of the brain puts it all in words, sequence and an orderly presentation where the narrative is understandable, progresses and reaches resolution.
• Fiction and therapy are dynamic, requiring energy and effort
• Both require a cogent narrative that makes sense to the person
• For fiction and therapy to work, the narrative must be believable
• When fiction and therapy are good, it can make people think differently, feel things and maybe even act differently
• When either is bad, it leaves us frustrated, unchanged, indifferent, and feeling as if it was all a waste of time.
In summary, a cohesive and coherent narrative makes for a good piece of fiction. Similarly, an understandable and believable narrative can lead to a mind where thoughts, feelings and behaviors make sense and life easier. Good writing is good therapy.