Why Writing is a Form of Personal Therapy by Ian Haight, author of Magnolia and Lotus

Ian Haight was a co-organizer and translator for the UN’s global poetry readings held annually in Pusan, Korea, from 2002-4. He has been awarded 5 translation grants from the Daesan Foundation, Korea Literature Translation Institute, and Baroboin Buddhist Foundation for the translation, editing, promotion, and publication of Korean literature. Ian is the editor of Zen Questions and Answers from Korea (2010), and along with T’ae-yŏng Hŏ, the translator ofBorderland Roads: Selected Poems of Kyun Hŏ (2009) both from White Pine Press. Ian’s translations, essays, poems, and interviews have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Writer’s ChronicleBarrow Street and Hyundae Buddhist News, among many other publications.
For more information, please visit ianhaight.com.
Why Writing is a Form of Personal Therapy


                When writers or readers think of writing as personal therapy the quick image is of a writer pouring his or her own heart out onto the page, expunging all the pain, guilt, or emotional blockage that otherwise could not be released. As a therapeutic process, the writer works through these emotional or psychological issues and so comes to live in peace with them, if not resolve them. The writer may enter into this kind of therapeutic process fully aware of the engagement with issues through writing, and may have a sense that the purpose is to somehow be made whole, or to survive. This is what feels obvious with the idea of writing as a form of personal therapy, but is there something more, something not so obvious?
                In the 1970s Harold Bloom, a prominent literary critic, wrote a book titled The Anxiety of Influence. The book presents a theory based on the ideas of Sigmund Freud. According to Bloom’s use of Freud, writers are people who experience a kind of awe when reading. This awe is so powerful it causes a writer to want to re-create the things which inspired the awe, but this of course is impossible because no writer can write what inspired the awe (can I write “Leaves of Grass?” No, only Walt Whitman did that.). This dilemma creates a kind of anxiety in writers, and so it causes a writer to write—to attempt to re-create the writing which inspired the awe even though it is impossible to do so.  Writing in this sense is a kind of neurosis, but could it also be a kind of therapy?
                The idea that writing is a form of neurosis is one that’s been hotly challenged by writers.  As artists, writers want to believe they are fully in control of or in some sense originate the aesthetic decisions they are making. Writers decide who characters are, what will happen to characters, where characters live, and what words characters will say. Bloom would argue that in some sense this is true, but the decisions about plotting, character, language, etc. are filtered through a kind of neurosis structure that is motivating the person to write in the first place. In this sense, the whole purpose of writing for the artist is to create a compensation for what the artist cannot truly create: the writer-artist writes to create a personal trope of, say, Blood Meridian because he or she could not ever create, word for word, Blood Meridian. An artist-writer, however, internalizes and then tropes whatever was so awe-inspiring about Blood Meridian, and does this repeatedly to create a personalized work of writing.  Writing in this sense isn’t necessarily a form of therapy, because according to Freud and Bloom, writing is a neurotic act that will endlessly repeat. 
                Entering therapy to cease writing might seem silly and certainly isn’t something Harold Bloom would want to encourage. According to his theory, some of the best writing humankind has created is the result of this anxiety-influence-repression-neurosis. I would suggest that the need or desire to write can in fact go away, and through writing one can deal with the kind of neurosis structures that Bloom claims motivates writing. If we examine Bloom’s own examples, this appears to be true. The Victorian poet Robert Browning, according to Bloom and many others, clearly wrote under a repressed influence of Romantic poet Perce Shelly. Later, as many other critics have said, Browning was able to overcome this influence. How did this happen? Because he wrote the poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” a poem he wrote after repeatedly writing under the influence of Shelly. After that poem, Browning never again wrote under the influence of Shelly. 
                Looking at Browning, writing, in a deep psychological sense, is a form of therapy. Whether we are aware of it or not, we write to engage the things we fear or desire—or perhaps a combination of the two. The things we fear or desire may be the awe that comes from incredibly good writing, or it may be from something we experienced outside a book. It could be growing up in poverty that makes one desire to write books solely for the purpose of money. Whatever the origin of the motivation, it also appears true that as a form of therapy, writing can be a help to resolving our innermost fears and desires.    

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