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Writing as a means of therapy

By Bradford J. Senning
Arizona Daily Wildcat
April 22, 1999
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Arizona Daily Wildcat

Writing is therapy. Research continues into this aspect of writing. The hypothesis is that you must aim right at the thing you want to relieve yourself from: domineering parents, drug problems, even health concerns. You pour your thoughts toward it, overcoming it as heroes in old Westerns used to outdo their foes with interminable staring.

As we move toward an era of submerged problems, where spelling errors are fixed with spell-checkers just as blemishes are covered with base, our lives become more precariously balanced on heaps of quick fixes and technological advances until the problems seem overcome and the plug that can be pulled on our progressive problem-solving seems out of reach.

In Listening to Prozac, Peter Kramer makes the case that drugs are cures to imprecisely stated problems. Because drugs cut the effects without pinpointing the cause we cannot be sure we aren't simply floating above the problem, hot-air ballooning blithely above the fractured world that made us yearn to launch upward from it, and away.

But many problems are wholly within this ethereal realm, no longer solid like a lizard that you can cup in your hands but dissolved into a patternless psychology that begins even before the birth canal opened and you came screaming to life.

Writing at least makes problems solid. Recent "confessional writing" studies show that by putting thoughts down in ink, one can overcome not only psychological syndromes but medical ones. Symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis are alleviated as writing builds stronger immune responses.

All the clutter of our thoughts organize themselves when we write, patterning our problems so that to our minds they are surmountable. We order the numbers into a formula for stabilizing and nullifying their magnitude. "Writing about an experience," as Claudia Kalb states, "may dull its emotional impact."

In an age of valueless commodities and evanescent goals it seems proper to make certainties, put problems in ink, like census-takers who weigh the population without planning accommodations for the ever-increasing growth.

Confessional poets attempted this vein of writing in the post-war '50s and '60s. Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton proved by their unusual and cruel deaths that the engines driving them into the folds of modernity were more subtle and quick than their pens. Artist Jackson Pollock's practice of automatic drawing as a means of disclosing more recondite psychological anomalies only proved to push the problems forward, increasing the force of the impact when he later met them head on.

Solidifying problems isn't always possible, nor does it do anything but chart them along the way to making more errors.

With each year comes more buried garbage - though more employees to track it; less ozone to sustain us - though more analysts to plot its depletion. Like the earth, our minds put up with an increasing complexity without any structural change. As the earth fails to accommodate our industrial waste, the mind fails to build up a tolerance to social-political-economic-personal-pressures. How does one set a pen to paper to explain all these intersecting pressures except as one would route freeways in Los Angeles, overlapping them five stories high, or stack offices in Manhattan as tall as the clouds?

It would take more writing than hours in the day to solidify these amazing new psychological configurations, which one is increasingly powerless to explicate. As health problems grow new names and identities and psychological problems vex the audience of psychologists, it seems one can only nest oneself further away in distraction.

We aren't closer to understanding ourselves, just better at tracking our progress. Laying crumbs along the path to uncertainty. Yet in a realm of abstraction above this world there is at least a feeling of euphoria, a balance of self-consciousness and self-delusion, the world one sees and the world one imagines. So that writing about life is a means of understanding only until you turn from the page and see the problems of the world again.

Bradford J. Senning is an American literature and creative writing senior. His commentary appears every Thursday.