Thursday, May 3, 2012

Writing vs. Therapy

An article. Make of it what you will. 

4 comments:

  1. Actually, I'm interested in your reaction.

    I disagree with most of it, possibly because my specific MFA program was very professionally oriented... which I think is part of a cultural difference between how Canadians and Americans think of higher education. (Practical as opposed to social or enriching.) The vast majority of my classmates are in the business and got the degree because that was their goal. Were a lot of them carrying emotional baggage I couldn't begin to fathom, yes, but the "everything is thinly veiled autobiography" anecdotes the article writer provides don't really track with my experience. Maybe in two or three cases.

    Incidentally, I was just having a conversation with an MFA friend who had done her BA in psychology and told me that talk therapy, as an approach, is empirically useless. :D Whether or not it's successful depends much more on the specific therapist and the patient than on the process itself. Procedurally, behavior training is where it's at.

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  2. Mm, actually I tend to disagree with the "everything is autobiography", because, well, creatively I keep going back to the cannibalism well, and that's a pretty worrying thought.

    I think it's actually symptomatic of a mythos of writing where a tortured, creative individual pours out everything they can't express into beautiful, natural art. I think a lot of people DO come into writing chasing that, and while I've never been in an MFA program, I did nude model at a private fine arts school for a while, and my impression of the people there was that they were not particularly focused on technique as such, but rather on "being artists" (when there were exercises where the students were asked to pair up and numbers were uneven, I got to participate, and earned an unofficial A in the class). And, honestly, I've read some really excellent New Yorker fiction bits that were hugely autobiographically-based (I would say that's the genre where this whole kind of memoir/art meme is most persistent- both in the fiction and amongst the sort of people who are hardcore fans of that genre. The folk looking for a "true, insightful, slice of life" type story).

    Like you said, amongst those of us who have the money to pursue higher education as social enrichment, I think this sort of self-focused writing is prevalent. Though, then again, there's a lot of outreach to take exactly this sort of writing to people who are historically less served by higher or even public education, and there's beautiful stuff that comes out of that too, especially in poetry. I have a friend who works at a non-profit called BadgerDog that does this for kids at low income schools.

    Anyway, yeah, I'm rambling. I think it's a hardwired myth in the American psyche, bouyed up by some examples of it working spectacularly well, a wing of publishers and readers who are hungry for it, and I think the wishful thinking that all our stories are really interesting and if we would just write them down we could captivate the world.

    With regards to psychology stuff... eh. I would buy that yeah, it has way more to do with the specific people involved, but I do think talk therapy can help people come to a lot of important revelations about themselves. I don't think it's so much empirically useless as it is... well, more of an art than a science? I do know I resent how prevalent empirically disproved psychoanalytical stuff is in both literary criticism and, really, the whole academic liberal arts world. Seriously, man, it's time to put Freud and Jung to bed as anything other than historical curiousities.



    I dunno. I think in most cases, at the very least it's not harmful to write like this, if your goal is to work things out and get them off your chest. If your goal is publication, you'll probably want to divorce yourself from the idea that this is all writing is. But, honestly, I think some people get into it more for the therapy than the writing, and I don't see the harm in letting them play in that kiddie pool.

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  3. I wasn't meaning to argue that it's harmful--although I may further down--but I don't think it indicates a greater trend the way the article does. I do tend to self-select against this kind of thing with the people I associate with, though, so my anecdotal evidence is just as invalid as his.

    How would I explain the exponential rise in creative writing programs, then? Well, they're kind of self-perpetuating. Masters degrees in any field are big money-makers for the schools that have them, and this requires little financial overhead beyond faculty payroll. And then the programs graduate hundreds of people across the country who now have useless degrees and need jobs. Oh, hey, this school doesn't have a creative writing department yet...

    I think it's actually symptomatic of a mythos of writing where a tortured, creative individual pours out everything they can't express into beautiful, natural art. I think a lot of people DO come into writing chasing that, and while I've never been in an MFA program, I did nude model at a private fine arts school for a while, and my impression of the people there was that they were not particularly focused on technique as such, but rather on "being artists"

    This I can agree with. Honestly, that comes into it a bit for me, too. I don't enjoy the act of writing, and I certainly don't think of it as therapeutic--if anything, writing put me in therapy--but I do it because I like being in a community of writers and part of the conversation about writing as a pursuit and a craft. In retrospect, that was the value of the MFA to me. It's not quite the same thing as "ooh, we're spooky artists," but I can draw a line between the two points.

    There's that social motivation again.

    Though, then again, there's a lot of outreach to take exactly this sort of writing to people who are historically less served by higher or even public education, and there's beautiful stuff that comes out of that too, especially in poetry.

    Yeah, this was also the focus of the "teaching creative writing" course in my MFA (which I never took). The guy who taught it had done a lot of prison outreach--I think in the US--helping them express themselves in poetry and so on, and he was pointing people toward doing that sort of thing in schools, assisted living centers, and like that. The course had an outreach requirement that you had to design and implement yourself, and there were entire classes devoted to helping people process hidden traumas (such as rape) that arose in their writing.

    But the girl in the course that I was closest with hated that that was the focus. She wanted to learn about the pedagogy, about craft, about how to comport yourself as an instructor in a collaborative workshop, and how to respond to people who screamed and wailed that writing is art and inspired and how can you possibly teach and grade that? Instead she got a crash course in investigative therapy. But she's not a therapist. She's a writer and a teacher of writing. That's the reason "workshop is not therapy" is oft-repeated: that's not what people, particularly the instructor, are there for. They're not properly trained or licensed to handle that kind of serious issue, nor, in my opinion, should they be expected to be. It's too much responsibility, emotionally and possibly legally. It also opens the door to waving of narrative flubs or bad character development as "but that's what really happened!" or "OMG, this character is me; you think I'm shallow???" Augh. No. Get that away from me. I'm there to fix your commas and help you with flow of information, not tiptoe around your life's pains.

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  4. With regards to psychology stuff... eh. I would buy that yeah, it has way more to do with the specific people involved, but I do think talk therapy can help people come to a lot of important revelations about themselves. I don't think it's so much empirically useless as it is... well, more of an art than a science?

    That's probably it. The point she was making was that, when you look at the actual outcomes for patients, it has negligible statistical benefit for the people with actual, functional problems. Knowing your grandmother is responsible for your self-loathing may be enlightening, but it probably won't help you manage the resultant social anxiety you've lived with all your life.

    I do know I resent how prevalent empirically disproved psychoanalytical stuff is in both literary criticism and, really, the whole academic liberal arts world. Seriously, man, it's time to put Freud and Jung to bed as anything other than historical curiosities.

    Hehehehe. Unfortunately, neat little classifications like "superego" and "INFP" are appealing to the popular imagination... and as I got into above, the fine arts field doesn't include modern psychology in its training package.

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