Sunday, 2 December 2007

Writing as catharsis

"Storytelling is always after the fact, and is always constructed over a loss."
(J. Hillis Miller)

Every time I do a reading or an interview about my memoir, Take Me Home, people ask: "Was it therapeutic writing the book?" Given the subject-matter - my father's Parkinson's disease, dementia and my (part-time) experience of caring for him - the question is an obvious one, and one which I often asked myself whilst I was writing it: "Is this making me feel any better?"

To be honest, I have no idea what the answer is. Probably, it was cathartic writing the book, insofar as I often burst into tears whilst doing it - although that made me want to give up. Suddenly, it'd dawn on me the magnitude of what I was doing, and all the old, nagging ethical questions would raise their gorgon heads and stare my writing self to stone. Even when I was three-quarters of the way through the first draft, I almost gave the whole thing up, because there was a bit too much "catharsis" so-called.

But that's obviously not the same as making me feel better. I think it'd be rather selfish, rather egocentric if all I was doing in writing the book was making myself feel better about my father's illness. Now, if writing could have made my father better, that would be a different matter. Then writing the memoir would be properly "therapeutic," and writing itself a more crucial enterprise.

But no, writing can't do that. It can only pretend to bring someone back to life, make things better. And it does that by reconstructing a past, reimagining it, turning it into a story, a narrative, with a form and direction, beginning, middle and end. It's in that sense that writing is "therapeutic": it reshapes the past and imbues it with sense, logic, meaning, narrative. Whilst the present is always chaotic and stupid and confused and there and gone, the past can be reshaped into something meaningful - and that's what writing does. Of course, it means that writing is at heart nothing but a pack of lies or, at best, half-truths. But they're the only half-truths available in a world where the present is ungraspable, been and gone before you can say "Parkinson's disease."

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