“Story is powerful medicine.” (Craft, par. 3)
I came across the article “Healing Through Writing” by Kathryn Craft not, I think, by accident. The idea that all art heals has been one of the driving forces behind my fiction. There is a subtle way of getting at the truth that all art contains that resonates in ways that can be unexpected.
Since I deal with psychological reality my fiction involves experiences that are both tangible and intangible. Only rarely do I write a literal account of my life transferred to fiction. I am not a memoir writer. But everything that filters through my imagination takes one more step to exposing what is real to me so it becomes a point of healing.
It is inevitable that art should have healing power because art becomes the mirror of its creator in conscious and unconscious ways. Craft puts it succulently when she says, “Perception, also known as point-of-view, lends powerful cohesion to … [art].” (par. 5). There may be pieces jumbling around in my creativity but until I create a story that comes from the way I feel, see, hear, and believe, they remain disparate. So, “[w]ords on the page are like a puzzle to the creative mind, which seeks patterns that allow us to create a relationship with the material.” (Craft, par. 6) Craft identifies these patterns as arcs that have a beginning, a middle, and an end, though I would argue that sometimes the end is left open and unanswered.
Many writers keep a journal or a diary and journaling is seen by psychologists as one way to heal trauma. But the journal can only go so far. Craft talks about how she journaled her feelings about her alcoholic husband’s suicide but that it wasn’t until she wrote her novel The Art of Falling that she could transform her emotions and understand them:
“My thoughts were fragmented, the emotions raw. But feelings and memories ripping me up on the inside were now outside, on the page, where they could be manipulated.” (par. 7)
Craft notes that she did not write an autobiographical story about her life with her husband. She wrote a completely different story with a young female character in the dance world. She used background she felt comfortable with to bring out the healing powers of fiction.
I think this is an important point. Artists use their work not to beat their demons to death but as a way of transferring their psychological realty into a character or characters so that they are safer to deal with. I recently saw the 1963 version of The Haunting. According to this article, actress Julie Harris suffered from depression and isolation during the filming and incorporated these emotions into her character. Her performance shows the transformation that her character Eleanor goes through as she slowly slips into uncertainty about what she sees and hears in Hill House.
It would be interesting to know whether the film helped Harris deal with her depression. But even though art can be healing for some artists, sometimes the emotions we face are so complex that art can only offer a glance into them. This happened with writer Shirley Jackson. Jackson was going through a period of intense anxiety and paranoia when she wrote her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Jackson wrote the book in an effort to, as Craft might say, manipulate her emotions and the book is a masterpiece of panic and persecution masked in a quiet family trying to cope with their outcast status in a small town. Unfortunately, writing the novel did not heal Jackson’s psychosis. She continued to suffer from anxiety and paranoia until her death.
But healing can happen when art offers a container for the emotions that mirror his or her own life. When I finished college, I was in Israel and wanted to go back to the States where I had grown up. It was the first time I was living alone without my parents to control me and I made plans to get out of my shell, meet people and shed the social phobia that had plagued me since childhood. However, once I settled in San Francisco, I found that being independent didn’t make me more social and I continued to be anxious in social situations and avoid them. I felt like a failure about this for years. Then, last year, I took Holly Lisle’s flash fiction course and one of the pieces I wrote was called “A First Saturday Outing” (which is included in my upcoming short story collection Gnarled Bones and Other Stories). The story is about a young woman freed at last from oppressive parents and ex-husband who ventures out of her shy life to an art exhibition that ends up being a mirror of the isolated existence she has been denying. The story took the emotions that I had experienced during my first years in San Francisco and put them in a different context and in a different character. Writing it lessened my guilt and made me accept what had happened in the past.
It isn’t necessarily true that all art heals. But, as Craft says, “ [H]orror need not triumph. We can write a different ending.” (par. 14)
Craft, Kathryn. “Healing Through Writing”. Women writers, Women[‘s] Books. Women writers, Women’s Books. 15 November 2015. Web. 2 November 2016.