Guiding Your Characters Through Their Therapy Sessions

IMG_0631by Jean Foster Akin

I was reading an article the other day entitled “Write Yourself Well.” It was written by John F. Evans, Ed.D and the reason I clicked the link for it was because I was intrigued to know how psychologist see writing as a means to therapy and wellness.

In the article, I learned of Dr. James Pennebaker, Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, who is the discoverer of the connection between wellness and expressive writing.

Writing, for me, has been an entertaining pursuit, true, but it’s also been therapy more than once in my life. Perhaps I need to be more honest: it’s been therapy so often in my life, I can hardly think of a time when it wasn’t. Even if what I’m writing about has absolutely nothing to do with the problem at hand, there is a mesmerizing, calming, positive effect to writing for me. And apparently there’s more to it than the emotion of getting thoughts or stories on paper—there’s physiology involved too. You see, yesterday I was talking to a very intelligent lady who told me that there are nerves that run along the fingers we use to hold our pencils and pens when we’re writing, and that these nerves travel right up our arms to the back of our noggins, and apparently (I’m paraphrasing here), the act of writing stimulates these nerves which stimulate the brain, and the brain gets all jazzed about the writing, and before you know it, you’ve got a lot of jazz going on…including very long sentences with lots of commas in them. Please forgive the clinical nature of that description, folks.

Unlike novel writing,  letter writing, or sky writing, in  expressive writing you focus more on feelings than on “the events, memories, objects, or people in the contents of a narrative”, says Dr. Evans. “Like narrative writing, expressive writing may have the arc of a story’s beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes expressive writing behaves like a story that swells to a crest and resolves itself on firm ground. But often [it’s] turbulent and unpredictable, and that is OK. Expressive writing is not so much about what happened as it is about how you feel about what happened…”

What Dr. Evans says sounds okay to me. But it also sounds scary. I’m not talking about the scariness of other people seeing what I would write during an expressive writing session, or the scariness of worrying if the person reading would judge what came out of my soul. I’m talking about the terror of knowing what I’m thinking myself. The terror of writing down things I would never say…even to myself. The terror of finding out how dark things probably are down there. The terror of remembering those things that I have carefully covered in layers and layers of camouflaging branches and vines and moss over the years. Those painful things I have buried so meticulously, and yet with an air of disinterest…”Nothing to see here.”

Oh, but there is something to see. So I asked myself, would expressive writing help me unearth what’s hidden? Would I want to unearth it? Do I have the courage? And while I was thinking as a human being with a past of hurts (like so many others), the writer in me asked: would expressive writing, applied to one of my novel characters, help me write that character better?

I know! What a twist on things. Why would I even think such a thing? Could using a healing exercise on a totally fictitious person, weird as that sounds, help me create complex characters that would grab the interest of readers and make them care enough to turn to the next page?

We write histories for our characters–at least I know I do, and so do a lot of writers out there. We don’t need to tell readers everything about a character’s history, we may only wish to hint at a character’s past in a novel (depending on genre, we’ll play off those histories or we’ll play them down), but if we know about those histories ourselves, we can build characters with unique habits and fears,  talents, interests, and quirks that feel real to readers.

So, what if we have a character in our minds percolating away, one with at least some of a history, but one we have yet to bring to life on paper? And what if we have that character “sit down” and do an expressive writing exercise?

If you were to use expressive writing yourself, you would sit down in a quiet place and write continuously about a devastating trauma for twenty minutes, four days in a row. You would not allow your pencil to come off the page for those four twenty-minute sessions. You would not allow anyone to see what you’re writing, and, in fact would have already planned to destroy the results of each session so as to free yourself from attempting to edit your feelings or change your wording in order to make your feelings less “ugly.”   So, why not sit your main character down and allow her to dictate her feelings to you—the completely understanding, non-judgmental Entity that you are?

As the creator of the character, you have developed her history, but have you “allowed” her to tell you what she feels about what has happened to her in her life, to tell you why she has acted as she has in the NOW of your story? You might find, if you do, that her actions  will seem contrived to your readers, based on your character’s past and emotional upheavals–in which case you’ll know your character needs work. But then, you might find you’ve developed your character well, based on her past and emotional upheavals, and that you’ve found your story’s sweet spot. Then you can move forward with your tale.

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