A former student (Thing 2) is taking an advanced creative writing course at his community college. When I asked him how it was going, he said it was challenging because he was not accustomed to doing creative writing. (How he ended up in advanced creative writing is another story.) But he then went on to complain about the number of his classmates who are writing about their childhoods “as if they want someone to feel sorry for them.” After reading through some of the poems that were submitted for class discussions, I had to agree.

This was a major sticking point for him, and because I have strong feelings about this, I wanted to take a moment to clarify my own thoughts on this matter. Most importantly, because I occasionally still teach writing and work as a writing coach, I wanted to have a piece that I could point to and say “This is the fine print. You need to read it, understand it, and agree to it.”

So here goes.

Writing as Therapy

Very few of us have had the childhood we wished we had had. That said, some of us are far more adept at getting over childhood trauma than others. If I can tease out a thread of truth about childhood, it’s that all of us suffer some form of trauma during childhood, whether it’s the death of a pet hamster or years of mental, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.

Note that I haven’t attempted to say which is worse, because a) both these examples are taken out of context, b) what some people describe as “abuse” others describe as “character building” and vice versa, and, most importantly, c) this isn’t a competition. There are no gold medals for having the most traumatic childhood ever, nor should there be.

There are no gold medals for having the most traumatic childhood ever, nor should there be.

Writing about trauma can be a good method, given the proper guidance, of dealing with that trauma. It is not the only step in dealing with trauma, but it can be one of the many steps in coming to terms with a less than ideal childhood.

However, writing about your childhood trauma is not the same thing as writing about racism in The Merchant of Venice or writing a letter to the editor about the amount of dog feces in the park. When it comes to writing, it’s important to remember who your audience is and what your purpose is.

When writing deep, personally meaningful pieces about personal trauma, your audience is generally either yourself or, more likely, the person who caused you trauma. That they will never read it because they are dead or in prison or just don’t care about you sucks, but learning to accept things that suck but which are also entirely not your fault is an important part of therapy. You simply can’t undo the past, and there’s not always much you can do about the present, either.

It is also important that you consider your primary purpose when writing about your own trauma, and that purpose is to help you deal with it. And that’s it, really, because your purpose here is to get enough on the page to help you see all the pieces and put them together into some sort of coherent whole, even though that whole will probably have so many holes that it may as well be a cheese grater. The point here is that this kind of writing is all about your attempt to come to terms with something awful that happened to you.

Creative Writing as Writing

If you are in a creative writing course, I have to assume that you are looking for feedback at the very least and publication at the very most. In either case, your audience is now your instructor and your classmates and your purpose is to entertain1—you want someone to start reading your story or poem and be engaged enough to read it all the way to the end. (And if your goal is ultimately publication, your purpose is to get someone to open their wallet and spend money on your book or a magazine containing your work.)

That’s a creative writing class in a nutshell.

In the first draft of this post, this section ended right there, because that is a creative writing class in a nutshell. But that seemed a bit abrupt, so…here’s a bit more explanation:

If you’re in a creative writing class, hopefully you recognize your need for some outside recognition, even if that recognition is to say “this doesn’t work.” You’re ready, hopefully, to step outside the protective cocoon that you created when you were a young writer and knew your writing skills were soft and tender, like a fat, juicy caterpillar sitting on a leaf, ready to be eaten by the next passing blue jay. You built yourself a cocoon of half-filled journals and battered paperbacks (and probably bad haircuts and a bit of an attitude—Freudian defense mechanisms are manifold) and now you are ready to emerge and spread your writing wings on the wind and see where they will take you.

That may not be the best metaphor, but my point is this: if you are in a creative writing class, you simply have to expose your writing (and thus, a little bit of your inner self) to the rest of the world, or at least the ten or twelve people who comprise this class. Thus, you have to be ready to have other people—at least one of whom is a thousand-fold better read than you, some of whom are just plain smarter than you, and some of whom think that the best poetry is always found in a greeting card at the grocery store—read what you’ve written and give feedback on it.

What you need to realize is that feedback on your writing isn’t necessarily feedback about you. (I say “necessarily” because the blogosphere and twittersphere and all the other -spheres are full of jerks who make feedback about your writing into feedback about you. That these people are as emotionally mature as an adolescent blowfish doesn’t make their “feedback” any easier to hear, but hey—that “block” button exists for a reason.)

It’s never possible to entirely distance yourself from your writing, but by the time you’re in a creative writing class, you need at least enough distance such that any criticism doesn’t make you curl up into a fetal position and vow to never write again. Part of the purpose of a creative writing class is not just to learn how to write creatively, but to learn how to critique your work and the work of others, and also how to gauge whether criticism of your work is actually useful or based in something other than your best interest.

All of this requires a certain amount of detachment from your writing. If you can write about your trauma with enough detachment that you’re not utterly devastated when someone else has anything negative to say about it, you’ve probably moved on enough from your experience that whatever you write about it will be interesting to people other than yourself and your therapist. If you view any negative criticism on your writing as negative criticism about yourself, then you have bigger problems than which MFA program you should be thinking about, and sitting in a creative writing class probably won’t help you a lot with them. It may even harm you.

Therapy as Therapy

My concern about people who use creative writing as therapy is threefold:

  1. They may come away thinking that creative writing is all about personal trauma, or that the best creative writing is always about personal trauma. One superficial reading of Sylvia Plath and they’re off to the races. (More about this in a moment.) Creative writing is about being creative. If you can’t say something new, or can’t talk about something familiar in a new and exciting way, you’re wasting your time. (And everybody else’s—but hey, this is about you.) Break out of your boxes.
  2. They are narcissists who simply want someone to feel sorry for them, and feel that such things as proper sentence structure and consistent verb tenses are beneath them. (These people exist, and creative writing classes attract them the way streetlights attract moths.) A certain amount of narcissism is required to be a writer, but the amount is so small as to be insignificant.2 If you’re in a creative writing class, the quality of your writing is every bit as important as the topic, if not more so.3 I’d rather read great writing about a boring subject than boring writing about a great subject.
  3. Most importantly, if they really do need help, they actually need to get help from someone who’s qualified to give it. And that someone is not a creative writing instructor. Like I said earlier, writing can be a part of therapy, but it is not a substitute for proper medical care.

I’m not saying that it’s never okay to write about your personal trauma for an audience. But your writing has to be about helping others much more than it is about helping yourself. Perhaps finally pushing yourself to get this book about your miserable childhood is the final step in your own recovery journey, and that’s fine—as long as the book stands up on its own. Once you decide to put your work out there, it’s no longer about you—it’s about the people you hope will find your work.

TLDR: If you need writing advice and are ready for it, a creative writing class is not the worst choice you could make. If you need therapy, then get therapy, because a creative writing class is probably the worst way to get therapy.

1 A lot of people would argue that creative writing is all about being artsy, but they are wrong. You can sit there and be as dense and vague and as impenetrable as you want, and that’s fine, but at some point you’re going to want someone to read what you wrote. And if it’s dense and vague and impenetrable because you think that will make people think you are clever and intellectual and are just waiting for them to finish your work and tell you that very thing, right to your very face, you’re going to wait a long time, because once they get bogged down somewhere on the second page, they’re going to set it aside, pour themselves a good stiff drink, and then straight up lie to your face, say they read it and liked it, and then avoid you forever, lest you shove another manuscript in their hands. Being accessible and readable and entertaining all at the same time, on the other hand, is an art form in and of itself, and if you can master that, people will think that you are incredibly clever and intellectual and also terribly good looking. Also, please note that I am making a distinction here between art and merely being artsy.

2 If you are narcissistic and want to be a writer, here’s what to do: take your narcissism, wrap it carefully in soft cloths, put it in a box, tape the box closed, shove that box in the back of your closet, sell your house, and move across the country.

3 You don’t have to take my word for it—Ryan Boudinot said much the same thing, albeit in a more, well, frank, way. And while I don’t agree with everything he said there, I do agree with the vast majority of it.

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