Art Is Pain: A Brief Overview of the Role of Catharsis in Fiction

Writing is scary. Like, really scary.

It’s also liberating and beautiful and a host of other very positive things, but like all art, the process of creating it is often full of pain. When I first learned of this month’s theme, I realized I’d struck gold. After all, it sometimes seems as though I have enough insecurities to fill an entire week of posts.

Most writers (and probably all of the truly good ones) mine heavily from their own lives to spin their tales—and more importantly, the characters that inhabit them. No question about it, real-life influences keep books feeling fresh, relevant, and relatable to the reading public. The dark side is that sharing of one’s self in such personal and intimate ways also requires gut-wrenching honesty. And artists are, as a rule, slightly more tormented than average. Put this all together, and you have a recipe for maximum creative angst.

In psychotherapy, it’s referred to as “catharsis”—the discharge of pent-up emotions so as to result in the alleviation of symptoms or the permanent relief of the condition. The term also applies to drama, with more or less the same definition. A play, a movie, a book (any kind of art, really) explores highly emotional themes, often through tragic narratives, all in an attempt to get the audience/viewer/reader to feel some combination of strong emotions, and by feeling these emotions express the pain and torment within themselves in such a way that relieves them of it, so that they don’t have to actually carry out similar tragedies in the real world.

But it’s not just the consumer of the art who goes through the cathartic process. To an even greater degree, the artist experiences it through the act of creation.

I have to admit that I often get emotionally involved in my stories. When I’m writing something sad, I work myself up into a state of sadness. It’s not always conscious, either. I don’t make myself sad so that the writing will better convey the sadness. Rather, the act of writing about sadness takes its toll on me. The same goes for a wide range of emotional states. And this effect is amplified when I’m writing about scenarios that are relevant to my life; if my character is experiencing a sort of sadness I myself am sincerely steeped in in my personal life, it’s awfully easy to get worked up about it. (The challenge in editing then is to remove some of the melodrama from the first draft.)

I’ve probably made myself sound sufficiently insane now. A bit schizophrenic, perhaps.

Well, you’re welcome. Delving into my own pain is a sacrifice I willingly make to enhance my reader’s potential enjoyment of my work! This doesn’t just make the books better, though. While the writing process is somewhat painful at times (and perfectly enjoyable at other times, yes), it’s also incredibly fulfilling.

One response on “Art Is Pain: A Brief Overview of the Role of Catharsis in Fiction

  1. frank

    You’re right, Evan. It is scary. It’s also something we don’t often talk about. Sometimes, discussing it is as helpful as writing an emotionally charged scene.

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