A friend of mine who is going through a hard time mentioned that he hoped to return to writing soon since writing is therapy for him. This led me to reflect on how there are two very distinct kinds of writing as therapy, one very good, the other very bad.
The kind my friend was talking about is writing as art, that is, as creation. There is something very wonderful about fiction; it can reach us in ways few arts can. This is probably because the world itself is a story, told by God; the world was spoken into existence. The writing of stories partakes in this act of creation, in some minor, reflective sense, and it is good work to make this for others. There are truths we can learn from stories we have an incredibly hard time learning any other way. To labor at this, to make something good so that one may give it to people to read, is therapeutic for one going through hard times because it is the incarnation of Saint Paul’s words that where sin abounds, grace abounds much more. Doing good work makes us feel better because it is a participation in what is better. This is the very good kind of therapy.
The other kind of writing as therapy is where the writer is trying to work out psychological issues which he has; in this style of writing-as-therapy the writing desk takes the place of the psychologist’s couch and the reader takes the place of the psychologist. There are some obvious attractions to this; for example, it is much cheaper to be paid to have people listen to you than to pay people to listen to you.
It is, however, a dangerous thing to do. Because stories communicate so much more powerfully than ordinary language does, the warped and twisted way of viewing the world which the writer is trying to work out through talking about it may infect the reader. Of course, in a traditional therapy situation, or even just a situation where one person is giving another advice, the person who is working out their problems may, in communicating them, harm the one listening. But the therapist or the wise older person volunteers because they are secure enough in the truth that they are not likely to be easily dislodged from it. To use a physical metaphor, they have lend the drowning person a hand because they themselves have a good hold of the boat, and will not be pulled down by the thrashing. This is not true of the readers of fiction. A writer does not know who will read his words.
This is why writing-as-therapy, in this second sense, is so bad to do. It is like shooting into a crowd. Sure, one might be lucky and hit the man wearing the bulletproof vest, but the odds don’t favor it.
And I think that there is a great deal of confusion that goes on, in the modern world, because it has heard of the first sort of writing-as-therapy but mostly only does the latter. The modern world has heard that great suffering can lead to great art. And so it can, because great suffering can create a need for the comfort of creating great art. That is, suffering, being a form of being cut off from goodness, can create a longing for goodness intense enough to find it in the loving act of creating something very good for others. The modern world, having no notion of the concept of generous love, in the manner of a person who only knows a few words of french trying to understand Frenchmen in Paris talking to each other, only notices the “suffering” and the “great art”.
Since suffering has no obvious causative connection to great art, for the modern, he supposes it is putting the suffering into the art which makes the art great. What else could it be? And now we have had many generations of artists in the modern world who, effectively, write about their (only sometimes diagnosed) mental illnesses on the assumption that this is the path to greatness.
This is approximately the worst conclusion moderns could have come to, of course, but moderns excel at coming to the worst possible conclusions. Mental illness is, essentially a lie. To suffer from a mental illness is to live within a lie. All mental illness is this, since it is, by definition, not perceiving the world correctly, but paranoia may perhaps be the clearest example: the paranoid man lives within the lie that other men are out to get him.
The problem with putting mental illnesses into fiction, in the sense of writing about them as if they are true—since, after all, to the mentally ill person they are true—is that they risk misleading people (especially young people) into thinking that these lies are truths. This will probably not result in the impressionable reader developing the full-blown mental illness, but it will hurt them.