Fiction & the cathartic tradition:
Thoughts on the creative process.
Good writing comes from the heart. On that most of us agree. The very idea of storytelling stems from experience, those deep, dark – and often colourful – roots that make us who we are. We laugh, cry, love, hate – and some of us? Well, we write.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle first used the word catharsis in relation to art, an actor in a play employing emotional energy for dramatic effect. On the stage, behind a mask, actors could express themselves and experience feelings outside their usual reality. Even today, we still view drama in the Ancient World as something more than mere entertainment.
In modern times, art still has the power to move us – a great piece of music or passage in a book prompting laughter, rage or floods of tears. The general belief behind such reactions is that the artists conveyed something of themselves, some indefinable magic that touches us, the audience, across space and time. If that magic succeeds, the audience responds to (or identifies with) the aforementioned catharsis.
The artists feel and so we feel. Art is a shared experience.
(Also a subjective one, because we respond in different ways. Describing beyond a shadow of a doubt what amounts to good or bad art remains a grey area – and a slippery one at that.)
The word catharsis derives from Greek, meaning ‘to purge’ or ‘to cleanse’, a word that originally had a medical use, referring to the evacuation of menstrual blood or other bodily fluids. In that usage, perhaps, we see the seeds of fiction, the bones of the creative arts, from inception to conception. Our experiences, our organ. Our influences, our womb. We fuck the page with words, striving for art that lives and breathes.
For most writers, one of the things that drives us is the hope of translating the raw imagination into lucid, legible form. Often, in our creative quest, we talk about ‘looking within’, ‘drawing on experience’, even describing our efforts in terms of ‘blood, sweat and tears’. All cathartic expressions.
Write what you know. What writer hasn’t groaned over that old saw? All the same, it still rings true. Write what you’ve observed and felt. Write what you’ve dreamed.
But catharsis isn’t all there is to it.
In his handbook Revising Fiction, David Madden describes the fallacy of expressive form, the conviction that ‘sufficiently intense feeling on the part of the poet will regularly produce adequate expression in the poem.’ (A Reader’s Guide to Literary Terms). Madden tells us that this is a ‘misconception’, a notion that the Guide supports:
‘This dependence upon imagination…deprives the poet of any external criteria, which are necessary if he is to know whether his work functions effectively for his readers.’
In the same book, Madden also explains autobiographical subjectivity and the autobiographical fallacy – in short that the very act of catharsis can blind a writer to the techniques, the objective framework, required to write a good story.
As Madden puts it: ‘That experience is so real, honest, and authentic, how can the words that express it fail to be? Words written under those conditions seldom are real, because writing is an artificial, unnatural act, which only the conscious art of fiction can make seem real.’
Madden cautions us against ‘making your own navel the centre of the universe’ because ‘nothing written on the me-rack can have any relevance for most readers’.
I mention the above to highlight the apparent paradox that lurks between catharsis and technique as they relate to writing fiction. If you will, raw expression vs. expressive form. The subject is close to my heart as I came to grapple with this issue firsthand during the writing of Unrequited. Today I launch a new edition, so it seemed timely to put my thoughts on the matter down on paper.
Unrequited, initially, was certainly a cathartic experience. I don’t think anyone who’s read the book can doubt that it came from a very dark place. For me, at least, the novel serves as a kind of fictionalised diary to a rather difficult period in my life. Heartbroken, shocked (and at the time, lacking any perspective on the matter), I was unable to relate what I felt even to my closest friends. I can’t remember who suggested I try to write about it (so much back then is a blur, happily consigned to fading memory), but somewhere in the fog, I must’ve taken that advice.
Unrequited started life as a journal, a memoir, if you like, of a disastrous – but ultimately edifying – relationship. In that, it was a self-indulgent endeavour and the writer in me soon came to see it, lying on my bed with X amount of hand-written, scrunched up sheets of A4 paper detailing X amount of perceived wrongs in purple, poison prose…
But what I lacked in objectivity, I seemed to have in imagination. A character was born that allowed me to take that objective stance. Later, I decided that only the elements of my story were actually interesting – the raw emotions, the prevailing themes of love and betrayal. And what was I doing anyway, ‘subconsciously’ writing fiction as an act of revenge? These were the primary sparks of my novel. At second glance, real life seemed fairly generic and boring on paper. Why limit my imagination with such a banal and feeble boundary as reality? No, it was the theme that mattered. The drama was the true adventure. As for the rest – build a bridge and get over it?
I’ve always said that Unrequited was the book that taught me how to write. In hindsight, I could’ve chosen a simpler subject for a debut novel, but translating that period of my life into a dark literary drama went some way – as it does for Aaron Edgeway in the book – toward helping me heal, albeit (and thankfully) in much less ominous circumstances.
In the three years since its release, I’ve been asked (several times) if I’ve gone to the same lengths as Aaron in order to get closure. I hope this post answers that question. My mother couldn’t finish the book, finding the sex scenes ‘much too vivid to read about your son’ (first person can be a funny thing). I even received some hate mail, cheerily hoping that I ‘died from AIDS’.
Having set out to write a passionate and disturbing tale – and one that hopefully flouts the tropes of stereotypical gay literature – I can only take these things as indications of success. In the end, Unrequited is a story about love, loss and twisted redemption. It was often painful to write. In the process, I came to see how catharsis meets technique in the creation of fiction, and how technique, for a writer, is a handy filter to catharsis. The two really do go hand in hand.
Yes, good writing comes from the heart. But perhaps good fiction comes from the art.
I can’t claim that I’ve achieved either, but I know that I’m still willing to learn, and I wanted to share my story with you.
Thanks for listening.