By Emily Hargitai
When I was a freshman, a professor told me that writers should wait at least 20 years before attempting to write about personal painful experiences. I believe this is an accurate estimate. Two decades seems like just the right amount of time for existential pain to fully decompose into usable soil. I remember once, I brought in a story for workshop that was quite obviously written about a recent and painful event. While certainly raw, the story had no clear plot, and was so incomprehensible that it legitimately called my mental stability into question. Luckily, my classmates were kind, and no harm was done. In fact, even though from an editorial standpoint, my story was a smoldering pile of garbage, there was something cathartic about writing it, and something sobering about hearing my classmates’ feedback. The workshop was tough—almost like an intervention—but I am better off as a writer for having gone through it.
This experience–of writing an unpublishable story that tore me apart emotionally, but in time also brought me to a better place as a writer—is confusing and paradoxical. Even though I’ve gone through it first-hand, it makes very little sense to me that the writing process can simultaneously be therapeutic and maddening. At one end of the spectrum, we have heartwarming sentiments like this one expressed by Anne Frank: “I can shake of everything as I write: my sorrows disappear, my courage reborn.” But on the other, we have Hemingway’s decidedly more frightening declaration: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.”
For clarity on this complicated matter, I approached some of the writing students here at Purchase for their thoughts. Their perspectives are passionate, enlightening, and derived from their own unique experiences.
First, I talked to Sydney Shaffer, a poet who is deeply inspired by Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath as well as Walt Whitman and T.S. Eliot. On the conflict between writing and healing, Shaffer said, “The writing process isn’t a conflict between catharsis and madness, but a blend of the two. The maddening part comes when the writer needs to re-experience whatever they are writing about, but the cathartic part is putting it into beautiful new words that become unfamiliar to the reader, and sometimes even to the writer.” I found this response fascinating, particularly Sydney’s discussion of unfamiliarity as something that dilutes the raw emotion of experience to ingestible levels in her poetry. She also introduced an entirely different, and arguably more productive, way of thinking about the issue: That maybe writing and healing are not at war with one other, but in harmony, one informing the other in the process of writing.
I also approached Finola McDonald, a poet here at Purchase, for her two-cents on the matter. Like Sydney, Finola understands bleeding and healing as inexorably linked when it comes to the writing process. But she also points out that the intensity of the emotional turmoil is not fixed, that it depends a great deal on how close the writer is to the subject. She shares from experience: “The process of writing tears me open. My mind flips inside out and upside down—if the content is more personal, it’s chaos. But once everything is on the page, I’ve been stitched up and tucked in as though nothing ever happened.” I was struck in particular by this image of being “stitched up and tucked in.” For Finola, writing a personal poem is a little like undergoing an invasive surgical procedure. The procedure itself is unpleasant and messy, but if it goes well, the result is worthwhile.
Finally, I spoke with Shannon Swiatowicz, a screenwriter who studies horror films and psychological thrillers. To write them in a genuinely horrifying and convincing manner, it is necessary for Shannon to explore the darkest regions of human consciousness through observation and introspection alike. When I asked Shannon for her thoughts, she said, “Writing is in many ways both the band-aid and the scalpel. Some days I need to feel the relief of tearing myself open and seeing what pours out, while other days I would rather wash dishes than sit alone with a blank sheet of paper and the expanse of my mind.” On the topic of introspection and character development, she added, “I don’t think you can truly understand your characters and the heart of the story you’re trying to tell if you haven’t torn apart your own suffering and found the root of what makes you tick.” As someone whose work generally comes from a more autobiographical place, I was surprised by how much I related to Shannon’s screenwriting experience. Just because you aren’t writing directly about your own life, that doesn’t mean the process isn’t highly emotional, and more than a little gory.
In addition to being writers, the women I spoke to and I have this is in common: we are all college-aged. My freshman year professor’s rule—that a minimum of 20 years should pass before a painful experience meets the page—is certainly ideal, but it just isn’t possible for us. With deadlines to meet and portfolios to compile, we can’t feasibly limit our pool of writable experiences to the womb, or fresh out of it, which is generally where “20 years ago” places us. Discussions about how to produce quality work without sacrificing sanity are not just fascinating to have, they also serve practical purpose at the college level: They provide comfort and clarity for writers like Sydney, Finola, Shannon, and myself, who cannot afford to wait, and do not want to.