- The Talking Cure and the Writing Cure
writing, memoir, trauma, therapy
Few subjects have provoked more speculation or scholarly inquiry than the relationship between creativity and madness—or, in the case of Jason Thompson, the link between memoir writing and depression. Plato theorized that the poet’s madness is divinely inspired, and two thousand years later Sigmund Freud (1928/1961) admitted that “Before the problem of the creative artist analysis must, alas lay down its arms” (p. 177)—a cautionary injunction he then disregards. Should authors heed Thompson’s prudent advice not to write about present traumas, or should they accept D. H. Lawrence’s (1981) statement that “One sheds one’s sicknesses in books, repeats and presents again one’s emotions, to be master of them” (p. 90)?
For Thompson, writing about a present trauma results in acting out rather than working through his problems. Writing produces no insight into his situation, no psychological or literary breakthroughs, no opportunity for self-discovery or self-healing. Writing only exacerbates his perfectionism, the self-destructive belief that nothing he can do is good enough. Only when he lets go of his memoir, rejecting his effort to understand the experience of depression, does he find relief.
By contrast, other writers extol the creative process as a way to escape from, if only temporarily, mind-numbing anxiety and depression. “Melancholy diminishes as I write,” Virginia Woolf declares (1977–1984) in a diary entry (vol. 2, p. 98). Throughout her life, she viewed art as the best antidote to depression; her treatment of choice was to immerse herself in fiction. So did Ernest Hemingway turn to writing to battle depression. When asked if he had a therapist, he replied wryly, “Sure I have. Portable Corona number three. That’s been my therapist” (Hotchner 1966, 152). Many of the thoughts Sylvia Plath (1982) confided to her journal similarly affirm the therapeutic nature of writing. “Fury jams the gullet and spreads poison, but, as soon as I start to write, dissipates, flows out into the figure of the letters: writing as therapy?” (p. 255). Anne Sexton also believed that writing poetry rescued her from depression. “Poetry has saved my life and I respect it beyond both or any of us,” Sexton (1977) wrote to her fellow poet W. D. Snodgrass (p. 42). She repeated this idea to her teacher John Holmes: “poetry has saved my life; has given me a life and if I had not wandered in off the street and found you and your class . . . I would indeed be lost” (p. 59).
A cruel irony surrounds these affirmations of writing, for Woolf, Hemingway, Plath, and Sexton all committed suicide, unable to exorcize the [End Page 255] demon that stalked each of them for years. There are always many reasons why a person decides to end his or her life—suicide is among the most over-determined acts. Woolf found herself most vulnerable to melancholy after she completed a novel; Hemingway, like so many other artists, tried to self-medicate with alcohol, the liquid muse; Plath viewed herself as a martyr to art—“The blood jet is poetry / There is no stopping it,” Plath (1981) chillingly declared in her late poem “Kindness” (p. 270); and Sexton, who had an anti-suicide pact with Plath, felt betrayed by her rival’s death, which deepened her own fascination with self-extinction. As I discuss in Surviving Literary Suicide (Berman 1999), for each of these novelists and poets who battled depression or manic depression, art was a necessary but not always sufficient part of their support system.
I have been teaching literature and writing for nearly forty years, and I often ask my students to write reader-response diaries or personal essays in which they explore their responses to reading authors like Woolf, Hemingway, Plath, and Sexton. Many students experience educational and psychological breakthroughs when they write about depression, eating disorders, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, cutting, and suicide. By reading aloud their essays in an empathic classroom, students acknowledge serious conflicts and engage in constructive problem solving. Their writings appear—always with their permission, along with that of the university’s Institutional...