I gave the following talk at a LitCaf lunch at the QI Club, Oxford on 15th February 2007. The text has been lightly edited.
Title: '"So, what's it all about, Doc?" Writing Therapy -- a discussion of writing as therapy for writers and characters and writing therapy as a narrative device...'
At the outset I should say that I'm not a therapist and that my approach to the subject is that of a layman.
I have been interested, however, in mental phenomena and mental illnesses and their treatment since my late teens and my favourite choice of reading, apart from fiction, are books on psychoanalysis, psychiatry or psychotherapy.
At the last LitCaf lunch, the novelist Sarah Banerji came up with a quote that went something like this: 'Nobody but a fool ever wrote for anything except for money.' And, as became clear last time, this statement is completely untrue. People go on writing, even when there is apparently no hope of making any money. Why? Maybe writing is an illness or an obsession, or some sort of ritual purging of the soul. But, I would suggest, it may equally have something to do with the healing, therapeutic powers of writing.
I'd now like to read a short passage from Invisible.
Before doing so, I should set the scene. The extract makes reference to a picnic by the Thames which took place a few weeks earlier, during which Tom, the narrator, began to realise that the person he is having an affair with, Sarah, has some fairly serious emotional problems which centre around her difficult relationship with her father. These have been brought to a head by the fact that her father is now dying of prostate cancer.
I should also mention that Tom is Tom Dickens, an Essex boy and former owner of Dickenses brewery and pub chain (the interior decoration of the pubs is loosely themed around Charles Dickens' novels). Tom has recently sold up and moved to rural west Oxfordshire. Sarah, his lover, owns an upmarket gallery in Oxford and lives in an exotic folly with Griff, a Welsh Brit Art sculptor. Tom and Sarah both narrate the story. Mart, by the way, is Tom's GP who specialises in writing therapy. In this extract, Tom is writing a note to Mart in which he ruminates on writing therapy and storytelling.
Note to Mart
So much for writing 'brief distillations of experience'. So much for writing theme-mosaics, or whatever it was I was intending to write. Not that what I'm writing isn't themed -- the picnic was probably the best illustration of both Sarah's relationship with her father and the beginnings of her unpredictable behaviour. But what I'm really surprised about is how easy it is to express these things in narrative terms. I thought I'd be scrabbling about trying to pull in details from here, there and everywhere in my desperate efforts to make sense of what happened. And yet if you think hard about which day was pivotal with regard to a particular, important theme, and you start running through the events of that day in your mind you suddenly find yourself noticing more and more. Making more and more sense of life. Suddenly you've got a story to tell -- not War and Peace exactly but no haiku neither. I remember you saying Mart that human beings are natural story tellers. I hadn't realised before then how fundamental telling stories is as far as unraveling truth is concerned. Yet it's no doddle, this story telling. It's not without its pain. If I were an academic reconstructing the story of the picnic, say, I'd assemble the facts about where we were, what the day was like, what we were eating and so on, and then assess them objectively. There'd be no genuine gut-wrenching pain. There'd be empathy, no doubt, otherwise you couldn't make convincing judgments, but not the actual living experiences. With story telling you revisit, you do relive, you explore, you linger over the past. And that lingering, caused by the relative slowness of writing life down, as opposed to living and breathing it, that lingering makes the pain even worse, second time around. But maybe afterwards the generalised pain and depression those events caused will be less, precisely because you have relived the past vividly through writing. That's what I call the exorcism. Is that how this therapy works, Mart? Am I right? But then sometimes I wonder, what if it isn't exorcism but me opening up this Pandora's box, delving deep inside and pulling out things that should have stayed in the depths. What if it's like that, Mart, this telling stories? I find myself asking these questions quite often, Mart, and they frighten me. And yet I have no choice but to go on. No choice at all. I have to write.
So, I'd now like to talk about my personal experience of writing for a moment and how I came to use writing as therapy -- as well as trying to identify how writing works therapeutically on the writer.
I think that, probably like a lot of aspiring novelists, I was quite shocked by the act of writing to begin with. Writing was both terribly absorbing and extraordinarily vivid -- the experience of writing the stuff, at least, not necessarily the resultant prose. One soon found oneself writing about difficult subjects. Sex, for example. Sitting in the Bodleian Library attempting to imagine and set down two people making love was an incongruous activity. Further, one began to write in character with enthusiasm about political or social opinions with which one had apparently no natural affinity. Only you suddenly found that you did actually have an affinity with them and you began to modify your previous opinions as a result. Even when you didn't agree with your characters you found their sometimes repellent views spilling out of yourself with as much conviction as you could manage. Where did these hitherto unacknowledged parts of oneself come from? Writing was indeed a strange, alchemical process. It enabled one to learn to empathise with people with different ideas and backgrounds to oneself, to explore new experiences, and, hopefully, to grow as a person. These aspects of writing have the potential to act therapeutically.
I have had occasion to use writing as therapy. Ten years ago my family went through a very divisive and unsettling crisis. I found the situation baffling. I used to go on long walks in the evenings trying to make sense of things, with facts whirling round my head, not to mention memories of past relationships which now had to be viewed in radically different ways. In the end I turned to writing for help. I sought to combine two kinds of writing skills: the emotional ones I was using when I wrote The Lock, which was about a third finished; and the formal businesslike ones, which I had learned during my career as a chartered surveyor. I took two weeks off and wrote Mon-Fri, 9-5. I produced a document which had a formal, report-like structure but which had content that was often novelistic. The 'essay', as I came to think of it, was 30,000 words long when I set down my pencil at the end of the second Friday. Whereupon I put it aside for 2 months before editing it and typing it up. While I was writing it I wasn't sure whether I would show it to anyone. In the end just one person, a trustee, who was also a family member, read it. The document was not an act of revenge nor character assassination. It was, I believe, an act of love. You don't waste so much time and effort on people you don't care deeply about. I hope that writing the essay enabled me to develop a fuller understanding of myself and others and to make the problems besetting my family manageable. Writing was an attempt to give the problems shape and meaning, to see how they had come about and how they might be solved. The aim was constructive not destructive. It was, of course, an exorcism too at times. I put names to emotions which before were fuzzy, undefined. The results of calling a spade a spade were sometimes extremely unsettling. The outcome of the crisis for my family, I would say, was as good as it could be, although some members have yet to talk to each other even now. Speaking for myself, I found the therapeutic value of writing out my story incalculable. It was the beginning of making sense, of coming to terms with. It made me stronger and better able to help sort things out, unencumbered by the blind anger that accompanies confusion and incomprehension. My essay was also the starting point for my new novel, Invisible.
[A digression (the following was written a few days after I completed the preceding paragraph): When you write out the story of the past, the events and feelings have long since happened and remain only as what might best be described as undefined sensations -- until thought about, or better still, until written about. Thinking is fine, as far as it goes, but often, especially when strong emotions are involved, the memories get jumbled up. It may well be that the memories can only be successfully reproduced, or recaptured, brought back into the present, by writing them out. They are different when written. Aspects of the memories that were quite unthought of suddenly materialise and can be explored. OK this is experience and imagination getting to work on the memories but does that make what is uncovered any less real? Sometimes, of course, it must do but at other times one hopes that what is set down is an insightful, truthful rendering of the past. It occurs to me that sometimes the past gets laid down like digital information and has to wait for the right mental software programme before it can be played back properly. For me that software programme was formed by the amalgamation of my report-writing and story-telling skills.]
Before talking about The Lock and Invisible, Iíd just like to make one or two further general comments about writing as therapy for writers. I think that once some writing skills have been mastered the act of writing each day often has a similar effect to puzzle-solving. Having said that, one has to acknowledge that the time spent acquiring writing skills, when time after time, nothing ever seems to come out right or read anything like professional prose, can be anything but therapeutic.
We all probably know people who unwind by spending a certain amount of time each day doing jigsaws, crosswords, Su Doku, puzzle books and so on. Others read -- I have a colleague who gets through 2-3 detective novels a week. I suspect that novel-writing bestows similar benefits as these activities. Writing is absorbing, it's a satisfying skill, it takes you into a parallel universe and when you rejoin the real world you find that your brain has been busying itself with solving your other problems while you were away.
Now, writing as therapy for characters -- specifically in The Lock and Invisible, and specifically about diaries. I always used to enjoy the Radio 4 programme Dear Diary -- alas, no more. All those windows on the soul! I used the device of a diary first in The Lock, although briefly. In that novel a daughter discovers her late mother's diary from years ago -- a diary her late father had been given strict instructions to destroy. He never got anything right. As the woman reads she gets to know her mother as a vulnerable, all-too-fallible person struggling to understand her emotions and behaviour. The woman also learns that her mother loved her far more than she ever let on. The diary was clearly therapy for the mother but it also has therapeutic effects on the daughter. The daughter comes to believe that although she wishes she had got to know her mother this well when she was alive, she has nevertheless been privileged to gain these insights after her death.
In my new novel, Invisible, writing as therapy is central -- both to the two main narrators, Tom and Sarah, but also thematically, and to an extent, structurally. The narrators are writing what may loosely be described as diaries. Sarah is writing her diary between the ages of 18 and 23 -- she is 26 when she meets Tom and has an affair with him. She turns to diary writing as a kind of self medication which helps her to work out who she is and to cope with difficult issues, including her relationship with her father and her eating disorder. Tom writes his diary -- in fact a sort of extended essay -- as a formal, prescribed exercise in writing therapy. His essay reveals a lot about his past life (he is 36 when writing) but focuses on his brief relationship with Sarah, the life-events leading up to it and how it came to a dramatic end and led, indirectly, to the death of Sarah's partner, Griff.
I should perhaps mention here that the key source book I used to learn about writing as therapy was Gillie Bolton's estimable The Therapeutic Potential of Creative Writing: Writing Myself (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1999).
When I was thinking about how to tell the story of Invisible I knew I wanted to use at least one first-person narrative because I wanted to get away from the measured, omniscient narrator of The Lock and experiment with the first-person technique. I suppose that the diary form suggested itself because of its post Bridget Jones popularity. Having two diarists of different sexes, ages, backgrounds and temperaments seemed to offer interesting possibilities. The project still hadnít come to life fully in my mind, however. I'd written 10,000 words rapidly as an exercise, begun to get the voices, and done an Arvon course -- which was extremely encouraging -- but I was still dissatisfied. It was only when I read an article about writing therapy and subsequently found Gillie Bolton's book that everything fell into place.
The idea of someone being encouraged by their GP to work through their traumas through writing about them somehow legitimised the story that Tom had to tell. It gave a clear reason for the content and its form. Of course, many novels are simply voices speaking to us that have no formal justification for doing so. They are just doing it. But for me the justification was important and I think it strengthens the story. It also provides a way into interpreting both narratives. It places the accent on the therapeutic potential of writing and so the diaries become, in part, an exploration of this.
As the narratives develop one sees the characters uncovering new things about themselves, sometimes learning from these, at other times being purblind to them. Writing both reveals helpful things and things that were perhaps better left unsaid. It can be reassuring and deeply unsettling.
For Sarah, writing enables her to objectify both herself and her parents. To begin with she feels guilty about writing down certain things about her parents. But over time, she comes to see her diary as an act of love. Writing enables Sarah to bring her anorexia out into the open -- at least to herself. Yet it is also, to an extent, a parallel obsessive-compulsive disorder. It can be a kind a vomiting up of all the ideas she has gorged upon and which she is uncomfortable with.
For Tom, writing is a way of unraveling the past. It is also a voyage of self-discovery and transforms the way he views his relationship with Sarah. Writing is for him, though -- just as it is for Sarah -- something of a compulsive disorder.
The fact that Tom is undergoing writing therapy, so to speak, enables me to explore its processes, as I have indicated. But its techniques -- letters that are never sent, letters written from another's point of view (and in another's voice), spidergrams, free-indirect thought exercises etc -- also proved useful as narrative devices. For example, at the beginning of the novel, the GP, Mart, asks Tom to make some free-indirect thoughts lists. To the reader these are mysteries, they are funny and they defamiliarise. Tom also reacts to them after he has written them and thus we learn about his character. He is then asked to write two passages, one about a time when he was happy, the other about a time when he was sad. These I use, artfully I hope, to set up certain situations and themes. I also try what I think of as the Macbeth gambit. I give away much of what is going to happen, though in a tantalisingly distorted form. This is intended to stimulate the reader's interest and to create suspense that will last throughout the novel. In Macbeth there were witches and their mumbo-jumbo. In Invisible there is an Oxford GP who has made writing therapy a special area of study. To some perhaps the Dr's ideas are indeed mumbo-jumbo too. But to me the area is fascinating and useful. As a writer, I think I practice writing therapy every day.
The second talk is prefaced by some information about eBook formats
eBooks are digital editions of ordinary paper books which can be bought and downloaded from publishers' websites such as smallersky.com. They can be read on your pc screen, laptop or handheld computer in a variety of formats.
With eBooks you can now make reading novels, works of reference, newspapers and magazines part of your digital life.
Here are details of two popular formats, including where you can find out more/download them.
Produced by Adobe, this eBook format displays full-screen pages and is operated by easy-to-use toolbars. The whole book can be printed up on A4 from the file.
Introduced in 2001, this format creates a paperback-sized page in the centre of the screen against a black outfield. Operation is by discreet drop-down menus, and pages can be annotated, bookmarks and drawings added, and words looked up in the Encarta dictionary. Text cannot be printed out.
When The Lock was published as an eBook I gave a talk to Writers in Oxford which was billed as a discussion of "the latest trends in e-publishing and whether it is the way forward or fated to follow the dot.com company craze". The following is an edited version.
My novel The Lock has been available as an ebook for just over a year. During that time I've learnt a lot about epublishing and its potential, although the lion's share of that potential has yet to be realised.
Obviously, I and my publisher Smaller Sky Books (www.smallersky.com) hope that we shall be able to increase sales substantially over the coming two years or so. To this end The Lock will be coming out as a print-on-demand paperback. I have also set up my own website which is designed to generate more interest in the electronic edition.
This talk will concentrate on the opportunities that the new medium is beginning to offer not just small independent publishers but writers themselves, especially in the areas of self-publishing, cooperative and niche publishing. It intrigues me that self-publishing is increasingly being seen as a valid rather than a desperate option for writers. As Julia Bell says in the excellent book The Creative Writing Coursebook which is based on the UEA creative writing degree course, "Publishing your own work is part of a long tradition of creative production that can be traced through Virginia Woolf right back to Caxton."
Before I look at epublishing in detail I'd like to tell you about some of my readers (those that I know personally).
I'm going to begin with a friend who is something of a technophobe: Anne, a successful barrister, is in her mid-forties (and therefore centrally-placed within the target age-range for my book). In order to start reading The Lock she had first to find a colleague who could load the ebook programme for her. A happy consequence of this arrangement was that he also got into the book.
The majority of readers, though, have much greater familiarity with the technology: they have worked with PCs for many years and most own one; collectively, however, they use a wide range of machines with screens offering varying degrees of resolution. Even the more modern PCs give relatively poor resolution when it comes to reading ebooks. Only one or two readers have laptops which are much more suited to displaying ebook text.
Which brings me to Chris, a purchaser of my ebook, occupying the opposite end of the technological spectrum to Anne. Chris is a doctor in his early thirties; he is fascinated by technology and has his own website; he carries a Psion Personal Digital Assistant or PDA and it is on this device that he has read my ebook. The resolution is good and the controls are easy to operate; it is this sort of machine that will make sense of ebooks. True, people could print up ebooks and read them quite happily but doing this is expensive, equal to a hardback book when combined with the cover price -- only all you get are hundreds of A4 loose leaves; if ebooks are to work, they must do so on screens.
The trouble is that at present, very few people own PDAs.
This is why Smaller Sky is looking at print-on-demand technology as the best short-term way forward. This will enable The Lock to appear in paperback, though without the need for either a long print run, or warehousing and distribution costs.
Print-on-demand is a valuable development which is a direct result of the ebook revolution.
I'll return to this shortly, but first I should say that I do very much believe in ebooks and reading on screen. I think ebooks will become a reality soon -- although it is salutary to think that the first design for a piece of ebook hardware was created in 1945 by Vinnaver Bush. Although never built, Microsoft believes it would have worked. However, it would have been the size of a desk and would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Whilst we have moved on a lot since then, there is a feeling abroad, which I sometimes share, that the arrival of ebooks is always about to occur but never quite does so. This should change, not least because Bill Gates is now committing hundreds of millions of dollars to cracking the ebook problem. He, I think, envisages an actual book-like device which will display text on a succession of page-like structures: a book in other words, but one that can change from one text to another at the stroke of a sensor.
So how should writers respond to ebooks?
I think, first of all, that they should do what you are doing tonight: learning a little more about what's going on, and then perhaps experimenting with the technology. You could visit some websites, download Acrobat or Microsoft Reader software and even create your own ebook. You can get the freeware version of Microsoft Reader from microsoft.com (www.microsoft.com/reader) and create your own ebook from one of your Word files by visiting ebookexpress.com (www.ebookexpress.com).
I should emphasise at this point that creating ebooks in this way does not give them any copyright protection and you might therefore be wary of distributing your texts too widely. If you want to know more about how you can protect against electronic copyright infringement go to overdrive.com (www.overdrive.com) and microsoft.com (www.microsoft.com/ebooks/das/das.asp).
I'd like to turn now to the burning question of how writers might be able to make money out of epublishing.
As I've already said, returns on literary ebooks are low at present: epublishers may offer a bigger royalty (from between 25% and 80%) but sales are often poor, and there is generally no advance.
One way that money might be made is through print-on-demand. I'll let you know how our experiment goes. Print-on-demand promises much to small presses, individual authors who want to keep control of as much of the publishing process as they can and cooperatives of writers, banding together in uncertain times. Print-on-demand might also enable you to keep your backlist alive: set-up costs per book are less than £100, with each copy made costing from about £2.50 for a 200 page book (see www.antonyrowe.co.uk). You could advertise your backlist at signings or whenever you got the chance.
The internet could be used to market print-on-demand books or ebook versions of your novels -- but like so many things to do with the medium quite how you make your website stand out amongst the millions of others out there is a thorny problem. As a general point, I think that authors should consider putting up their own website -- you can register a suitable domain name for $29 at networksolutions.com (www.networksolutions.com) and then go to their parent companyís site, verisignwebsites.com (www.verisignwebsites.com), where you can build your pages. The hosting charge works out about $20 a month and getting your website registered with some search engines and the entries regularly updated might cost a further $40 a year. I found out about these two companies after reading a recommendation in the Author magazine. If you were feeling particularly adventurous, you could even register with WorldPay, for $199, so that you could take credit card payments for say, an ebook digest of your work via your webpages.
Finally, on the subject of ebooks, I'd like to commend the Society of Authors' contract vetting service which is very much up-to-mark with the new technology and its legal implications.
I'd like to turn now to the other ways in which writers might be able to make money from the epublishing industry in the near future -- or perhaps I should be bolder and say now because many of these markets are already emerging.
First of all, for technical writers particularly, there's writing copy for websites and electronic marketing materials: writers wanting to do this should approach ad agencies, graphic designers and website designers.
Then there are story sites such as storyzone.co.uk (www.storyzone.co.uk) and candlelightstories.com (www.candlelightstories.com), both for children, and poetry sites such as poetry.com (www.poetry.com). I imagine that these sorts of sites will proliferate even more than they are doing already and that good ones will generate revenue from sales and advertising which will benefit authors. I'm not sure, though, that all these sites pay for contributions at the moment. candlelightstories.com says it will pay a royalty of 30% on each copy of a children's novel sold from its site. However, whether or not .coms pay it might be felt that the exposure they give a writer is worthwhile remuneration for the use of a short work.
Which brings me to interactive fiction: this is a new but potentially exciting area. Mainstream writers are experimenting with this. At the moment, however, there is a lot of academic debate about just how genuinely interactive these productions are: many simply enabled you to choose a variety of pre-written options at certain key stages in the narrative; this means that the reader can tailor the story to their mood and even reread it in a number of different ways.
The reason academics tend to dismiss such ventures is because they fail to meet the criteria laid down for true "interactivity". Broadly-speaking the learned view is that a webstory is interactive only if the way it's presented is unique to the electronic medium and it couldn't be presented effectively in any other way. It is argued that most so-called interactive stories would work equally well if they were in conventional book form.
A successful interactive experiment is onlinecaroline.com (www.onlinecaroline.com). The idea of the site is that Caroline is writing a Bridget Jones type diary about being twenty-something; new readers are asked to fill out a form and tell "Caroline" about themselves; they then get personalised emails from their new virtual friend which build references to the information they have given into the narrative about her life.
It seems to me conceivable that interactive story sites will proliferate and that good ones will need skilful writers to provide the copy; perhaps even to come up with whole narrative strategies suitable to this kind of entertainment.
I'd like to conclude this talk with a quote from an article published in Connected, the ecommerce supplement of the Daily Telegraph. As you may know Penguin Books have recently relaunched their epenguin list. The company is said to be committing a large amount of money to the project. However, when interviewed, the Managing Director of Penguin UK, Helen Fraser, said, "I think it [epublishing] is very important strategically. I think whether it's going to produce significant revenues in the short term, medium term or long term, is still very debatable. We feel we have to do it, because I think there is a significant possibility that it might." I think these words could have been said about nearly everything connected with the web; they certainly sum up epublishing.