Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Therapeutic Fiction

When I woke up this morning, I thought about writing a blog post about the election results—more precisely, about the results of the Oklahoma State Questions, and about what an ethic of love and hospitality and compassion would say about, for example, a proposal to needlessly prohibit what is already prohibited by the US Constitution, in a state where there isn’t even the remotest likelihood that any judge will be tempted to rely on Muslim Sharia law, where the only possible function of a such a proposal would be to give voters a chance to say “F*&%@ you!” to our Muslim neighbors from the polling booth. Or about the “English only” question…

But by this time my blood was starting to boil. And so when I got to my office, instead of working myself up into a fit by fixating on the election results, I went to “My Documents,” found the folder called “Fiction,” and opened a document entitle “Christmas Sleigh Novel.” I set to work on revising the opening scene, then added a new scene in the middle, bringing alive a section that had always seemed a bit drab. I allowed myself to spend the entire morning on it. Since I’d just finished a draft of Chapter 5 of That Damned Book on Hell yesterday, I gave myself permission to engage in some therapeutic play.

This is what fiction-writing has always been for me. I write philosophy because I am passionate about ideas and arguments, because I want to wrestle with the meaning of life head-on. Of course, ideas and arguments and issues of meaning are also at work in fiction, but they play out in a different way. In fiction, if your aim is to make a systematic and compelling case for a thesis, your work descends into preachiness. In fiction your job isn’t to make a case but to tell a story.

And somehow the process of doing that has become, for me, a therapeutic exercise. A couple of years ago I was called upon to reflect explicitly on this therapeutic dimension of my fiction when one of my stories won the Crème-de-la-Crème Award of the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation. I was asked to write a short article about the story and what it meant to win, and this led me to reflect on the story’s origins and its significance.

“Malaguena” is about a teenage girl whose family duties included cleaning the apartment of a stroke-stricken aunt. The old woman so disgusts her that she treats her as little more than a thing, but by the end of the story she is moved to connect with her on a human level, extending a gesture of respect.

It’s fiction, but the story has its origins in my own past. Years ago I had a summer job as a nursing assistant for a home nursing service in Oslo, Norway. One of my tasks was to clean the apartment of an old, stroke-ridden woman. But I never did treat her as more than a thing. She’d sit there on the sofa while I cleaned, half-naked, scattering ashes on her bathrobe as she chain-smoked. I tried to pretend she wasn’t there, praying she’d return the favor. But sometimes there’d be something she wanted. Since she couldn’t speak, she’d grunt at me and gesture wildly, trying to communicate. But I’d never figure out what she meant. She’d lapse into silence, and I’d leave.

For years I felt the weight of my inadequacy. And finally, long after that woman’s death, I wrote this story about a teenage girl, inadequate in many of the ways that I was inadequate, who somehow realized that what she needed to do was a simple act of affirmation, an acknowledgement of her aunt’s humanity. The story, in turn, became my effort to acknowledge and affirm the humanity of that woman I had tried not to look at while I cleaned her home. It became, in other words, an act of self-forgiveness.

But there’s a more generic way in which writing fiction is therapeutic. When I get outraged by current events, tinkering with a story can help restore balance. Perhaps it’s the details of the task—toying with word choices, cutting out the fat, fretting over whether a bit of dialogue sounds authentic. Perhaps it’s the struggle to get in touch with the sympathetically human in each of the characters, even the least sympathetic of them. Perhaps writing fiction expands my capacity for compassion, and so helps to quiet the anger and outrage that has the power to so disturb my inner peace. Perhaps it’s just that fiction is less about my ego than is philosophy. As a philosopher by profession, I’m supposed to be good at it, and so my inevitable inadequacies become something to beat myself up about. With fiction I can just write. If a story wins an award or gets published, it’s something to be celebrated rather than something only to be expected.

If that's writing, then part of the therapeutic value of writing fiction probably will be lost were it to become something other than a hobby.

For a couple of years now, I’ve spent the months leading up to Christmas tinkering with a Christmas novel. It was actually born as a short story back in the ‘90’s, when I was a visiting assistant professor at Pacific Lutheran University. The author-in-residence at PLU, Jack Cady (a wonderful writer, by the way), became a champion of the story. But it was long as short stories go. Not quite novella length, but longer than most editors would be comfortable devoting to a story by an unpublished writer. When I sent it to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (the story had fantasy themes), Jack sent a note along with it to the editor, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, whom he knew.

It didn’t get the story published, but I’m sure his note had something to do with the fact that, a few months later, Ms. Rusch bought another story of mine, “Faery Storm.” The Christmas story, however, languished. Jack suggested that I expand it, maybe into a short novel. But at that point my visiting position at PLU came to an end. I found myself temping at a bank to make ends meet while trying to find an academic philosophy position in a very tight market. For years after that, my life became about my philosophy career—about landing that tenure track job, then about getting published, getting tenure. There was no time for fiction.

A few years back, after getting tenure, I started writing fiction again in my free time. And one of the things I did was brush off the Christmas story and begin to think about how to expand it into a novel. My first effort was, I must concede, an utter failure. I had the idea of framing the story in something like the way that John Irving did in A Prayer for Owen Meany—with an adult narrator alternating between rather drab accounts of his present life and colorful recollections from his childhood.

This was powerfully effective in Owen Meany. All the vibrancy and vitality of the narrator’s childhood recollections become focused in his best friend, Owen Meany, and all of that vibrancy and vitality comes into sharp contrast with the dull grey existence of the narrator’s adult life, a world in which Owen Meany is absent. And so, when at last Owen’s inevitable death is told, readers feel as if they are being cast into this colorless, pro forma existence—the world as it is without Owen.

I had visions of doing something like that—except to have the key events of the story take place in the present, so that the adult narrator can redeem his life despite the loss of his sister all those years ago, and despite his own guilt about her death.

This just didn’t work. The narrator was transformed into this stunted adolescent you just couldn’t identify with. It’s hard to empathize with the plight of someone who should have dealt with these issues decades ago, before they turned him into an a**hole. Of course, Dickens was able to pull off something of this sort with Scrooge. That has something to do with Dickens’ genius, but also (I think) with the third-person-omniscient point of view that authors of the era were able to adopt (but which is pretty much off the table today).

Had this been a problem in my philosophical work, it would’ve kept me up at night. But instead, it was just an interesting puzzle. How do I make the story work?

Last year, as the holiday season approached, I dusted off the story again and wrestled with the problem. And then, abruptly, I thought, “If the problem is that the narrator should have dealt with these issues before they turned him into an a**hole, then, well, I should have him deal with these issues before they turn him into an a**hole.” That is, make him a teenager, two years out from his sister’s death, still wrestling with the imminence of guilt and loss.

The result was an enormous improvement. But it still…wasn’t…quite…there. Nevertheless I talked with an agent (who mainly represents young adult novels) at last spring’s Oklahoma Writers’ Federation Conference. He asked to see the manuscript, kept it for a couple of months, then finally wrote a note declining to represent the manuscript “despite its obvious merits.”

In other words: It’s got promise, but it’s still…not…quite…there.

I was, of course, disappointed. But in a strange way this makes me happy. Because it means I still have this story to work on as the holiday season approaches. It means that my fiction-writing remains free of the expectations that I place on my other work. For now, at least, it remains just a kind of therapeutic play.

And right now, after the results of yesterday’s election, I need all the therapy I can get.


  1. Hi Eric

    This probably isn't the place for a long discourse on some of the points you've raised here regarding the fiction writing process. Let me echo though the great value of having writing serve the purpose of hobby over career. I have deliberately chosen not to make writing my primary occupation for pretty much the reasons you touch upon. A hobby brings a sense of celebration to the task that is hard to replicate when there's associated performance and financial pressure, and the inevitable ego investment that seems an inevitable part of that thing which publicly and privately defines us.

    Play is the right word, and I wonder if there isn't a broader lesson there. The best teaching days are also a kind of play, a hobby if you will. I don't know what the situation is the US, but here there is inordinate pressure on young students to gain the requisite qualifications for the careers that will, apparently, define and reward them. Too little attention is given I think to ensuring this sense of play remains at the heart of their lives.


  2. Bernard,

    Have you seen this brief video about reforming education? It touches on the ways in which current education paradigms have a propensity to deaden rather that make use of the natural enthusiasm and creativity of children.

    A pair of researchers from my alma mater (University of Rochester) have conducted studies on motivation that has bearing on this. They had two separate groups work on some sort of challenging problem. The first group was paid to work on it, the second wasn't. Each group was told that they were to work on it for a given time frame. When time was up, those conducting the study came in and said so, but said that they needed to fill out some paperwork and would be back in a few minutes. The group that was being paid stopped working on the problem and began reading magazines that were left out. The group that wasn't being paid kept working on the problem.

    The lesson, of course, is that challenging activities that make use of our capacities are INTRINSICALLY rewarding. Adding extrinsic reward can be risky, since doing so--making the activity an EXPECTATION, something one is supposed to do in order to earn one's pay, or one's grade, or one's tenure, or to preserve one's professiona repuation--has the power to overshadow the natural inner motivation to pursue the activity.

    This past summer, my son (having just finished first grade) was moved by the oil spew in the gulf to write a "book." He labored for months on the text and the drawings--consulting with my father (a geologist) about relevant science. There was no grade motivating him. No payment (although he wanted to sell the book and give the proceeds the the Environmental Defense Fund--which he chose after researching several environmental nonprofits online). It was a combination of an emotional response to images from the gulf, a desire to DO something, and the satisfaction that comes from both the learning that precedes this kind of creative project and from the creative activity itself. It was, in short, therapeutic play.

    So far, both of my children have been fortunate enough to have teachers and to be in schools that try to emphasize the intrinsic rewards of learning and creative activity (both went to a Montessori preschool). I only hope that this continues--but the pressure of standardized testing in the higher grades, and the expectations that this puts on teachers, is too often at odds with the model of education that emphasizes intrinsic rewards. Teachers are not only pressured to "teach to the test," but they are rewarded or penalized by how well their students perform--and this, of course, has the danger of overshadowing the intrinsic rewards of TEACHING.

  3. Thanks for the link Eric.

    I could not agree more about this business of intrinsic motivation, and I sincerely hope your children can maintain their appetite for learning.

    I am always in two minds abut Ken Robinson's presentations. He is a charming and compelling speaker, but the tricks of rhetoric sometimes obscure the fact that it is not clear what his solution might look like.

    This year I began my drama course by showing the documentary Man on Wire, about the French tight rope walker who walked between the twin towers, just to get the students to think about the motivation (or perhaps obsession) that lies in seeking such purity of expression.