Cathartic Writing: Where to Turn for Advice on How to Turn Your Personal Demons into Story Gold

Writing comes from a very personal place and many writers agree that the process is an isolated one. Tapping into our own experiences when composing stories can, at times, take us to some pretty dark places. Cathartic writing is a way to unleash pent up emotions while at the same time creating potential ideas for characters and stories, but how much of ourselves should we put into our writing? Is creating a character much like ourselves a good idea when writing a novel, or does it just lead to awkwardness and self-aggrandizement? Can we remain objective and develop a plot successfully if we are personally connected to the events?

Personally, I think all writers should put a little of themselves into their stories. In fact, I’m not sure there is any way around having some of ourselves enter into our writing. Writers have often heard the old advice: “Write what you know.” Cathartic writing, such as journaling or blogging, can often lead to some great ideas, but sometimes those ideas can get lost in the shuffle. Maybe they don’t come across as well as we would like because we are too close to the subject matter to be truly objective. Can exorcising our personal demons morph into a great story, or will it just come off sounding like an overly-exposed therapy session? Who can we turn to for advice on this subject?

My answer: Stephen King. Stephen King is one of those writers who explores his dark side resulting in some fantastic storytelling. I highly recommend his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. This book contains a lot of stories about his life and how those life experiences have shaped his writing. He is a man who successfully uses writing to overcome some of the personal demons with which he struggles. This book is a great guide for those writers considering using their cathartic writing to generate their own stories.

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Armchair Editing: The Curse of the Amateur

There’s an old saying about a little knowledge being a dangerous thing and another one about ignorance being bliss.  In the case of storytelling that can lead to a weird limbo of discrimination and discernment.  As your own skill of the craft grows you undoubtedly find yourself appreciating good storytelling more and you’ll have a growing vocabulary to express that appreciation.  You’ll likely also have less and less patience for bad writing or, even worse, lazy writing.  These are probably good things.  The limbo part comes when something isn’t necessarily bad…it’s just not good.  Then your new skills and vocabulary may move you to pretentiously play editor-after-the-fact.  Of course just because your opinion is amateur doesn’t mean it’s invalid.  Opinions on, say…

Stephen King’s Cell was a great short story.  Or it would have been if it wasn’t a few hundred pages long.  It was a good story idea–every single cell phone sends a signal (which comes to be known as the Pulse) at the same time.  That signal turns people into murder machines.  Everybody loves a good technophobic horror story and this made for King’s entry in the Zombie genre (spoiler: they’re fast zombies).  The signal happens in the first few pages and the rest is our hero trying to make it home to Maine from Boston to see what’s become of his young son.  There are eventually explanations floated about what the Pulse really is and where it came from but they struck me as sort of weak.  Clay, the hero finds his son after some close calls and heroics.  The boy is infected but there’s a chance he can be ‘cured’ by reexposure to the now ‘mutated’ Pulse.  Again, not bad, but…unsatisfying.  

At novel length not enough of the causes of the apocolypse were developed (like in The Stand) and the fact that he was trying to get home to his son got a little lost in the adventures of humanity against phone-freak.  Alternatively the whole thing could have been trimmed radically to a shorter work.  Maybe not a true short story but perhaps novella length like The Mist.  It would have meant big cuts but the narrative would have been a lot tighter (‘tight’ will be a common word in your new writer’s vocabulary).

This will tend to be more noticeable in movies with their more rigid screenplay structure.  If a filmmaker is gonna go long on a first act he better be giving us something worth watching.  You will also find yourself less willing to cut a guy slack for leaving in scenes that don’t need to be there.  Boondock Saints was a new take on the vigilante story with engaging dialog, interesting characters, and a tight (there’s that tight again) narrative pace depsite the audience experiencing much of the movie after it’s happened (if you haven’t seen it just trust me, it’s a sort of flashback structure).  Of course with a first time filmmaker and limited distribution it took DVD to make it a hit and a cult film. 

Boondock Saints 2:  All Saint’s Day was…less successful.  I knew it wouldn’t have quite the same punch as the first one, you can’t write a cult classic on purpose after all; but in this one I never really bought the brothers’ motives.  It was supposed to be revenge/justice and clearing their names but after a few menacing glares their steely resolve gets lost in the comic stylings of the new Mexican Saint, Romeo.  It reappears jarringly when they threaten to give a wiseguy 9mm stigmata.  Then redisappears just as quickly.  Then their father, Il Duce shows up and has a showdown because the whole thing was really about him. 

If it sounds muddled, it was.  But even before the movie was over I knew it didn’t have to be muddled.  It just needed editing and some of that would have been the classic darling murders.  There’s a dream scene where Rocco (who died in the first movie) comes back and has a shot with the boys.  He says he was proud to stand with them and then they go on a long rant about what makes a man.  What men do and what they don’t do.  It moves over the whole city from high rise rooftop to artfully lit warehouse.  It doesn’t belong there and a good editor would have cut the scene right after they drink their whiskey.  Four minutes saved and much more dramatic punch. 

Oh, well.  It’s unavoidable so you might as well learn from it.  These points make for good discussions with other writer’s and ‘what if’ sessions.  How would you do it differently,  what would you keep, etc.  You might want to keep it between writer’s though.  Normal people will tend to think you’re a pretentious prick and may even resent you pointing out holes in stuff they used to enjoy.  They might even be right.    

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Gender in Magazines: Esquire vs. More

I made the mistake of turning 40 a while back, and a friend of a friend decided I needed a subscription to More magazine. This generous friend in question is a big proponent of cosmetic surgery. After reading More I understand why.  All the articles proclaim that being in the age bracket between forty and death is so wonderful. There’s this emphatic outward theme that women should strive to age gracefully and reach their potential during this glorious golden phase. The irony is that the message is sandwiched between a plethora of ads for anti-aging products and advice on how to stay young – not just at heart, but young looking. A recent cover had Jane Fonda so blatantly airbrushed it was laughable. Who are they kidding? Message received: a woman’s biggest concerns should be about wrinkles, grey hair, and saggy body parts.

Maybe the comparison wouldn’t have been so striking except for the fact I’ve been reading Esquire magazine for some time.  I had the opportunity to use up a few of those worthless airline miles, you know, when you have enough miles for absolutely nothing the airline offers. So, for a mere five thousand airline miles I got a year of Esquire for free. I didn’t actually understand that it’s a men’s magazine. It was simply a better choice than Self or Good Housekeeping and I’m too old for Cosmo. Turns out, now it’s my favorite magazine, the only one I pay for. The ads are geared toward men’s fears and fantasies, so my eyes roll past them as though they are blank spots, barely registering the content or message since I’m not the target, although I admit detecting a distinctly effeminate quality to many of Prada’s ads. Stephen Marche does a nice rant on a regular basis. Occasionally they offer a short story, mostly Stephen King, but this month’s issue had one by James Franco. Will you be surprised when I tell you there was a subtle but ever so obvious gay quality to his story? There’s plenty of macho stuff like ‘Sexiest Woman Alive’ and ‘Women We Love’, both excuses to take photos of barely dressed young girls in erotic poses. My brain isn’t offended somehow. Maybe it’s because I think I understand why men fantasize about young women.  Older women know what great sex feels like, eighteen year olds don’t.  And, no doubt Esquire has its share of double messages – Dr. Oz next to the article on where to find the most fat laden hamburger in America. But by and large the writing is above par, the humorous parts are funny, the serious articles are fact based, educational, and pertinent to what’s happening in the world, whereas More’s profiles are stuck in a binary mode. One is the accomplished superwomen who, whether the corporate or Hollywood type, must make a presentable graphic regardless of how illustrious their credentials. The other is the regular woman, the one having a make-over with her before and after pics of hair, make-up and wardrobe included.

Small wonder the guy’s have it hands down when it comes to magazines.

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