Why It's Madness to Confuse Writing with Therapy

22/11/2012 11:25 GMT | Updated 21/01/2013 10:12 GMT

"I hope your writing provides you with a form of therapy," an old friend recently said to me. "Therapy?" I thought, "are you kidding me?"

Sure, the process of writing is as therapeutic as any task that focuses the mind. But reducing it to that level would make scrubbing a toilet or sorting out a sock drawer just as effective.

There is a sense that writing is all about reaching into the dark recesses of the mind and regurgitating whatever is there out onto a blank page. While there's an element of that in it - during the early stages of creation at least - you can be guaranteed that the results will be little more than mindless ramblings and nonsensical fluff.

Hemingway, for example, admitted that he regurgitated hundreds of pages of mindless ramblings before he encountered anything worth reading. In the same way that it takes countless hours to whittle a handmade piece of furniture into shape, it can take years to craft the perfect story.

This attitude - writing is therapy - is the reason the world is lumbered with so many badly written stories. To paraphrase Wilde, there are no good or bad stories, just good or bad writing.

Writing, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, is not about unleashing the dark thoughts of the mind in any old slap dash manner. It's about telling a story and finding a way to communicate that story to the reader.

Chances are if you don't understand the thoughts in your mind, the reader isn't going to either. Force that drivel on a reader, they'll promptly think you're mad and move on swiftly. If it's sympathy and understanding you want, go see a shrink.

Writers are in the business of telling stories and we use a whole bunch of tools to do that, tools like character, plot, point of view, tense, diction, dialogue, action and description to name a few. Take these frameworks away and what you're left with is gibberish.

In the same way journalists have a responsibility to report facts, creative writers have a responsibility to convey the facts of a story, even if those facts are a total fabrication, pure fiction.

While my friend's comment was misguided, it wasn't that far off the mark. All novice writers are guilty of thinking this, myself included. In our quest to communicate, we pour the contents of our hearts and minds onto the page and hope that our honesty is worthwhile, that it will communicate. Usually, we're wrong.

We forget that whilst honesty is a noble trait, good writing demands clarity first. The best writing turns the most wicked lies into compelling facts.

Striving for honesty is fine as long as the writer puts an equal importance on clarity. This topic is up for much debate in my MA class as we pit experimental writing against more commercial efforts and attempt to ascertain which qualifies as 'better writing.'

The reason why writers like Joyce provoked so much controversy is that no one had a clue what he was on about. Like the proverbial piece of modern art, no one was sure whether to be amazed or offended.

There's a guy in my poetry class and his vocabulary is awe-inspiring. He literally comes out with words I've never heard before in my life. But they are wedged in abstract thought which deflates their meaning. As a result his poetry is meaningless. I suspect he thinks he's doing something really smart when in fact it's just annoying. Or perhaps I'm just too stupid to understand his work.

The thing is people don't like it when other people make them feel stupid. So, if you present someone with a piece of art that suggests they don't have the intelligence to understand it, chances are they'll tell you to bog off.

And who would blame them. You've just wasted their time. People want art that opens their mind not shuts it down. Yes, we live in the era of 'dumbing down' and most people are very comfortably dumbed down thank you very much.

That said we don't all have to jump down the hell-hole with them. The Holy Grail of artistic pursuit is to find the balance between commercial acclaim and critical value.

It's the difference between the appeal of artists like Damien Hirst and Marina Abramovic. Many would argue that the work of Abramovic is much more thought-provoking but only a select few know about her so who cares.

In the world of writing critical acclaim is no longer a clear goal. You either write books that sell millions or you don't. EL James and Dan Brown and Katie Price dominate the bestseller lists while writers who can actually write get lost in the bargain bin.

These days it seems any clod can throw a few sentences on a page, say to hell with grammar and spelling and make a small fortune. Irrespective of their ability to punctuate, the likes of Brown and James tell good stories and that's what readers want.

This, by the way, is the kind of thing that makes writers reach for the phone number of a local therapist, not the act of writing.

Writing can be a wonderful creative pursuit and full of merits in its own right. But for writers, writing is a job, it's the job of storytelling. And the act of storytelling is related to publishing and is therefore subject to all the cold hard commercial rules that apply to any business world. Confusing the two is madness.