Terence Blacker: The therapeutic power of the written word

A couple of paragraphs ago I was knotted, anxious ... Already, I feel the tension easing
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The Independent Online

There are still those who, in the face of all evidence, insist that creative writing has not the slightest therapeutic value. They say that putting something down in the form of a story or memoir rarely if ever purges the emotions or brings order to a disordered life or heals a wounded soul.

In vain, one points to the evidence: the air of gentle sanity that hangs over a literary festival like the scent of roses, the pleasant and easygoing natures of contemporary writers, with their strong yet modest sense of self, their quiet wisdom about the world beyond the study.

The grumps will argue that, for every cheery philanthropist like Jeanette Winterson, there is a Virginia Woolf, that the Buddhist calm of a Howard Jacobson is cancelled out by the antics of literary psychotics from Pound to Hemingway. "And exactly how much self-validation did Sylvia Plath get from her writing?" they ask.

At this point in the argument, I like to quote from experience. A couple of paragraphs ago, for example, I was knotted, anxious in a state of mild depression. Already, with every word, I feel the tension easing from my shoulders and a sense of writerly wellbeing settling upon me like a benediction. By the time I finish this article, I shall be in the sort of semi-ecstatic state usually only induced by a sophisticated cocktail of recreational drugs. I shall walk from my study as if on my own private cloud to feed the birds, walk barefoot through long grass or hug a passing stranger.

Of course, not all writing is therapeutic. There are some people - professionally outraged opinionists, for example - who actually become huffier with every word they put down. It is said that, at the Daily Mail offices, there is a padded room known as the Lee Potter Suite where their columnists can "come down" after completing their 1,000 words.

Writing to self-heal requires a certain discipline. Even in apparently simple matters like reported speech, certain rules apply. Whereas an ordinary author will use those dreary old stand-bys he said, she asked, you replied and so on, the therapeutic writer will add colour, using precisely the right verb and adverb for the occasion.

So, if you wanted to convey the idea that one of your characters is saying something which the reader should take seriously, he or she should say it quietly. In fiction, it is an established code that any thing said quietly, or murmured, or even murmured quietly will be pretty significant.

As a general rule, the therapeutic writer will assume that quite often a reader will miss the tone in which something has been said and will need it to be repeated. Rather than "Come on then," she said, it should always be "Come on then," she urged. If in doubt, you can add yet another echo with an adverb: "I beg you with all my heart," he implored beseechingly.

Remember, incidentally, the verbs and adverbs are more or less interchangeable. If you have had a scene which contains "I need you now," Gerard rasped urgently and then there is more of the same sort of stuff later, a character can quite easily urge raspingly to avoid obvious repetition.

The great advantage in taking a pro-active approach to reported speech is that the verb can often act as a sort of long-stop to what has been said, particularly when the content might have been misunderstood. If a character is supposed to have told a joke, but the reader might miss it, he should quip. One who is more contemplative, on the other hand, should muse as often as possible or even, that old favourite, muse, almost to herself.

Speech is action, so saying and doing can often be cunningly conflated, as in "Enough!" he laughed, or she trembled, "I've missed you desperately."

Contrary to what the style manuals tell you, it is perfectly permissible to hijack a noun or adjective and turn it into a verb. In romantic fiction - "I think I'm falling in love with you, Angela," he husked - this trope is regarded as rather stylish.

Of course, sometimes in stories, a character can just say something without any particular emotional charge attached. On these occasions, it is sensible to deploy neutrally, a favourite adverb of Dick Francis which is the literary equivalent of white noise. As in: "Writing for therapy is usually bad writing," he muttered neutrally.

Miles Kington is away

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