We know writing can be cathartic — but can that catharsis actually make you a better writer?
Anyone who has been in/around the entertainment industry can likely expound on their need for a substantial therapeutic outlet. Further than coping with the stressors of pursuing such a demanding field, the need to unpack and process outside traumas is a common one among artists. Anecdotally, “baggage” is often what necessitates a creator’s urge to express. The list of famous writers, visual artists, musicians, etc. who used their crafts to heal and escape from personal trauma is endless.
However, skeptics might laugh at the idea that screenwriting is the appropriate venue for such personal expression. After all, the idea of the self-insert is loathsome to many professionals (with their personal few subjective exceptions). But as a writer who has found personal catharsis through this specific medium, I would urge creatives to expand their imaginations around the possibility. Personal expression through screenwriting is much more than the “self-insert/wish-fulfillment” most would imagine around this particular application.
Here, I’ll go through some out-of-the-box methods that have been both therapeutic and narratively enriching in my own experience as a screenwriter.
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An Exercise in Empathy
If any screenwriter of note denies having borrowed characters from their real-life experiences — at least in part — they are flirting with dishonesty. The “write what you know” adage has made this a standard, subconscious or not. But how do we use this to our advantage in a way that serves the writer and the piece?
Some might jump straight to the idea of venting your frustrations by narratively torturing the story analog of the most loathsome person in your life. That’s not quite the healthiest approach, nor is it what I’m getting at. Instead, this could be a prime opportunity to exercise empathy on the page where it may be less possible to do so in real life. Taking the example of the villain — it’s considered an absolute must by industry professionals for a writer to consider some level of sympathy (mind, not apologism) for their antagonist in order for that character to feel like a fully realized individual and not just a symbol.
The application of this technique offers some valuable opportunities if your antagonist happens to be based on a real individual. Allowing yourself to see the shades of humanity in this sort of character expands your understanding of obstructive individuals. It may also help disarm them, making it easier to think of them as people with the same weaknesses as anybody else, as opposed to an insurmountable entity.
Of course, this empathy exercise need not be reserved for an antagonist. With roleplay being a common therapeutic technique, writing the perspective of any sort of familiar character can be gratifying. Just be sure that the end goal is illumination and not vindictive exposure.
Self-Reflection and the Sub-“Comp”-scious
The things we are drawn to can tell us a lot about ourselves when we look at them critically. Your “comps” or “comparative works” are often the very first piece of information anyone in the business will ask for to get a sense of what kind of work you present, but also, who you are as a person. My personal comps are often in the vein of Jordan Peele or Guillermo del Toro. If I were to stop and really ask myself what these two artists have in common expressively, and why I am so inspired by them, I might learn a lot about which on-screen themes are actually personal themes in my own life.
I speak at length about the role that Horror media has played in my ability to face my own fears. Being plagued by spooky occurrences such as nightmares, sleep paralysis, and unnerving third-eye flashes from the time I was a wee one is a big factor in my fascination with the eerie. The works of Peele and del Toro specifically hit home because their respites in tone — interweaving humor in Peele’s case and whimsy in del Toro’s — reflect the way that I have coped with the horrors I’ve personally experienced. Fantasy and Comedy both bolster the underdog and offer genre “rules” that render bogies more vulnerable to defeat. There’s great comfort in that. And being aware of how anxiety-busting these techniques are allows me to offer some version of that in my work, which will theoretically help someone else on the other side of the screen. That’s a self-esteem booster.
Understanding which components of your favorite cinema and TV have had positive mental/emotional/spiritual impacts on you will only make you more confident that your work can do the same.
Nothing Is Wasted
“You have to write about that!” is the guaranteed retort to any expression of hardship I may profess to a loved one. In the moment, it’s not always helpful. But in the long run, it’s clear that this comes from a place of love. And foresight.
There are some events that occur in our lives that feel absolutely senseless. Like there is no point to them other than our own suffering or inconvenience. If no greater meaning is revealed to you, when you’ve got words at your disposal you can reach out and grab meaning for yourself. My previous blog post contains an entire section on the potential payoff of telling a true story in front of an audience. But it doesn’t have to be as baring as that.
Are you one of those people who tends to blurt out what you wish you said long after the conversation has ended? Congratulations! You got yourself a dialogue prompt. Even better if you can rewrite the entire exchange and squeeze a scene out of it. As a Ruminator, I can say from personal experience that the best way for me to get something to leave my head is to put it on a page.
Without sounding preachy, it’s important to remember that the way the industry operates on a business level will almost always encourage writers to take their feelings and needs out of the equation. However, if you look at the beloved narrative models the corporate structures are emulating, you’ll find that they are based in the spiritual purges of the most thoughtful individuals. Where would Disney and Sony be today if the great Stan Lee didn’t have some stuff to get off his chest about bigots and some friends to affirm with homage?
Be sure to talk to your therapist about the viability of healthy outcomes around these creative exercises.