Catharsis is a powerful motivator for writing. It is perhaps the underlying reason that many of us decide to set down our thoughts. We are working through something, consciously or subconsciously trying to figure out ourselves, our lives, fate, our beliefs, and the world.

Through writing, we have the chance to preserve, transform or obliterate our past and our pain. In this sense, we use our writing as a catalyst. By setting down our words, we can set our agonies aside.

In our Circle, we have sometimes witnessed writing that serves this purpose: stories of grief, anger, guilt, betrayal, tales of childhood horrors and bitter, untimely loss. These stories prove to me that the act of writing offers something essential. More than simple creative expression or entertainment, writing can be the writer’s path to heal.

Oddly, these efforts simply to release have resulted in some of the cleanest, most honest and compelling writing I’ve seen. Perhaps this honesty comes naturally with writing that is driven up from our very core.

It reminds me of instructions Madeleine L’Engle used to give in her writing workshops: think about the exercise all week, but only write for half an hour. It shocked me at the time. I believed then that the more time I spent writing, the more well-crafted my work would be. But it didn’t necessarily turn out that way. Those brief outpourings, mused over for the week without pen or keyboard at hand, flowed out rich, fluid and detailed almost without trying. And when the half hour was done, Madeleine told us to stop, even in mid-sentence. That was hardest of all.

So imagine a story that has been burbling for years. Imagine a tale so vivid and private that it has lived and been relived in a writer’s subconscious. Then imagine letting it lose in all its brooding, painful glory. The explosion would be breathtaking, magnificent and perhaps even dangerous. A volcanic eruption.

An old friend of mine used to advise writers to write “as if everyone you know is dead.” It’s excellent advice to relieve the guilt of betrayal that inevitably comes with writing like this. It’s frightening. It goes against our best societal indoctrination. Show the world a happy, well-adjusted face. Keep your anguish hidden. To reveal your most painful secrets is taboo.

So at moments when writing like this is brought forth, we sometimes choose to drop the role of critics in order to bear witness to the pure and unadulterated outpouring on the page. We join together to live through the moments with each writer, step by step sharing the suffering through their words. No detail is spared or lost. These stories are inevitably stark, unembellished in their honesty. The sieve of true emotion sifts away all affectation. We listened dumbfounded, in anguish and in awe.

At the end, whether these stories find their way to print doesn’t really matter. It is up to their authors to decide. Some stories find their own best purpose in darkness, folded up and placed carefully in a box, tucked away to gather dust in a drawer or closet, destined forever to hold their truths in a sacred space of remembering.



  • Christi Craig

    I love this post, the advice from Madeleine L’Engle, your friend’s words, and the last paragraph — that sometimes stories find their purpose in just being remembered, never published.

    When I first turned to writing (seriously writing), the stories that flowed were not stories I could ever send to print. Yet, they were outpourings of memories and necessary to write, if only to make space in my mind for new stories.

  • Frances Hunter

    Excellent post. In my upcoming work, I’m planning to base part of the story on a very painful personal experience. In some ways I’m looking forward to it. I think there’s a certain amount of gaining control over the past that can happen through writing.

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