Writing as Art, Therapy, and Philosophy

Sometimes I decide, “I would rather not do real life today. I would rather write instead.”

And sometimes someone has the audacity to pull me away from my writing and pressure me into doing something “real” like going shopping. Lucky for me, even when the saboteur manages to persuade me into buying groceries instead of penning my next masterpiece, I have a super-secret, sneaky way to rebel.

Little does he know that just because I’m not at my computer, that doesn’t mean I’m not writing. Every snarky cashier I meet becomes a potential character model for a story.  The lady who snatches the last carton of my favorite peach ice cream in a supermarket? Villain fodder! “Better enjoy that ice cream, missy. I have disparagingly described your facial contours, style of dress, and gestural habits on the notepad of my phone. However I have noted one good trait so you will be believable. I will see you in my novel!”

Other friends who would sabotage my writing surpass themselves in cunning. They know that the one venue I absolutely cannot resist is the beach.

However, there is a caveat here. In general it is best to keep writers away from bodies of water. They will never leave. Moreover, they may exhibit strange symptoms, such as a wistful, faraway look in the eyes.

Every time I see a body of water, my mind goes berserk exploring different ways to describe how water looks when light strikes it. “The lake glimmered softly in the morning sunlight.” No, no, no, too trite. “The water was still as glass.” Hmm. Trite but classic and definitely apt. Still, I could do better. “Cotton candy blue?” No. Too…fuzzy. Water is not a cat.” This will go on all day if I let it, unless whoever I am with shows me something else shiny to obsess over, like a ball of tin foil. There is nothing that enthralls a writer more than reflected light.

Such obsessing over seeming trifles is not an isolated incident, nor is it the product of a mental illness or a psychoactive drug. Still, no matter where I go, a part of me is somewhere else. No matter how engaged I appear to be with my surroundings, part of me is always thinking about what I will write about it when I make it back to the safe haven of my computer, the home where my mind really lives.

In a sense my trips away from home are all out-of-body experiences. Every visit to a restaurant, amusement park, birthday party, or even funeral becomes a field trip for writing where anything I hear, see, feel, or do can become potential source material for some unwritten story, essay, or poem.

I sometimes wonder if this is a healthy approach to life. This is not just art. It is practically a philosophy. But is it a good one? Does life need a purpose beyond itself? Do I do life a disservice by burdening it with something so heavy as a purpose? Maybe sometimes it is enough just to enjoy ice cream, stroke my cat, or drink coffee.

There is a strange paradox that comes with using life as a source for artistic material, and not prizing it as a precious gift in itself.

On one hand, I write to feel more intensely. I gather information in such a way that it makes emotional sense to me. In that way the act of observing as a writer makes me feel more fully alive. However, the mindset of using these emotions for art also detaches me from the very life I am trying to describe.

Whenever I venture out into the world, I am like a photographer who is constantly seeing scenery that captivates her as she hides behind the rectangular lens of her camera. Ooh, pretty. I think this palm tree looks extra beautiful when trapped inside the arbitrary prison of a rectangle! I wonder what this gorgeous tree would look like without an artificial window cutting off half its fronds. Oh, never mind. Snap!

As a writer I carry my rectangular lens with me in my head everywhere I go, constantly framing what I see in ways that interest me. Instead of experiencing life directly, I filter my experiences through words, memory, and imagination.

Like a photographer I may love my subject passionately whether it is a flower or a person, yet in a way I have detached myself from the  objects I admire in that nothing I see is really an end in itself; everything that catches my eye is evaluated for its usefulness as creative material. I wonder, what would this look like in a story, a passage of a novel, or an essay?

Whether this approach to life is good or bad or something in between, there is no stopping me now, because I have become as dependent on my writing as my writing is on me.

My way of observing, as a means to an end, is as much a psychological defense mechanism as it is an artistic tool. Sometimes peppering what I see with imagination makes what is beautiful more beautiful.

Framing experiences for later creative use can also turn suffering into creative triumph. Even when I cry, there is always a part of me, the writer, standing outside of me with a notepad objectively recording everything, a kind of reassuring Vulcan figure who finds the phenomenon of lachrymose expression “fascinating” or at least very amusing. With an inquisitive arch of his eyebrow he asks, What does it feel like to cry? Tears notwithstanding, what happens to the throat muscles or the tiny muscles around the eyes? Is there a sense of impending doom, a subjective feeling that the world is ending even though crying has never ended the world before? The next time I write, I think, I will remember this. And immediately I feel better.

Full detachment from the world is not ideal. Taken to the extreme it would be insanity.  Artistic detachment seems safer, but maybe even it comes with a price. Maybe I do miss out on some of the uninhibited wonder I had as a child when I saw the ocean for the first time, without the words to express how it looked or how I felt, but with nothing more than a pure, dazzling sense of wonder.

Maybe sometimes it is more exciting to just look without analyzing, to feel without trying to put anything into words. Maybe the ineffable wonder of experiencing something beautiful without any attempt to “capture” it is a sacrifice you make when you become a writer. I do not know which is better for most people.

I only know that I made my choice long ago. I continue to make it again and again everyday, and for as long as I live, I will never stop trying to capture, in words, the way light looks when it glances off water or observing strangers in grocery stores when I should be shopping for cucumbers. Writing is not just an occupation or even a way of life. It is who I am.


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9 thoughts on “Writing as Art, Therapy, and Philosophy

  1. I, for one, hope you never stop trying to capture the world in words, because you’re a gifted writer. I’m liking Paw so much that I ditched the Big Five published library book I’d had on hold (it was a stinker) and returned to Paw. I’m over 60% in now and finally had to stop reading so I could get some other things done! You’re very talented, and I wish more people knew about your books. I never would have thought I’d be reading dystopian science fiction about an enslaved cat species, but your story has me totally riveted. It’s completely engrossing.

    • Wow Carrie, your wonderfully kind comments have sent my mood into the stratosphere! Thank you so much!!! I’m so glad you’re still enjoying the book, despite its many tragic elements! I used to worry about how a book about an enslaved bipedal cat species living in a sci-fi dystopia would find an audience, and it is a relief to know that there are readers who appreciate it, though there may not be an established target market for bipedal cat dytopias (at least, not yet;-)) Your compliments mean a lot to me since I have read your awesome novels and admire your talent! I am really looking forward to reading your next novel by the way!

      I hope you continue to enjoy “Paw” and thanks again for the encouragement and awesome compliments!!! 🙂

  2. This is absolutely hilarious where you wrote:

    “Villain fodder! “Better enjoy that ice cream, missy. I have disparagingly described your facial contours, style of dress, and gestural habits on the notepad of my phone. However I have noted one good trait so you will be believable. I will see you in my novel!”

    Love it!!!!!!!!

    And what a compelling question you ask: “I sometimes wonder if this is a healthy approach to life. This is not just art. It is practically a philosophy. But is it a good one? Does life need a purpose beyond itself? Do I do life a disservice by burdening it with something so heavy as a purpose? Maybe sometimes it is enough just to enjoy ice cream, stroke my cat, or drink coffee.”

    It’s SOOOOO hard to simply enjoy the ice cream, stroke one’s feline genius, and drink lifeblood, a.k.a. java.

    Ideally it would be nice to mix the two approaches, but that’s easier said than done, isn’t it? I think there are far worse ways to live in this world. At least granting life a writerly purpose gives you focus — I think it’s positive. What a thought-provoking post!!! Well done!!

    p.s. great pic of the ice cream and peaches – even though you know I’m a chocoholc, it’s pretty damn alluring! )

    • You are such an awesome friend Dyane! Thank you!!! I always read your comments several times because they never fail to lift my mood. I am so glad you enjoyed the post, and coming from the pre-acclaimed author of the coming hit “Birth of a New Brain,” I take your compliments very seriously! And I agree with you about the ice cream. Although I like peach ice cream, chocolate is in an entirely different category and any shopper snatching the last box would have led to a particularly heinous brand of mega-villain! Thanks for reading and sharing! XOXO

  3. It’s interesting to read how you ‘perceive and interact with the world’. I’m much more in the moment and think about how things would make a ‘good movie scene’. Although I have sat in a coffee shop with a pen and pad and written down everything that was of interest and that was crazy fun. I also went on a walk or two like that and stopped quite frequently to jot down notes.

    It is amusing though how much folks go about their daily business without taking the time to notice what goes on around them.

    • Hmm,looking at everything as if it were a movie scene could be a fun approach too, especially if you are into script writing. Maybe I will try that sometimes.

      And you’re right. People are sometimes so preoccupied they fail to see what is right in front of them. I tend to live in my head and have to make a conscious effort to notice what is strange about my surroundings. It helps to actively take notes which, as you said, can be crazy fun. 🙂

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