Just how cathartic is writing? More than you can imagine. This post first ran in 2016.
My self-assessment is that I’m one of the most passive guys on the planet. That’s why, when I go back and read one of the (many) violent, bloody scenes that I’ve written in my novels over the decades, I wonder, “Where the hell did that come from?”
WRITING AS A CATHARSIS
Sure, that’s the easy—and true—answer: writing is cathartic. We writers are fortunate to have such an outlet to deal with the day-to-day challenges of life. As I’ve always said, I’d rather kill someone on paper than do it for real.
And yes, there are scenes that I’ve written in anger after an individual has caused me grief and really pissed me off. No specifics here; perhaps it was one of you whose spleen my character ripped out. 😊 But for the most part it is likely a generalized anger and frustration. For example, the current coronavirus situation might see one of my characters pile up a huge body count. Ditto the endless threat of terrorism, mass shootings, etc.
JUMP-STARTING A CAREER
In the late 1980s, after writing and publishing over a dozen novels, a divorce, along with some other issues, stifled my writing. I didn’t put a damn thing on paper for a couple of years. One major thing: I missed my three young daughters, who had moved out of town with their mother. I saw them infrequently, and I was reminded of that every day when I saw their latest artwork hanging on the refrigerator.
One day, I sat down and channeled that emotion into a scene that became part of the opening chapter of my horror novel, Demon Shadows. (By the time it was published it had become chapter two.) My main character, Paul Fleming, is a successful writer who is dealing with writer’s block. Why? Because after his recent divorce his ex-wife moved away with their two kids, and he sees them infrequently, and he’s depressed as he stares at their artwork on the fridge, and so on.
In addition to being a great catharsis for me, it got me back to writing. Over the next few years I published two novels with Bantam and three with Berkley.
A LIFELONG ANGER WINDS UP ON PAPER
I grew up in New York City amid survivors of the Holocaust. When I was older I learned that members of our family had died in concentration camps. Researching the Holocaust for an unpublished historical novel and a published thriller, Freedom’s Hand, I found aspects of the victims’ lack of resistance both heartbreaking and infuriating. This led to one of the most difficult scenes that I ever had to write.
In Freedom’s Hand a hate-filled man named Martin Hilliard Brice—called the Commander—leads a white supremacist group in operating a concentration camp in the desert of the American Southwest—fifty years after the end of World War II. In a flashback, we experience his inspiration. As a young man he attends a rally and listens to a speech by an infamous neo-Nazi. It killed me to write this hate-filled diatribe, part of which had to do with the aforementioned lack of resistance, but it was cathartic. Here is a small portion of that speech:
“Consider the Jew,” he began, his voice steady. “Money-changing money-grubbing money-lending money-making money-stealing money-manipulating. Money money money! You can hardly think of anything else when you think of the Jew. They did it way back then, before the time of the only Son of God—which they still maintain is a big white lie, except at Christmastime when they sell you all the gifts you put under the tree for mommy and little Suzie and the postman. They do it now, controlling, wheeling and dealing—corporations, silent partnerships, holding companies. I’m talking about everything that is big dollars. Mortgage money for the house you can’t afford to buy; the money you can’t borrow for the small business you always dreamed of; the school money their kids go to college on while yours can’t. Forget the worldwide conspiracy! Everyone knows that. We’re Americans, talking about America. So what’s the problem? I said it before: consider the Jew.”
“You son-of-a-bitch!” an elderly man shouted. “They let him talk like this here!”
“It’s the same thing the last mishoogana used to say!” another added. “In parks and on street corners and in beer halls, they let the last mishoogana say the same things!”
“Hey Wesley, fuck you!” younger hecklers cried.
His voice rising unperturbed above the others, Wesley continued: “Why is it that someone so good at taking all your money can be so ignorant and cowardly? I said ignorant and cowardly! Proof? Consider this: you are one of a hundred people taken out to a field by ten men with guns. They tell you to take off your clothes and line you up by a ditch. There are bodies in the ditch—people who have been shot. They’re going to blow you away! So what do you do, since you’re already a dead man? You turn and fight! Ten to one, that’s your advantage. So they kill forty, or fifty, of you before you kill them. So what? You fought back, you lived, and they think twice about doing it again!
“But what did the Jew do? Did he think they put him on a train to tour the countryside? Did he think the ditch was to defecate in? Did he really believe he was going to take a shower? Did he think the smoke was from a barbecue? If he thought any of this, then he could only be ignorant. But if he stood by the ditch and looked at the bodies and knew he was a dead man but did nothing except watch his knees shake, then he is a coward. He is a race of cowards!”
Is that angry and frustrating enough for you?
In part two of this post next week, I plan on topping ANGRY. Stay tuned…