The Book as Therapy

Have you ever read a novel and wondered if the author was working out issues in her own life? Fiction can be therapeutic for both the author and the reader. However, the therapy portion can’t be too visible. At least, that rule applies 99.9% of the time.

For instance, let’s say your boss unjustly fired you from your day job. You’re feeling unvarnished emotion and rightly so. Now that you have extra time on your hands to write a book, you may be thinking this would be an excellent plot element for your romance novel. Maybe the hero can be newly fired. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

Maybe, but probably not. At least, not if you’re writing the book while you’re still angry about what happened to you. Better to choose another plot element for now. Then, after you’ve had time to process being fired and can write about it from both sides of the equation, maybe you can add it to a book. Or maybe you’ll realize how boring it is to read about. Please note: Writing about a newly-fired person making a new start as a result is not the same as taking a reader through the process of being fired, which can take months. And even the most ridiculous or mundane situation can become riveting reading in the hands of a small cadre of authors. But when you’re writing from deep negativity, not coming off as therapeutic is quite a feat.

Or maybe you’ve gone through adoption, fertility treatments, or another life process. These events are dramatic in your personal life. So you may have experienced both highs and lows and want to convey those in story form. And when something is new to you, it seems fascinating. It may well be. But will that journey be mesmerizing to a reader?

To express the idea in other terms, it’s widely reported that renowned singer Aretha Franklin passed away from pancreatic cancer.

Fans want to read books about her life as a whole, but do you know anyone other than perhaps a doctor or medical resident who’d want to read, “Aretha Franklin’s Pancreatic Cancer Journey” in long book form?

I’m not saying to avoid recording experiences and life journeys. By all means, if you enjoy journaling, write everything until you’ve spent all your emotions. If nothing else, writing can provide insight for those you love when you leave your journals behind. Or you might use your material later to add an intriguing plot element to your book. Just be sure you do so at the right time.

Your turn:

Have you written about an experience close to your heart?

Can you offer tips to keep experiences from becoming memoir?

What life experience, if any, would you like to read about in a novel?

What authors or books convey life experiences most successfully, in your view?

47 Responses to The Book as Therapy

  1. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser February 28, 2019 at 4:51 am #

    Well, I’ve read books that wanted to make me seek therapy.

    Funny thing you should mention pancreatic cancer, though.

    What I write about it isn’t therapy for me; I live with this…thing…every day, and right now, at 4:30 in the morning, I don’t want to think another syllable about cancer. Rather write about zombie rainbow unicorns taking over Congress, but I suppose current events have left me in the dust.

    I do write for the caregiver, and for the potential patient, because what’s coming is worse than you expect….and can be far, far better.

    It’s up to you.

    Reader, don’t you worry,
    this will not be what you think.
    I’m here to tell a story,
    and you are not my pshrink.
    The tale, it is an old one,
    but not of mewling cries;
    goin’ through hell we’ll have some fun
    ’cause everybody dies.
    It does suck to have cancer,
    that can’t be left unsaid.
    But you can still be a dancer
    when you are stuck in bed.
    When those around you hear you laugh,
    you’re givin’ your rockstar autograph.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray February 28, 2019 at 6:13 am #

      Great inspiration as always, Andrew! You have developed a community of people who truly want to hear from you and about you because we know you on a more personal level than I will ever be able to know a movie star or chart-topping pop star, I’m sure. Therein lies one difference. Another difference? How and why you are writing. You are the type of person who writes for others. Your heart makes the difference.

    • Avatar
      Jennifer Mugrage February 28, 2019 at 7:25 am #

      Pshrink!

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      Mark Bradley Morrow February 28, 2019 at 7:31 am #

      As a licensed professional counselor of 30+ years and a first time author with my new book being released, I can totally relate to this blog. For years I would sit across from my hurting clients, helping them find healing and a brighter 2 morrow, while deep inside I secretly harbored my own past sins of being responsible for 4 abortions in just twenty months. While writing my book took over five years and did bring catharsis and more healing to myself, I know without a doubt that God is going to do immeasurably more with my story and words then I could ever hope for or imagine! “THE GREATEST PRETENDER…1 Youth Leader , 4 Abortions, 18 Years of Secrecy – One Man’s Triumph Over Hidden Shame” Check it out and Blessings to you. Mark

      • Avatar
        Sharon Connell February 28, 2019 at 7:47 am #

        I’ve heard it said for years that writing down what troubles you is good therapy. And I believe that’s true. It’s worked for me in the past “many” years of my life. And some of those “problems” can even be used in your writing. But, it’s in the editing of the first draft, if used in a story, where the “names” (and the minute details) get changed to “protect the innocent.” LOL

        Problems are a part of life. People relate to them. Why not use them to enhance your character’s story and bring realism to the pages? However, wisdom MUST be applied.

      • Avatar
        Tamela Hancock Murray February 28, 2019 at 8:21 am #

        Mark, I hope multitudes will be blessed by your book. May the Lord bless you for sharing.

  2. Avatar
    Jane Tucker February 28, 2019 at 5:41 am #

    Well said!
    I’ve met many people at conferences and critique groups who are working to incorporate their life crises into fiction. Not coincidentally, they are often writing their first book. But it takes some detachment to write fiction. The author must be able to change events, dialog and plot goals to tell a satisfying story. This is hard to achieve if real-life events are driving the train.

  3. Avatar
    Ellen Marshall February 28, 2019 at 6:01 am #

    This is why I do not read fiction! I have enough interesting life experiences to write several memoirs.

    As for therapists, if more people engaged in it for loner periods, including peer support experiences, then shared what they learned from those relationships, readers might all be better people.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray February 28, 2019 at 6:17 am #

      Interesting observation, Ellen.

      I’m sad that you discount the value of fiction, however. Novelists bring their lives to their writing, and they have something to say. Why not go through a Christian book catalog such as CBD and peruse the fiction section for a book that catches your eye and give fiction a chance? 🙂

      • Avatar
        Sharon Connell February 28, 2019 at 7:40 am #

        Good advice, Tamela. But this is what happens when a person reads a book that hits too close to home with their own problems. That’s out of the author’s hand.

        Personally, I’d never pick up a book to read where the blurb or synopsis of the story reminded me of something tragic or emotionally distressing in my life. Fiction is for escape and pleasure. If a person wants to find serious help for a problem, there are many self-help books out there for them to read.

        When I sit down to read a book, it’s to relax and enjoy a good story. But first, it’s well-chosen.

  4. Avatar
    Maco Stewart February 28, 2019 at 6:12 am #

    A life event may spur the creation of a creative work, but it’s up to us as authors to rein in the merely personal and “leave the boring parts out” in revision. My personal experience is that it may take years to get the emotional distance necessary to write about a disappointment engagingly rather than with an unattractive, self-absorbed whine.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray February 28, 2019 at 6:19 am #

      Maco, your point that time is not always of the essence is a great one. A great story is always a great story, even if it takes years to write.

      • Avatar
        Maco Stewart February 28, 2019 at 6:37 am #

        Tamela, your true statement is especially germane for a “first” novel, which is often the third, fourth, or in Stephen King’s case, the sixth. Unpublished authors (raises hand) have the double-edged luxury of not having a publisher’s deadline. We can make that first appearance in the spotlight truly the best we can, given our current state of growth in The Craft.

  5. Avatar
    Loretta Eidson February 28, 2019 at 6:23 am #

    This is true, Tamela. I came out of an abusive marriage twenty-five years ago and I have to pay attention and use caution when I’m writing a tense scene. Even though I’ve long forgiven my ex-husband and moved on in life, it’s amazing how those memories can pop up unannounced. I’ve had to go back to the drawing board on a couple of my novels and soften my character’s behavior. Using life experiences can be a good thing if it’s used in a positive way, but throwing jabs at a painful past will only cause negative tension in what could have been a great suspenseful novel.

  6. Avatar
    Daphne Woodall February 28, 2019 at 6:29 am #

    I posted my daily BRMCWC Countdown Post today about drawing on personal experiences to garner emotion for your fictional character; not necessarily sharing an actual situation.

    Personally some life experiences are too raw that I would find difficult to read even as fiction.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray February 28, 2019 at 8:23 am #

      I have a cousin who has to be careful with books and television years after a traumatic experience in her life. So yes, caution is essential.

  7. Avatar
    Scoti Domeij February 28, 2019 at 6:35 am #

    This made me laugh out loud and was a great way to express the point of the article: “To express the idea in other terms, it’s widely reported that renowned singer Aretha Franklin passed away from pancreatic cancer. Fans want to read books about her life as a whole, but do you know anyone other than perhaps a doctor or medical resident who’d want to read, “Aretha Franklin’s Pancreatic Cancer Journey” in long book form?”

    If you journal as you move through a life crisis, journalling can provide “compost” for a story, especially remarks that people say that you could probably never conjure up. The most hurtful, shocking things people say can make a powerful opening line to introduce the conflict or to introduce the antagonist to the reader. Also the feelings one journals can provide “thoughts” to reveal a character’s vulnerabilities and true-to-life responses that reader’s can relate to.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray February 28, 2019 at 8:25 am #

      Fabulous idea, Scoti. I’m sure future readers would be able to relate to strange comments made, though usually with good intentions.

      Many a “Dear Abby” column has been comprised of thoughtless things people say to someone undergoing a tragedy because they don’t know what to say. Better just to listen.

      • Avatar
        Scoti Domeij March 1, 2019 at 8:48 pm #

        I wasn’t talking about the comments made with good intentions, those could be cliches. I was talking about deliberately, hateful comments meant to hurt and demean.

  8. Avatar
    Yaasha Hepperle February 28, 2019 at 6:44 am #

    I’ve been through some crazy stuff that definitely make me want to add them to a story sometime. There will even be value to the reader in that sort of story. For example, there’s been a rash of women in my circle of influence who have left abusive relationships after years of not realizing they were being abused. They believed they were simply “in love with disturbed men who needed their help.” The wake-up call was life-shattering. If they had read a book that showed them the signs to look for and the journey to healing, they might have gotten out sooner.

    But no, you can’t simply write about the journey “straight.” You have to “tell it slant.” For me, as I ponder how to share my own life stories without coming off as depressing or without putting in mundane details that very few will care about, the process looks like this:

    1. Touch on the highlights, not the details. There are so many shades to every issue, but you can’t put them all in. So pick the most important take-aways and write them in. If I write about my chronic illness journey, this means highlighting the diagnosis and the most life-changing parts (losing my job due to the illness; my scary ER trip).

    2. Find the hope. Continuing my example: I’ll write about specific times when friends came alongside me and my husband, about the chance to travel because I was no longer tied to my job.

    3. Find the universal lesson. I would write about the beautiful things that the Lord taught me through my illness, things that the reader can connect with also, like trust, patience, gratitude, and perseverance.

    I want it to be the sort of book that even those without chronic illness can find redemptive themes and their own “therapy” from. In other words, the book is primarily not about me, but about the Lord and His message for my readers.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray February 28, 2019 at 8:27 am #

      Excellent, Yaasha. I hope you write this book, it is published, and that many people will learn from your insights. God bless you!

  9. Avatar
    Sharon Connell February 28, 2019 at 7:34 am #

    Thank you for this article. To me, voicing your anger or other problems you’ve had explicitly in a book is kin to shouting it out in front of an audience. The only one you’ll make a fool of is yourself.

    In my stories, I love to add personal experiences. However, I make sure they are not identifiable with any one person involved in that experience. A simple change of name, description of character, slight change in scenery, or any number of other changes will solve the problem. And you can still use the experience in the proper place in your story to make the characters and places come alive.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray February 28, 2019 at 8:31 am #

      Agreed, Sharon. And as I think I’ve said in the comments section of a blog post before, the person you’re angry with is highly unlikely to read your book anyway, so changing the details should make a writer safe.

      Authors who decide not to change details and to use real names may need a libel reading for their work. That can be addressed with the publisher before the book goes to press. However, a much better policy for all concerned is to change identifying details. Readers can benefit from your story without knowing you’re actually angry with a specific family member.

  10. Avatar
    Jennifer Mugrage February 28, 2019 at 7:35 am #

    All good insights here.

    I was a big offender at this when in my teens and 20s … All my characters were sensitive, vulnerable types, exactly like me. It was nearly unreadable.

    Now, I write fantasy, which means that my characters have to deal with things like attacks by wild animals or barbarians and, you know, the end of the world as they know it, not to mention the usual drama and repentance issues that, in this fallen world, we all encounter. I have found that I do need to give them space to grieve and react in realistic ways. I like what Yaasha said about hitting the highlights.

    Not long ago I blogged about this issue in a post about how common misfit MCs are in fiction. As long as it’s handled well, I think you can have a very good book that focuses on the MC’s issues, and you can have a very good book that doesn’t.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray February 28, 2019 at 8:32 am #

      Giving your characters huge fish to fry puts everything in perspective, doesn’t it!

  11. Avatar
    Doreen McGettigan February 28, 2019 at 8:56 am #

    When my brother was murdered in a road rage attack the only way I knew how to deal was to journal. I’d always wanted to write fiction but my family insisted I tell David’s story.
    The first draft was one long angry rant. I was blessed with a wonderful editor who gently explained no one wants to read a book length rant, they want to know how you survived and thrived after such a loss.
    Telling the story was therapeutic and also a written legacy. My family grew by 28 people since his death. They’ll all get to know he lived by reading the book.
    #BristolboyzStomp

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray February 28, 2019 at 9:21 am #

      Wow. I am so sorry.

      Also grateful that you wrote your book, and listened to your wise editor.

      God bless you and your family.

  12. Avatar
    Bryan Mitchell February 28, 2019 at 9:24 am #

    I kept a journal while I was in Iraq. I was part of the 2007 push. My job was to help train, mentor and observe, Iraqi security forces to gauge their readiness, to help build a timeline to an eventual withdrawal of American and Allied forces. I wrote more about how I anticipated coming home than what I was actually doing at the time. Writing helped to pass the time and reign in a lot of the stress that persisted through that deployment.

    In retrospect, I never had in mind to write about my experiences in Iraq, but I do place them into the psyche of the characters that are veterans. Considering the decompression period of returning home from that environment, I agree that it’s best to ground yourself before getting elbows deep into it. It helps you to get more perspectives, which I imagine would benefit the quality of the work.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray February 28, 2019 at 9:46 am #

      Bryan, thank you for your service.

      Certainly if your characters served, readers wouldn’t believe that serving had no effect whatever. My husband’s grandfather was a WWI veteran, and he said that his captain told him to “Go home and forget everything you saw. Forget all about it.” Grandpa Murray was a cheerful soul and never talked about WWI, but I can’t imagine that he was ever able to put the entire experience out of his mind.

      Blessings on your writing!

  13. Avatar
    Joyce Erfert February 28, 2019 at 11:38 am #

    I’m working on a devotional for Christian families who are struggling with a family member who has a mental illness. My husband’s son is bipolar SMI (seriously mentally ill) who decided two years ago to quit taking his meds. So we are in the midst of the struggle. But I want Christians to know that they are not alone, that God can provide peace in the muddle of emotions. Churches delegate mental illness to issues of sin, weak faith, or even demonic possession. I want to encourage these families, but I also want to change the perception of mental illness in churches. I am continuing to grow but can’t wait until the problem is “resolved” since it may never change. But you can thrive even in these situations. God is good all the time!

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray February 28, 2019 at 11:59 am #

      Excellent point, Joyce. Praying for strength and courage through this journey.

    • Avatar
      Peggy Booher February 28, 2019 at 8:12 pm #

      Joyce,

      Thank you for heeding God’s call to write the devotional. My friend’s son was diagnosed as bipolar about twenty years ago. He is doing better now. There were times when he would leave and my friend wasn’t sure where he was. My friend is a Christian; her faith in God helps her through rough times.

      I think the attitude regarding emotional/mental illness in churches is changing but it’s slow going. I’m sure your devotional will encourage sufferers and their families and bring light to many people.

      • Avatar
        Joyce Erfert March 1, 2019 at 9:04 am #

        Thank you, Peggy. To know God can use my words to encourage people gives such purpose to our situation here at home. Hope is such a powerful thing.

  14. Avatar
    David Rawlings February 28, 2019 at 3:39 pm #

    Tamela, I’ve experienced the opposite. My debut novel is out next week and each of the characters is dealing with various emotional baggage.

    Now I’ve got people asking me which of the baggage is mine, or if, in fact, I am carrying so much baggage I needed to write three protagonists. 😉

    While good writing needs to come from deep within, writing the book wasn’t an exercise in working through my issues. What is interesting that some readers are presuming I did. I guess it makes for interesting discussion!

    • Avatar
      Jennifer Mugrage March 1, 2019 at 7:55 am #

      Haha, I worry about this happening if/when I finally publish!

      On a related note, I can imagine people asking, “Which character ‘are’ you?” Answer: i’m all of them. Yes, even the villain. I had to write him after all. What does that say about me? Only that I have a sin nature … Didn’t you know that? 🙂

    • Avatar
      Jennifer Mugrage March 1, 2019 at 7:56 am #

      PS Congrats on debut coming out next week. What a huge accomplishment!

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 1, 2019 at 11:16 am #

      Too funny, David! Congratulations!

  15. Avatar
    Elisabeth Warner February 28, 2019 at 3:49 pm #

    I did this with a manuscript I wrote this summer. I was dealing with some family drama, so I wrote a book about a dysfunctional family that learns how to work through their differences and listen to each other. It was therapeutic for me! However, one of the characters was entirely based off of a person in my family, and I’m sure I didn’t portray an accurate picture of the person. I’d like to go back and look at it, now that I’ve had time to “cool off.” Maybe it has some material that can help others going through something similar!

  16. Avatar
    Roberta Sarver March 1, 2019 at 7:16 pm #

    Tamela,

    I had to distance myself from unpleasant situations for several years before I was ready to write about them. Now, a couple decades later, I can be more objective in writing a novel using some of my antagonists as characters (disguised, of course). I’m so glad I waited to get a better perspective before wading in!

  17. Avatar
    Leslie Lemle March 18, 2019 at 7:15 am #

    Hi Tamela,

    When we are healed by God’s unfailing love and faithfulness, we can then bless others by writing from his perspective. My life was initially severely compromised by sexual abuse and physical torture. Telling my story from the survivor’s voice made listeners suffer with me.
    Now, I have written a fiction story, Heaven’s Bay. It is the story of a woman who was sexually molested as a child, then learns who Christ is and how his love could transform her life.
    While I was tempted to document the true things I endured, it wasn’t the kind thing to do to my reader. She shouldn’t have to suffer with the main character to empathize with her. My gift to her is the freedom to rejoice in the outcome!

  18. Avatar
    Wendy April 15, 2019 at 1:25 pm #

    I’m a healthcare whistleblower. I spoke up about an unsafe patient practice at the hospital where I worked, which set in motion a chain of events that I could not have imagined. In the midst of the retaliation and resulting legal battle, I experienced tremendous highs and lows and my faith was challenged. But, I experienced God’s presence and provision in amazing ways, often when the situation seemed hopeless.

    Because of the outcome, and the details are a matter of public record, I’m free to tell my story. I’ll mask the identities of the many people who gathered round about me to get me through my day of trouble. But, for me, to obscure the identity of the hospital and its agents would be a disservice to the public, who has a right to know what’s going on behind the scenes. My task is to do it accurately, genuinely, and in a way that pleases God.

    Thanks for your article. It gives me food for thought.

    • Avatar
      Wendy April 16, 2019 at 11:54 am #

      I should add that the outcome was reported on the front page of two regional newspapers. How it all played out, with God’s help, is the crux of my story.

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