Writing—especially the writing of stories—is ultimately a relationship with oneself. It is true that we write to communicate with others. Perhaps that is even the foremost conscious motivation sometimes. But communication itself necessitates a relationship, and what we are trying to communicate is ourselves—that unfolding inner dialogue between the Self and the self, the observer and the observed, the unconscious and the conscious, the Muse and the Recorder.
You must have a relationship with your stories before your readers can, and really this is a relationship with yourself. In recognizing this, writing becomes both an investigative tool for getting to know yourself better and a vast playground for exploration and experimentation on a deeply personal level. Depth psychologist Jean Shinoda Bolen points out:
Creative work comes out of an intense and passionate involvement—almost as if with a lover, as one (the artist) interacts with the “other” to bring something new into being. This “other” may be a painting, a dance form, a musical composition, a sculpture, a poem or a manuscript, a new theory or invention, that for a time is all-absorbing and fascinating.
Particularly in this ongoing period of quarantine and isolation, it can be a tremendously rewarding process to use writing to improve your relationship with yourself. Whether you live alone right now or in a crowded house, the one person you cannot escape, the one person who will always be there for you, is you.
Too often, I think we underestimate this person and our relationship with him or her. We’d rather distract ourselves or hang with someone else because limiting beliefs lead us to think this most intimate of all relationships is too flawed, too painful, too shallow. Isn’t this why writing sometimes scares us so badly we can barely sit at the computer? It is also, I believe, why most of us come to the page in the first place: this person within has something to say and so long as this communication comes out in the form of fun and colorful stories, we are willing to sit still and listen in ways we are rarely willing to offer during the rest of life.
The more we learn to listen to the self that appears on the page, the more we will become conscious of the things we are truly desiring to communicate—both to ourselves and eventually to readers. Writing becomes not just distraction, entertainment, or vocation—it becomes an ever-deepening relationship with life itself.
4 Ways Writing Improves Your Relationship With Yourself
Today, I want to talk about several ways in which our writing reveals itself as a relationship with ourselves—and how we can embrace and deepen our approaches to this magnificent form of self-exploration and self-expression.
1. Dreams, the Shadow, and the Unconscious
How can one not dream while writing? It is the pen which dreams. The blank page gives the right to dream.–Gaston Bachelard
I don’t know about you, but my actual night dreams are all but useless as story material. They’re an evocative smear of rehashed memories and crazy symbolism. My dream journal, although sometimes revealing, is usually more amusing than anything. More easily interpreted are the revelations I discover in my stories. Even more than my actual writing, my ability to consciously enter what I (and Robert Olen Butler) call the “dreamzone” is a mainline to my unconscious.
Your stories are “out loud” dreams. Even though you may exercise nominal control over their subject and direction, the best of them are effortless blasts of imagery and feeling straight up from your depths. Once your body of work is large enough for you to start recognizing patterns and cross-referencing them with the happenings of your own life, you will be able to mine your stories for some of your inner self’s deepest treasures.
It surprises me that more depth psychologists don’t reference and analyze stories in the same way they do dreams. Although I have always known my stories must offer an unwitting commentary about myself, it wasn’t until the last few years that I began to be able to recognize some unintended, occasionally even prescient, parallels between the things I was writing at a given time and the things that were either happening or about to happen in my own life.
More than that, your stories, your characters, and the scenarios and themes you write about are often revelations of the hidden parts of you—your shadow self, or the aspects of your personality you have not yet made conscious. Hidden emotions, desires, and even memories can surface in our writing, there for us to recognize if only we look. Some of our discoveries will be glorious and magical; others will be difficult and painful. But all are instructive.
2. Personal Archetypes and Symbols
Archetypal stories and characters—those that offer universal symbolism—resonate with people everywhere. Whenever you hear of a particularly popular story, you can be pretty sure the reason for its prevalent and enduring success is its archetypal underpinnings. This is a vastly useful bit of information if you want to write a successful story of your own. But it is also useful because an understanding of archetypes and symbolism can offer you a guide to translating you own inner hieroglyphs.
Consider your characters. What types of characters consistently appear in your stories? These are likely archetypes that are deeply personal to, representative of, and perhaps even transformative for you. Just as in dream analysis, it is useful to remember that every character is you. The wounded warrior, the damsel in distress, the sadistic villain—each represents a facet of yourpsychological landscape.
I’ve long thought we all have just one story to tell which we go on telling over and over in different ways. I’ve also heard it said that all authors have roughly a dozen actors in their playhouse—and we just keep recasting them in new stories. There’s truth to this. Certainly, I can recognize decided archetypes that perennially fascinate me however I try to dress them up in unique costumes from story to story.
As these patterns emerge over time, I get better at recognizing what they represent. Sometimes I am almost embarrassed to realize how much of myself I have bled onto the pages of my novels—secrets so intimate even Ididn’t know them at the time I wrote them. Chuck Palahniuk observes aptly:
The act of writing is a way of tricking yourself into revealing something that you would never consciously put into the world. Sometimes I’m shocked by the deeply personal things I’ve put into books without realizing it.
Learning to speak the language of archetype and symbol can grant you tremendously exciting perception into your inner self. Stories that you loved when you wrote them, that meant one precious thing to you at the time of creation, can come to offer all new treasures even years after your first interactions with them.
3. Emotional and Hypothetical Exploration
Writing is also, always and ever, a conscious dialogue with ourselves. We put something onto the page; the page—that is to say, ourselves—responds. And the conversation takes off! Jean Shinoda Bolen again:
The “relationship” dialogue is then between the person and the work, from which something new emerges. For example, observe the process when a painter is engaged with paint and canvas. An absorbed interchange occurs: the artist reacts or is receptive to the creative accidents of paint and brush; she initiates actively with bold stroke, nuance, and color; and then, seeing what happens, she responds. It is an interaction; spontaneity combines with skill. It is an interplay between artist and canvas, and as a result something is created that never before existed.
Although we may not be fully conscious of everything we’re saying about ourselves when we first put a story to words, we almost always begin with some conscious intent. We are writing to experience something—perhaps something we’ve already experienced and want to recreate or relive, or perhaps something hypothetical that we wish to experiment with in a simulated way.
Even outrageous story events, such as fantasy battles or melodramatic love scenes, which we know are impossible or unlikely in reality, can still offer us the ability to symbolically create and process our own emotions. When we are angry, we often write scenes of passionate intensity. When we are stressed, we sometimes write horrifying but cathartic scenes or perhaps loving and comforting scenes.
Sometimes emotion pours out in ways that shock us, and when it does we have the opportunity to follow up and seek the root of something true and honest within ourselves that we perhaps have not fully acknowledged.
It is as if we say to the page: “Joy.” And a scene comes pouring out of us and shows a vivid dreamscape of what joy means to us. Or perhaps we simply wish to present a functional scene in which characters act out gratitude, trauma, love, or grief—and what we discover is our own sometimes stunning emotional response. We speak—and the page speaks back.
4. Logical and Creative Dialogues
I’ve always liked the idea of a dialogue between the left or logical brain and the right or creative brain. Both logic and creativity are wonderful in their unique ways, and both are intrinsic to a full realization of each other.
Of first importance is making sure neither the logical self nor the creative self is overpowering the other. Too often, the creative self is beaten down and starved by a dominant and cruel logic that criticizes every word creativity puts on the page. But creativity can also run wild, like an unruly child with no regard for the advice of its logical parent.
In order to appreciate and cultivate a relationship with both these aspects, we must make sure they respect each other enough to carry on a balanced back-and-forth conversation. This can happen moment by moment when we’re in the throes of writing—our creative minds manifesting ideas and our logical minds putting those ideas to words. But it can also be looked at as a larger dialogue in which different parts of the writing process become the domain of one half of the brain or the other.
I consider the early conception stages—those of imagining, daydreaming, and dreamzoning—to be deeply creative, with very little logical input. Then comes the more conscious brainstorming of outlining, in which I sculpt my dreams and logically work through plot problems. This is followed by writing itself, in which creativity is again brought front and center as I dream my ideas to life on the page. And finally, logic returns to trim the ragged edges during editing.
Understanding how we interact with these two vital halves of personality gives us an edge in honing all parts of our writing. Likewise, in honing our writing, we are given the opportunity to shape these two opposing aspects of ourselves. Very often, one or the other is undervalued or underdeveloped. In learning to respect and appreciate both—and to give both room to properly do their jobs, while maintaining communication with one another—we can refine their presence in our larger lives.
In so many ways, writing is the study of the soul. Stories allow us to study the collective soul of humanity. But ourstories particularly allow us to study our own souls, to suss out their treasures, relieve their wounds, celebrate their uniqueness, and share their common features.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How do you think your writing improves your relationship with yourself? Tell me in the comments!