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This question seems to come up regularly in various contexts, and I usually give an answer that amounts to: "Sort of, I think?"
As with so many things (nearly everything) about the process of writing fiction, I don't totally know how to answer or explain because I barely understand myself what's happening in my brain when I'm writing or coming up with story ides. Or maybe my hangup is with the word "therapeutic," because I've done so much actual therapy that it's difficult for me to equate the two processes.
I like the idea of catharsis, especially since I first heard this interview with David Morris on the Healing Trauma episode of To the Best of Our Knowledge. In it, he touches on the use of drama in ancient Greece. When soldiers came back from war, having experienced the horrors thereof, they used drama--catharsis--plays written by veterans and acted by them--to "publicly transmit the trauma of war so that the population would understand it...and that was how they processed trauma, through art. ... These were fictionalized accounts that allowed people to feel the feelings and to process the feelings openly and to weep in public" Then the whole community takes it on and has a way to understand it.
Though there is obviously a difference between the individual and communal effects of war, and personal stories about people dealing with their families and issues, I think this comes closer to what I feel about writing than the word "therapeutic."
Normally (and this is an experience that a lot of my writer friends report is also true for them), I don't understand how--or even that--the novel I'm writing at any given time connects to me and my life story until I'm well into it. Sometimes, toward the very end, I'll realize, "Oh, I'm writing about my midlife crisis" or "I see, I'm writing about the loss of a friendship" or "this is about my longing for a father" or something like that, even if the plot points of a given story do not at all reflect the emotional experience I may be unconsciously processing.
Then it becomes clear in the way any mystery is clear (that is to say, not very clear at all) that I am saying to myself and anyone who cares to read that "this is tangentially about a thing that happened to me, and it's directly about a thing that happened to these characters, and maybe it's about a thing that happened to you, and by telling and receiving a story about it maybe we can all process and release and relieve something, even something that seems on the surface kind of unrelated to us, that we maybe didn't even know we were carrying."
The level of what could be called trauma varies greatly across the six (or six and a half) novels I've written. Gem & Dixie may be the most directly and most consciously about a certain kind of trauma--the trauma of abandonment and of growing up with addicts and co-dependents in parental roles, and growing up in an indisputably unhealthy family system that has been in place for generations, and feeling helpless and looking for a lifeline. It's also about the trauma of a kind of poverty that isn't abject destitution, but nonetheless creates the daily anxiety of wondering where a meal is coming from, of not being able to see a future past whatever immediate crisis is in need of a fix.
It is partly based on my own experience, mine and my sister's, but also a lot made up. I would not call the writing of it "therapeutic" (and I doubt I could have written it had I not done a decade of direct talk and group therapy already), but it may be catharsis in how it says this happened in a way to me, and this definitely happened and happens to other kids, and maybe it happened to you, and maybe for people like us it's a relief and release to see it acknowledged and dramatized, and maybe for people who aren't like us, it's a way for them to understand what a part of their community has experienced, is experiencing, and maybe we need to do some public weeping.
Or, maybe it's just a good story.That's always
my first and last goal--to satisfy the storyteller in me and the storyreceiver in you.
In any case, it comes out in two weeks! If you are in Salt Lake, Denver, Decatur, Chapel Hill, Nashville, Houston, or Frisco, maybe I will see you and we can cry together. If not, you can find it through your favorite bookseller or library, or pre-order now.