Friday, August 27, 2010

Writing As Therapy?

By John Gilstrap

My goodness but it seems like a long time since I’ve played blogger. How’s everyone been? I’ve been typing my fingers bloody trying to meet my fast-approaching deadline for the next Jonathan Grave book. That book has a title now, by the way: Threat Warning. Look for it in 10 months.

A dear friend of mine who also happens to be a fan sent me an email a couple of weeks ago in which she wrote, “One day over some drinks, we’re going to talk about what happened to you when you were thirteen.”

She was mostly teasing, but only mostly. She was referring to the recurrent theme in my books of boys who are coping with significant danger and angst. Many of my books do in fact feature adolescent boys who find themselves in difficult circumstances. In my breakout book, Nathan’s Run, the title character is twelve. Subsequent to that, there have been 13-year-old Travis, 16-year-old Scott, and most recently, 13-year olds Evan and Jeremy in Hostage Zero.

Given such a focus, I see how one might assume that I am using fiction to work through my own childhood issues. Honestly, I don’t think I am. Fiction is fiction, and that means it’s all made up. I’ve never killed anyone, and have only been shot at once, and that happened when I was nearly twenty. To my knowledge, I have no demons to exorcize.

I do, however, have nightmares just about every night, and not infrequently, my dream-screams wake my wife, who mercifully talks me back to the present. In one hundred percent of the dreams that invade my real world like that, I am a child and I am terrified, but I never know what the source of the terror is. It never materializes for me in the dream. Once the adrenaline rush subsides, I just fall back to sleep.

Should I consult a shrink to get to the bottom of the dreams? Probably, but it’s not going to happen. I think I bring these things on myself by writing stories about people in jeopardy. Call it an occupational hazard. Maybe romance writers are constantly ripping bodices in their dreams. If the dreams are more than that—if they are representative of some repressed violence from my youth—then I’ll gratefully listen to the subconscious brain that was courteous enough to blank it from my memory. If I’m a neurotic, at least I’m a functioning neurotic, so why rock the boat?

I write about children because families in peril are a recurring theme in my books. I write about boys because that’s what I was, and our only child is male. Write what you know. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Am I kidding myself here? Am I delusional? As a writer, does your made up world ever pay unwelcome visits to your real world?

After a certain amount of time and a certain number of books, does a novelist give attentive readers an accidental look into his subconscious? Or is it all just, you know, made up?


  1. If we're writing deeply I don't see how we can avoid revealing a bit of ourselves, though I don't think of it in terms of specific events. More like bits and pieces of worldview.

    Thank goodness what I write isn't based on my dreams. I rarely do dream (all that blather about "everybody dreams" aside) and when I do they are short and stupid. Not exactly the riveting stuff books are made of. 8-)

  2. Writing is a work of the mind and soul of the author, of course some of you will be revealed in there, someway, somehow. If some psychoanalyst looked at 10 books from 10 different people he'd probably find at least 15 reasons why all 10 should be in therapy. Screw therapy, I'd rather ride or write!

  3. I think "write what you know" is not such good advice anymore; better to "write what you feel." Obviously, John, you feel deeply about these issues, and that's what resonates in your books. Every writer needs to tap into that well somehow.

  4. Sometimes we channel bits of ourselves knowingly, and sometimes, like you, John, we are simply informed by our past. Anything that makes us stronger as a writer is good, but there are limits. The first book I ever wrote was a YA mystery under a pseudonym. I was going through a divorce at the time, and I look back at it and groan. I modeled the bad guy on my ex, and the cover featured a truck falling off a bridge. (He was in the trucking business.) Writing that close to the bone is not, I repeat NOt, a good thing.

  5. "I do, however, have nightmares just about every night.... "

    "...and have only been shot at once,..."

    "To my knowledge, I have no demons to exorcize..." REALLY???

    Makes me appreciate my insomnia & carry permit.

  6. John, your comments bring to mind a forgotten memory. While writing my novel, I was beset by vivid and tension-filled dreams. Most were not nightmares, per se, but they were annoying nonetheless because the threat or peril was never made explicit.

    For the fifty years before writing that book, and the five years since completing it, I've not had similar dreams.

    I've since discovered that my proper role in life is as a reader, not a writer. Come to think of it, those dreams were probably an (initially) unheeded clue!


  7. Great title, John. And I want to hear more about that shooting incident!

    Funny, I tend to put teenagers in peril- although mainly girls in their late teens. No real connection to my childhood, either. And my last agent made me up the age of one girl from fifteen to sixteen- otherwise it was too disturbing, he claimed.
    But add a year, and no one cared. Apparently people are uncomfortable with crimes against anyone younger than fifteen, but most teenagers are fair game...

  8. Im a therapist as well as mystery writer and I can tell you from both on the couch and behind the clipboard, writing is a great way to work out shit.
    In fact, one of my concerns about my writing is that my clients will read it and know too much about me. Yeah, fiction is fiction, but THEMES reveal the author's interests and struggles.

  9. I think much of my writing, the primary characters at least, consists in great part of the life I had wished for as a young man, but now only to get to live by proxy through my tough guy characters.

    It is all just a middle aged man's fantasy of what he could'a been. Except for the beautiful heroines that is. My wife is seriously...mmmm, mmmm, mmmm.

    Yeah, that part is based on reality. ;-)

  10. I hope we write what we love. If we think about how we develop characters I don't know if we can totally divorce ourselves from those story folk, I don't think I'd want to. If our sense of humor comes through in one character and our sense of adventure in another I think that's great.

    As far as therapy goes I'd say if it interferes with your life (your sleep or upsets your wife) therapy may be helpful or a check up with the doctor. Then again, you could journal those dreams and see what happens.

    It also doesn't hurt to check with your pharmacist and see if any of your meds are messing with your brain and causing these dreams. I know some people can't tolerate ambien for sleep and have really vivid dreams.

  11. I use a lot of personal experiences in my stories. Plus some of my books are inspired by dreams. Nothing unusual about it.