Writing as Therapy

In his 1946 essay titled Why I Write, famed novelist George Orwell said, “Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing...They are: (i) Sheer egoism...(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm...(iii) Historical impulse...(iv) Political purpose.”

 Jeremy Warneke, Craft of War Writing Instructor

Jeremy Warneke, Craft of War Writing Instructor

Orwell provided descriptions for each of his four motives, making for a compelling argument. Four motives only, however, seems—nowadays—insufficient. I would add, at a minimum, one more: (v) The psychological factor.

As I said in my own (brief) “Why I Write” essay, writing for me has always been a coping mechanism. It’s how I cope as well as make sense of the world. This is more than sheer egoism or historical impulse, the latter of which Orwell curtly defined as the “desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”

Forget about posterity. Writing is about here and now. Some of my friends would take issue with what I’m about to say, but writing is, or can be, a form of therapy. As a 2002 cover story for the Monitor on Psychology noted, “for years, practitioners have used logs, questionnaires, journals and other writing forms to help people heal from stresses and traumas...research suggests expressive writing may also offer physical benefits to people battling terminal or life-threatening diseases.”

In 2016, I published my first piece of journalistic writing related to my experience as a grunt in Iraq, so I wrote at the end of my second Task & Purpose article, There’s No ‘Right Time’ To Share Your Personal War Story. The piece, The Tragic Truth Of Accidental Deaths In Combat Zones, received a good deal of praise from former members of my unit, and you could say that I wrote it in part for them. But the real reason I wrote about the death of Sergeant Garrison, and others, was for my daughter, who was born in late 2015.

In some ways, this is hogwash, but hogwash is probably too harsh of a word. I mean, I’m not sure I was entirely genuine when I wrote that last sentence in the paragraph above. Yes, I wrote for Task & Purpose with a historical impulse. My daughter was, and has been, my muse; I want her to know who her father is, where he, and therefore she, comes from. And yes, I wrote with a political purpose. With both articles, I was attempting to persuade. But above all, I had a need, desire or demon similar to the one described by Orwell: “at the very bottom of [all writers’] motives there lies a mystery…like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

The death of Landis Garrison was for me—and many members of my former military unit—traumatic. As I told someone who had privately rebuked me for writing about Garrison: Writing has been a form of therapy for me. Writing about Landis and others has helped me process and learn from my own experiences in ways I have never imagined. Did I create the Wikipedia page about him as a sort of memorial to Landis? Yes. I was unfortunately sleeping nearby when the accident occurred. His death, the near death of my friend Garriga and others have weighed on me over the years. My writing about them has been a sort of release. At the same time, I think about the senselessness of the events, how they could have been avoided, which has also spurred my writing. The fact that I’ve educated people on what really happened to Landis was unintentional. What was intentional was stressing the fact that too many of our uniformed service men and women have been lost due to accidents and other preventable causes. One-fifth of those who died in Iraq or Afghanistan died of non-combat-related causes.

Even in my personal correspondence, I was writing with a political purpose as defined by Orwell: a “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” Yet, at the same time and more importantly, I had that demon chasing after me. I don’t know for how long exactly, but it had been years prior to Task & Purpose that I had been writing about Landis. And I now recognize my unpublished pieces as an attempt to make sense of his death and the impact it has had on me.

As I said in my fourth Itscomplicated.vet piece, I got lucky in Iraq. I got very lucky. But as I said in my second Task & Purpose article, I got lucky here at home as well: I started attending free writing workshops for veterans beginning in 2009, and eventually, the stories I read in these workshops and elsewhere crept in, forcing me to revisit the stories I had read in college or high school and did not necessarily appreciate then. These stories forced me to confront my own experiences by writing about them.

I had never read Hemingway prior to 2009, but once I did, his single paragraph of a story called “Chapter VII,” which is about a foxhole atheist in the trenches of World War I, did a lot for me. Hemingway was never a military veteran, but with “Chapter VII,” he nailed it. He wrote about an emotion I could understand and relate to, fear, and that got me thinking.

The writing workshops I’ve attended don’t force you to read or write, but those two activities are the point, are they not? I mean, why would anyone attend a writing workshop if they didn’t want to read, let alone write?

Some have said that writers are crazy, that to be a writer is to have endless homework. When I read essays like Jamaica Kincaid’s Those Words That Echo…Echo…Echo Through Life, I can say, Yeah, I can relate to that too. There seems to be a sort of mania surrounding those who write. It’s an obsession that borders on disorder. We don’t know why we write, we just do.

Again, some of my friends don’t like the idea of writing as therapy. These guys, and some girls, are professional writers with their own personal hang-ups. They don’t like boiling writing down to just therapy because they don’t like the assumption people tend to make about veterans. (Read Treat Veterans With Respect, Not Pity.) Therefore, writing to them is much more.

While I agree that writing is more than just therapy, I don’t think one should attempt to remove quite possibly the greatest motive for all writing: the psychological factor. Even if it is only, as Orwell had put it, that “same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.”