Writing for catharsis: The art of reworking negativity
By: Rae White
I hold the thread and pinch one strand free from the four. I pull high and slow the way Mum taught me.
This is a lie. I embroider quite well but YouTube was my main teacher.
I consider the harshness of the word ‘lie’ as I stitch this thread with others of different colours: hues of green (a metaphor for characters and setting); a bronzed orange (lyrical descriptions); and a sparkly purple (perfectly placed enjambments).
A lie requires intent, whether for malice or survival, and the only intention I have is to take single strands from my life and plait them with fiction to create art.
I am quite upfront about this practice: I state that my poetry is more often fiction and picking it apart to find the one ‘truth’ would be needle-haystack-like and would take value away from the whole.
But my collection Milk Teeth still sits in the non-fiction section of my local library, as if all poetry (including mine) is heartfelt confessional truths: all reportage, no fable.
As I write, I reconsider my array of non-fictions, my headspace a tapestry box, and use fingertips to pick out each thread: a purposeful act of misgendering, a startling drive-by shout in the street, that heart-hurting year of so many hospital visits. And I wrap and warp, weave and weft, work and rework them into fiction.
But this one aspect of my poetry practice is not that simple or straightforward.
This cathartic breed of storytelling is less like embroidering perfectly by design and more like sewing in your sleep. A dreamlike, stream of consciousness way of writing that doesn’t discriminate between reality and unreality. Less formulaic and more messy.
Though once again, it’s simultaneously exactly that and also nothing like that at all.
To describe in writing how my brain utilises creativity as catharsis is both extremely easy and difficult at the same time.
It could be said that this practice is just about writing what I know, that to work elements of my life into fiction is nothing special or new. And perhaps it’s not.
It could also be considered somewhat worrying: a free alternative to therapy, a millennial coping mechanism in the face of the poor struggling writer stereotype.
Or perhaps, and this is more likely, writing affirmingly about negative experiences in my queer life is both necessary and scarce.
Our stories and our lives are so often erased from history, not given space or written for us by others.
My art (and dear queer siblings: your art) is important and needed. I love my poetry, my voice, my tonic of truths weaved with narratives.
The outcome is always worth it: my headaches disappear, my shoulders soften, my self-worth becomes treetop high, and my smile is contagious. This is the good shit.
Whether reworking personal experiences or writing entirely fictionally, storytelling always has me glowing with adrenaline as if, all at once, I’ve done twenty sit-ups, eaten chocolate and kissed my crush.
And that negatively charged thread, the original grey ply woven with others, is recreated in colours and patterned in a way that deviates so far from the original that even I can’t distinguish it.
Does this sound like denial disguised as art? Perhaps, but to use the tools I have to re-imagine and recraft my experiences is not only to soothe my wounds, but to relate to other queer and gender diverse folks on a level of mutual understanding: one of shared suffering and storytelling, of speaking up (or not) and coming out (or not), and of seeing ourselves reflected in the experiences of our kin.
All this is to say: our own voices matter.
All this to say: writing is not a strict formula and all processes are good if they work for you, and please: go to therapy if you need and can afford to.
And also: writing isn’t always this easy, this therapeutic, this worthy of my love.
In my less romantic moments, writing is redrafting while crying, it’s shouting when my computer is slow and my brain even slower, it’s checking my bank account for unpaid invoices and wishing I’d never studied the arts. This is a lie. I will always be thankful for my creativity, while soberly admitting the negatives.
Art as catharsis is just one of my practices. I also write from joyous experiences, about love and kink, about friendships and nature. What percentage of these pieces are fiction?
Often I can’t tell because it’s hard to untangle threads from where they began, especially when the end product is so densely woven, and one way of writing may swerve so quietly and unexpectedly into another.
But be assured that when I write my unsettling poems about gory teeth-eating and library ghosts – they are entirely fictional. (This could also be a lie.)
Rae White is a non-binary transgender poet, writer and zinester. Their poetry collection Milk Teeth (University of Queensland Press) won the 2017 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, was shortlisted for the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry and commended in the 2018 Anne Elder Award. Rae is the editor of #EnbyLife, a journal for non-binary and gender diverse creatives.