From first-hand experience, most writers discover that thinking and writing are sorely affected by mood. There is a good deal of information out there on writing when you have depression. Most of us do not (fortunately) experience depression but we do have times when articulating or verbalising anything is difficult because, for whatever reason, happenstance becomes, if only temporarily, overwhelming.
So, at this poignant time of Remembrance, I wondered how the War Poets managed to write anything. Trench warfare was surely the most horrific of circumstances to be trapped in. Not only the mud, the filth, the blood, the lice, the cries, the lies, the terror, but every minute an opportunity to embrace death, wounding, to see suffering on a scale most people never experience; to feel intense fear and the horror and pity of war. How did the War Poets transcend the harsh reality of their everyday existence to actually create works of empathetic art which carefully communicated the detail of destruction that stands the test of time?
I checked out this blog section on my favourite of the War Poets, Wilfred Owen, to see what his psychological journey may have been like and what, if anything, we can learn from it. I gleaned two key points:
The first crucial point is that Owen was shy, conscientious, tried to do his duty, but would never have made a career soldier. He was thus an outsider in a world he struggled to fathom, not a hardened military man, not a killing machine, not a hired mercenary. He was someone thrown well out of his comfort zone on a killing spree of a scale it is still hard to imagine. He was a reluctantly embroiled onlooker, a participant observer.
The second is that to fulfil this role, he had to experience and embrace the de-sensitising loss of feeling, for psychological survival requires a certain resilience, toughness. He had to surely mentally remove himself slightly from the situation to capture it.
None of us are likely to ever emulate the War Poets, yet these two points are important factors for any writer.
To not feel part of something perhaps makes one try harder to understand it. If we struggle to understand, then it makes us wish to comprehend and explain. To stand back when participant makes us sharper at observing, though arguably we understand subtle behavioural nuances less effectively.
To be psychologically hardened meant Owen’s poetry was evocative and immensely poignant, but it was not sentimental, nor about himself.
While I have no scholarly articles to support or evidence this, writing is, to me, part of a wider healing process, by which you stand slightly outside a situation to appraise it, to consider it, to describe it. By putting yourself in the role of the other, both physically and psychologically, you can begin to express what needs to be said. Simply writing from the heart (though heart is important) is often weak writing, clouded by feeling, dulling the skills of observation and empathy essential to really communicate to others.
Writing is not about what you feel, it is about understanding what they feel. This compassionate empathy is what Owen had in spades, which is why his writing reached out and touched so many.
More common than war, take love. If you think about it, most people who successfully write about love are probably not head over heels at the time; they have probably loved and lost and can reflect on the exquisitely painful or mere awfulness of the situation, or indeed the magical wonder of it, with a slight sense of detachment.
It is that ability to stand back from one’s situation that makes writing engaging and gives it longevity. Rather like counselling, you cannot fully communicate with others if you have some ‘unfinished business’ yourself. Resolution is not possible if you are intricately entwined in a situation without the ability to stand back from it.