The transformative power of the arts was known to the ancients. In the Poetics, Aristotle spoke of how theatre could benefit the spectator and so did Bharata Muni when he discussed his rasa theory in the Natyashastra, a Sanskrit text written between 200 AD and 200 BC. Though the aims of theatre in the two civilizations, Greek and Indian, are different, both Aristotle and Bharata are concerned with the arousal of certain emotions in the audience. Today, we have what is known as “bibliotherapy”, which is the reading of books suited to an individual’s needs to help with depression, pain and other ailments. The evidence for the benefits of bibliotherapy is only anecdotal, however, not scientific. Books are read to traumatized children and prisoners, they are read to people in hospitals and old people’s homes. Reading aloud with a group of people is even more beneficial because it creates a sense of togetherness and community.
How does reading literature heal? When a reader identifies with a character in a work of fiction, he relates to the character’s emotions. Some of his own emotions that may have been suppressed over a period, as is usual for many of us, come to the surface when he identifies with those of the character. It is an acknowledgement of those emotions and a form of release. This is what Aristotle called catharsis, a cleansing, or purgation. According to Bharata, the religious/moral education that drama was supposed to introduce, could only be achieved with the accomplishment of rasa, which literally means “juice” or “essence”, but here refers to emotions. The writer incorporates emotions into the work in such a way that the same emotions that are acted out on stage are aroused in the spectators.
Empathizing with the fictional characters encourages the reader to see beyond herself and her own problems to understand those of others. Ironically, empathy with a fictional character, and at the same time distance (because it is a fictional character), can lead to a change in perspective. The reader’s attitude towards her own issues and the people involved may be transformed; she may be able to see different points of view. The reader realizes that her experiences and emotions are not unique, but that they are shared with the rest of humanity and therefore she is not alone. In addition, the insights gained by reading fiction and poetry are about life and the human condition and that may help the reader look at her fellow human beings in a kindlier fashion, and perhaps with a touch of humour. The very act of reading at a certain time and place is a discipline that grounds people, while the cadence of prose or the rhythm of poetry adds a dimension to the experience that can be trance-like and is indescribable.
Does writing fiction heal the creator? It is my personal experience that it does in several significant ways. When an author deals with a disturbing issue, creates characters and their emotions, the writer’s own emotions are verbalized and articulated and that has a cathartic effect like the one that takes place in the reader. The author can explore the subject, the situation and the emotions of the characters, and gain a deeper understanding, as well as a new perspective which can lead her to a more universal story about human nature, life, and suffering. When the characters come to a resolution, the writer too may find closure. The creative process itself is so enjoyable and all-absorbing that it puts the writer in a meditative state. It may seem like an escape to another world, just like reading, but in fact brings both reader and writer closer to the real world.
To all aspiring writers, I say read and write as much as possible and whenever possible. Whether your writing is published or not, is irrelevant to the healing that both reading and writing can promote.