I have never read a novel by Hanya Yanagihara, but, if the reviewers are to be trusted, I have missed out on some excellent work.
Last week in the The New York Times, Yanagihara explained why she has never wanted to go into therapy. The question arose when she was writing her last novel. At an especially difficult moment in the writing process she found that disturbing memories from her past were intruding on her concentration.
Giving yourself over to the emotional life of a book — particularly one largely concerned with emotional life itself — demands a surrender. I was prepared for that. What I was unprepared for was how the writing forced me to think anew about my own past and my own fears, about episodes whose significance I had always been able to dismiss or minimize. Suddenly, I found myself in the grip of a life I no longer recognized.
It seemed natural and normal to explore her past experiences through therapy. Others advised her to do as much. And yet, she had no inclination to do so.
A therapist might say that she was suffering from a phobia about therapy. We do better to respect her reasoning:
I have never been to therapy, and over the years, it has changed from something bewitching — as it still is for my father, as it once was for me — into something sinister, a form of mind control, a violation of the self, like scooping out your brain and placing it into someone else’s cupped palms to prod at. As I’ve grown older, I’ve often wished I’d let that early attraction to therapy become something else: a trust in it, perhaps. But the fear of loss of control is greater than the hope for comfort.
To her, it was all about maintain a zone of privacy:
Who you are: your secrets, your miseries, your fears, will always be — agonizingly, sometimes — your own.
You would think that a novelist, especially, would need to recycle and reconfigure her past experiences, the better to render them on the printed page. Doesn’t therapy help you to overcome the past, to gain insight into the past and to integrate the past into a new life narrative?
Why would that not serve a novelist?
On the other hand, if a novel is merely rendering a personal experience, why should anyone else care about it? Isn’t the point of art to speak to large numbers of people, in different places and at different times? If it’s just the artist’s personal experience, precious few people are going to find it engaging.
Yanagihara had another reason for avoiding therapy. Perhaps because she is Japanese-American she does not have the same propensity for moral exhibitionism. She understands that therapy will try to break down her sense of shame, and with it her dignity, her modesty, her humility and her honor.
Trying to attract the attention of readers by indulging in shamelessness seemed to her not the way to go. Many philosophers have debated the question of what kind of emotion art ought to be evoking. The question remains somewhat open. And yet, most of them would agree that great art does not provoke a voyeuristic frisson.
Were Yanakihara writing about herself, about her own experience, even her own traumas she would be taking an important creative risk. The validity of the description of a real event lies in its correlation with reality. A book of history is as good as its objective rendering of the facts. If it tells exactly what happened it does not need to have narrative coherence.
A novel might refer to elements in the real world, but its validity resides in its ability to create its own fictional world. The coherence of a work of fiction lies in the extent to which it fulfills the terms of the world that it has created. It should not be judged by how well it renders reality.
A novelist writing about him or herself runs the risk of seeing the value of the description in its factual accuracy, not in its ability to fit within the fictional world he or she has created.
When a novelist is having trouble with a novel the problem is not that she is not in touch with her feelings or her past, but that she is allowing them to intrude in a world where they might very well break the spell.
Moreover, writing a novel is not therapeutic. It ought not to be therapeutic. You should not consider writing a novel in order to come to terms with your own history.
The same applies to acting. It certainly applies to Method Acting, the technique that instructs students to get in touch with their own feelings, the better to portray the emotion of the character they are playing.
But then, why would anyone care about your jealousy when your job is to make them care about Othello’s? A good actor does not draw attention to himself. He is a vehicle through which the play communicates with the audience. In that situation, your personal feelings can only serve as a distraction.