Letting off steam

Posted: March 11, 2014 in writing
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We often talk about creativity, and in particular writing, as a cathartic act, a way of letting off steam. Counsellors recommend keeping journals or scribbling down your thoughts to give them form. Many writers expel their inner demons through the pen or the keyboard. Even when I was answering complaints for a living I found satisfaction in venting my real response onto the page, then deleting it and crafting the tactful reply we sent out.

Letting off some real steam - picture by Peter Shanks via Flickr creative commons

Letting off some real steam – picture by Peter Shanks via Flickr creative commons


It’s not always about venting negativity. In ‘Surprise Me‘ I tried to express both the frustrations I’d felt doing tedious jobs and the excitement I felt when I was younger and first falling in love. Because venting those emotions can help get bad feelings off your chest, but it can also give you a chance to relive the joys that you want to dwell on.

We like to think that readers can see that passion on the page. Maybe it’s just a lie we tell ourselves to help us cope with the darkness, this idea that letting out our real pains creates art and so pleasure for others. Certainly it’s a comforting thought.

But maybe there’s something in it. After all, if you’re re-living a real emotion then you can describe it better, pick out the little nuances and the parts that we blot from our memories later. Maybe letting off steam makes better writers of us all, as well as healthier human beings.

So how about you? Do you find yourself venting your feelings as you write, whether it’s stories, essays or just emails to friends? Does writing help you get emotions off your chest, and is it normally the good or the bad ones?

And if you’ve just read ‘Surprise Me’ what did you think – did I succeed in getting those emotions across?

  1. petrosjordan says:

    I let off steam with my writing sometimes too, and I think it’s pretty common for writers to use their writing as an emotional outlet.

    I’ve actually read, though, that venting (at least with regard to anger) does not necessarily make you feel better, and can sometimes make things worse. It goes completely against what we intuitively believe, but it seems true that the “emotions as a pressure cooker” metaphor is misguided. Check out this article by Oliver Burkeman (one of my favorite writers on the psychology of http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2008/jan/26/healthandwellbeing.featureshappiness):

    By the way, I just signed up for Daily Science Fiction and can’t wait to read ‘Surprise Me’!

    • Thanks for the link Petros – interesting article. In our culture we seem to have two implicit models of emotions at play – one as muscles that we grow by flexing them, the other as limited reservoirs of stuff that we can use up and be done with. Burkeman’s article seems to support the muscle model, arguing caution for those trying to use up that reservoir.

      I realise that the reality is far more complex, but we’re people, we use stories and metaphors to understand the world, and we should at least look at what stories we’re telling/assuming.

      Hope you enjoyed ‘Surprise me’ – if you signed up too late it will be up on the Daily Science Fiction website next week – I’ll link to it then.

  2. glenatron says:

    I used to use music and songwriting as a big outlet for a lot of emotional stuff I couldn’t really shift otherwise. Funnily enough, looking back through those notebooks now they are unbelievably cringey, but I think that is a thing you go through. These days I have found it more useful to redirect myself into something practical.

    • I suspect we all look back on our youthful thoughts and feelings with a little embarrassment – we were just so damn sincere in those days.

      • glenatron says:

        I think I remain as sincere now as I was then, but I’m much blunter and I’m much less impressed by what people say, especially what I say. Turns out I’m kind of an idiot if I don’t pay attention and I spent so much time not paying attention when I was younger. I miss the crazy intensity of those feelings and the sense of endless days ahead of me. At the time I don’t think I realised those lows were a natural counterpart to unbelievable highs, the sheer joy of discovering life in the world and all the things it had to offer. These days I think the rollercoaster travels less far in either direction and there is less to discover. The trick may be to give oneself the ability to keep looking for adventures when the days are otherwise ready to slide into one another.

        • Perhaps it’s also about appreciating the smaller highs and lows without needing them to go to extremes? Or even – and I can’t remember who I’m paraphrasing here – that maturity lies in finding the seriousness we had as a child at play.

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