Deb: Catharsis

“In your writing, remember that the purpose of everything you’re doing
is to bring about some kind of emotional reaction in your reader.” Christopher
What draws us to literature? What makes writing worthwhile?
The holiday season has answers.
Yes, that holiday
season, the one we love to hate. Whether you celebrate Channukah or Christmas
or Kwaanzaa or St. Nicholas Day or St. Lucia’s
Day, or whether you plug your ears and cover your eyes and roar humbug at it
all, you need only a little fortitude and persistence to dig beyond the
advertising inserts and glitter and cheesy carols to discover truths for your
A recent caller to Rick Steve’s travel show described his
favorite holiday ever: nestled with his family under a blanket on a balcony in
a Swiss village that bans motor vehicles, listening to the clatter of horses
drawing sleighs through the streets, enjoying a snowy scene happily lacking in
bustle. As Christopher Vogler points out in The Writer’s Journey, that sort of simple, reflective interlude was the original
point of the solstice holidays, presenting a sacred opportunity, a turning
point in which we collectively removed ourselves from the rhythms of daily
But in the modern age, we’ve subverted the ritual cycle
which birthed literature, and we’ve lost touch with genuine rest. As a
byproduct, we’ve also lost touch with catharsis, the sudden release of emotions
evoked by story, which is why much modern writing, including our own work, can leave
us largely unsatisfied.
A few years ago, I had my first cave experience, thanks to
the kind owners of Alaska’s Boardwalk Lodge on Prince of Wales Island. (I also
nearly blinded their fly-fishing guide, but that’s a story for another day). We
hiked up the side of a mountain to El Capitan, the
largest known cave in Alaska and
home to the deepest limestone pit in the country. After belly-crawling deep
into the caverns, we extinguished the lights. The total darkness we shared is
what Vogler calls “the perfect stage to initiate young people into the
mysteries of the tribe, its deepest beliefs, the essence of its compact with
Originating in festivals that ritualized the cave experience
in a cycle of mythological death and rebirth that includes mortification, purgation,
invigoration, and jubilation, story plunges us into a place of darkness from
which we emerge transformed “The absence of things that were normally taken for
granted created a renewed appreciation for them,” says Vogler of ancient rituals
born from the disorienting effect of the dark. “It also focused the minds of
the people and reminded them of the possibility of death that was always near.”
These days, mortification and purgation are out of vogue.
Heaven forbid we deprive ourselves, which ritually speaking explains why the
jubilation we’re supposed to experience at this time of year feels so feeble.
In Aristotle’s era, catharsis was a medical term for the
elimination of poisons.  In story, the
hero stands in for the sacrificial god-king (or queen). As her fate unfolds, we
feel sorry for her, and we fear her fate. We are purged. The poisons are gone.
We leave the story relieved that though we, like the hero, are flawed, we
haven’t had to endure what she has.
That’s classic tragedy. We associate it with the Greeks, but
the concept is universal. Consider what Mark John says about story-songs in Yupitt Yuraryarait (Yup’ik
of Dancing): “Even a song, our ancestors sang
it to take out bad feelings inside, and they considered such songs powerful.
And though one feels tired before the dance, when one goes home, it seems like
one’s being has been expanded.”
Comedy, too, is cathartic. The jolly old elf of our current
season is no accident. Neither are the celebrations of light, joy at emerging
from the cave.
In your holiday greetings to writers, you need but one word:
catharsis. It’s a reminder of purpose.  As
Vogler says, “You are always raising and lowering the tension, pumping energy
into your story and characters until some kind of emotional release is
inevitable, in the form of laughter, tears, shudders, or a warm glow of
Try This:  In a favorite piece of poetry or prose,
identify the cathartic effect. Then do the same for your own work in progress.
Check This Out: The
back matter describes Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey as “one of the
most influential writing books in the world.” Though they must resist the urge
to find formula in Vogler’s analysis of mythic structure, writers will benefit
from understanding the primal function of myth in story.
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