Diablo Cody On Writing As Catharsis



What is catharsis? How does that relate to creative expression?

Catharsis may be defined as “the first full realization and expression of emotions surrounding significant occurrences in one’s past; emotional release.” (Psych Central entry by Renée Grinnell.)

On his blog Screenwriting from Iowa, Scott W. Smith includes this interesting quote on the topic:

Robert McKee, in his excellent book Story, defines the goal of the screenwriter as ‘a good story well told.’ A story must also be the vehicle for an emotion. The audience wants to be moved. Those elements that contribute to an emotional experience are valuable: those that aren’t are extraneous and probably dispensable.

“According to Aristotle, ‘catharsis’ (emotional and spiritual cleaning) is the goal of tragic drama and is produced by the strong emotion of ‘pity and terror.’ But why do we need cleaning, and what impurities—and why do we need such extreme emotion to burn them away?

“To ask this is to ask why we like to tell and hear stories at all. Perhaps, we need to be cleansed of the aimless chaos of our lives. The characters and actions of real life are raw, in unorganized state; Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman) wrote, ‘The very impulse to write springs from an inner chaos crying for order, for meaning…’”

[From his post Artistotle, Catharsis & Extreme Emotion. (sic)]

The quote is from the book Screenplay: Writing the Picture, by Robin U. Russin, William M. Downs.

Related book: Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee.

As a fan of Diablo Cody – her imagination, theatrical verve and appearance, and screenwriting talents (“Juno,” “Jennifer’s Body” and the TV series “United States of Tara”) – I was interested to read a recent newspaper article about her new movie “Young Adult” – directed by Jason Reitman, and starring Charlize Theron.

In their article Going for the visceral in ‘Young Adult’ (Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2011), Nicole Sperling and John Horn note that Cody began developing “Young Adult” two years ago, about “an unlikable protagonist who, while writing the last chapter of her young adult series, spends hours watching reality TV and eavesdropping on the conversations of teenagers. She pulls at her beautiful blond tresses, constantly has a scowl on her face and has a penchant for treating others dismally.”

Cody said, “Mavis is a projection of my worse self. I’m a woman in my 30s who writes about teenagers, who has been accused of being immature and emotionally stunted. And I’m guilty of some compulsive, vindictive behaviors. I saw myself in her, but I thought, ‘What’s the worst possible version of that?’ It was really cathartic to write that character and to channel bad qualities into someone who had no filter.”

Her script features an eight-minute intro scene with little dialogue, and Cody also wrote many very specific stage directions for the movie — the kind of dog Mavis (Charlize Theron) owns, the type of car she drives, her behavior such as sending fake texts from her phone.

Cody said, “I remember writing those little things into the script and feeling like this is great because I’ve been pigeonholed as somebody who only writes a certain kind of dialogue. To do all these things that require no dialogue is freeing for me.”

In an earlier interview, she declared, “Everything I write is an emotional catharsis. It’s my way of exorcising demons. With Juno, people think the pregnancy being the major plot point. But for me it was the chance to work out some issues about a relationship I had in high school with a guy. The movie is a ninety-minute apology to this guy—so it does feel good.”

From Marie Claire interview by James Mottran, quoted in blog post “Emotional Catharsis”—Diablo Cody, by Scott W. Smith.

Cody was famously a stripper in her past, and said of the experience: “Stripping toughened my hide, but exposing myself as a writer has been a lot more brutal.” (imdb.com)

In my earlier post Diablo Cody on Developing Creativity and Writing Honestly, I include a quote from her blog about the value of being candid and revealing:

“The stuff that polite folks confine to the pages of padlocked journals, I’ve treated as a matter of open discussion. … When you possess the courage — or blunt, gourd-smacking stupidity — to be totally candid, you silently amass thousands of allies.”

All this relates to being willing to explore and perhaps reveal parts of our hidden, shadow sides in creative work. That is one of the topics I have been interested in for many years, collecting quotes and articles etc. – see my page: The Shadow Self.

Also see more quotes from writers on writing on my site The Inner Writer.

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