Thursday, March 18, 2021

Cathartic Writing & Cathartic Reading—An Intersection

By Bonnie Randall

Part of The Writer's Life Series 

JH: Stories do more than simply entertain or inform us. Bonnie Randall shares why reading is critical to good health, and why writers should write the tough stories.

‘Catharsis’—a word derived from the Greek Katharos; to purify, and Katharein; to cleanse. To experience catharsis is to know a sense of ‘renewal upon release’, and much material has been compiled on cathartic writing: there are analysis out there on everything from personal journaling to the Taylor Swift lyrics that appear to process the artist’s angsty relationships.

Less, though, has been written about the concept of cathartic reading, yet perhaps at no time quite like the unusual era we are living in now do the benefits of cathartic reading seem more profound.

Following is a compilation of reasons why the fiction and memoirs you—yes: YOU—are crafting right now are so incredibly valuable for the population you’re reaching out to.

1. Reading Gives You Somewhere to Go When You Have To Stay Put

A saying that’s so much more than a meme. The edict of ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ is an illusion to many, but beyond homes being potentially lethal places for vulnerable people, homes can also be a crucible of loneliness, isolation and monotony—factors which amplify diagnoses like depression, and which also elevate people’s sense of hopelessness and despair.

Reading offers an antidote to stasis and loneliness by offering an ‘alternative locale’ to visit, and a connection to ‘people’ within the pages. Individuals who report loneliness as an issue also report an improvement in their feelings of connection and fellowship after having read fiction—meaning that the ‘relationships’ readers develop with the characters within books are relevant and healing, even though they are one-sided, artificial, and temporary.

(Here's more with Writing to Heal: The Benefits of a Cathartic Novel)

2. Reading Allows for Literal, Therapeutic Catharsis

It is said that reading builds empathy because the reader connects with the angst of a character. Speaking as a clinical social worker who practices as a therapeutic counselor, I can attest that the reverse of this is also true; when a reader sees a character live through (and prevail) over turbulence or adversity that he or she has also experienced, it elevates the individual’s compassion and belief in oneself

Processing those difficult emotions at a distance (through a character) can be a ‘safe’ way to experience the anger and the sorrow that often go along with these challenging experiences. This sort of ‘parallel process’ can also be tremendously enlightening, validating, and ultimately healing.

Sidenote: The other day, I was working with a client whose history is fraught with ritualized sexual abuse. She shared that, after having recently watched a Denzil Washington film within which his character took on and took down a ring of child sex traffickers, she experienced a mood elevated to the degree that she “felt as if I was high on drugs!” We processed this emotion and she was able to determine that the reason for her euphoria was being able—vicariously, through that film—to combat and prevail over evil similar to what she had experienced as a child. At the end of our discussion she left off with a remark which, as a counselor and as a writer, I found to be extremely poignant: “Thank God for stories,” she said.


3. Reading Generates Healing Physiological Changes

Data indicate that a mere 30 minutes of immersion into fiction lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and, in an echo of bullet #1, decrease the subjects’ sense of psychological distress every bit as effectively as 30 minutes of yoga.

It is the exit of one’s current (and possibly unhappy) reality combined with the entertainment within the fiction they are reading that account for these physiological changes.

(Here's more with The Cathartic Novel – an Editor's Perspective)

4. Readers Are More Inclined to Accept Beliefs Alternative to Their Own Than Non-Readers Are

In a world that is becoming more polarized and combative by the day, there is perhaps nothing more valuable than those of us who can hold their own belief…yet are also able to at least understand the opposing belief.

And it should come as no surprise that avid readers are more likely to attain this skill than others. After all, reading even the most banal of fluff fiction will afford some sort of learning—either of a new concept, or of the unique point-of-view of a character within the story.

5. The Eye-Movement Required to Read Is Soothing

And it also increases intelligence. (Who knew?) In the process of moving left-to-right, left-to-right, the eyes are thus forcing the two hemispheres of the brain to have a conversation with one another, and part of that conversation releases the message to settle down, relax. (This is why many sleep clinics encourage subjects to read before bed, by the way). Also, as reading forces both hemispheres to be active, this in turn strengthens neural pathways—and acts as a force-multiplier in increasing overall intelligence.

Surprised? Maybe pleased as you read through these points? Like every writer out there, I can get in a funk: will my fiction sell? Why won’t my fiction sell? Should I continue to bother producing my fiction at all?

I should. You should. Definitely now and especially now. For, like my client said on that day when she inspired this very article:

“Thank God for stories!”

Your voice is needed and necessary. Share it!

xo Bonnie

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls. The series continues with her newest release, Within the Summit's Shadow.

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Andrew Gavin knows he's a train wreck. Before he even became a detective, Andrew’s first trauma—at only seventeen—occurred when he witnessed a gruesome suicide. Ever since, a delusion he calls The Dead Boy appears when his anxiety spirals too close to the edge…


Goaded by The Dead Boy, Andrew shoots and kills an unarmed teenage bully in what appears to be a fit of rage. Suspended from the force, and awaiting a possible murder charge, he retreats home to the Rockies. There The Dead Boy taunts him daily. Except…


Elizabeth McBrien, the childhood sweetheart he scorned, is back home in the mountains too, and shocks Andrew by revealing that she too sees The Dead Boy. Astonished that the spirit is not a delusion, but real, Andrew is further unnerved when he learns that The Dead Boy has ‘befriended’ Kyle, a gravely ill kid Elizabeth adores.

Now it's specter vs. cop in a race to save Kyle's life, and The Dead Boy insists that Kyle’s survival hinges on secrets Andrew holds about that long-ago suicide. Yet Andrew knows the entire truth will destroy him, and also annihilate any new chance he may have with Elizabeth. But they are running out of time; Kyle is dying, and The Dead Boy is ready to sacrifice anything in order to once again walk among the living…

Within the Summit’s Shadow is a paranormal romance unlike any you’ve ever read. Set in the resort town of Jasper amid the splendor of the Canadian Rockies, this novel combines love, mystery, and a persistent, deeply psychological, very personal haunting. Randall really delivers the goods with this one.”


  1. MELODY HIGHMAN3/18/2021 10:55 AM

    Another great post! Thank you Bonnie / Janice. Only problem . . . I can't resist opening Fiction University posts! (I do try and ignore email when I'm writing.) Sometimes I print the posts, highlight info and organize into a binder. It's beginning to be a lot to manage. I've already purchased a couple of your books. Anyway to put together a collection of blog posts?? I'd purchase it immediately! Thanks again. ;)

    1. You're welcome, Melody! Glad you enjoyed it!

  2. That's super great. It's true that reading fiction is like watching a different world with opened eyes 🙃

    1. Absolutely! And these days fiction is a far site preferable to reality!