The Neurotic Impulse to Express | The New Engagement

The Neurotic Impulse to Express

By Brian Alessandro

Freud believed that those who resist their needs become neurotic. Because it serves art, neurosis is good. It means you feel, you think. You are troubled. All good writers are neurotic, at least on some level, and certainly about their work, because they are troubled. And rightly so.

What brought me to writing was exactly that—a neurotic, troubled sense of things not being quite right with the world. For as long as I can remember I viewed civilization as a bittersweet mix of the best and the worst of humanity; people seem to be led by forces greater than themselves, seized by emotions and cravings that sometimes seem alien to even them—cruelty, rage, confusion, but also empathy, beauty, and an urge to connect, and build. I write in hopes of being able to understand the gray between the contrasts. And so much of life does fall into the gray. While I enjoy tinkering with structure, style, and language, my stories are mainly thematic and character-centered. I am fascinated—and sometimes even frightened!—by ideas and people.

In order for me to write something clearly and with precision (itself a gargantuan neurotic concern), I first have to feel it in a way that becomes all-consuming, even haunting. If I find that I can’t shake a certain concept or character or theme, I then resolve that it’s worth writing about. It’s my gauge. And it usually doesn’t let me down.

To engage any topic or situation in any meaningful, probing way, I find it necessary to investigate all the nuances and complexities of the things that either (or both, usually both!) move or horrify me, and then respond in the only way that I know how—personally and critically. I work hard to meld the public with the private, taking a fair and compassionate, though honest and unflinching, look at myself within a social context. And I do my best to steer clear of navel gazing. Don’t get me wrong, some of my favorite writers of the 20th century were world class navel gazers, Virginia Woolf and William S. Burroughs, among them. However, what set Woolf and Burroughs apart from much of what has succeeded in literature in the past two or three decades is that ability to place the picayune worries of the self within a much greater social framework. Woolf’s battle with depression and Burroughs’s slugfest with addiction were self-explored in ways that transcended standard introspection. They were able to build bridges between the nightmares they were living and those of others. In this way they did the world a service and contributed something that more than spoke to the times in a timeless way—they provided a sort of therapy, a solace for others in pain. Existential crises are subjective, and while relatable, no two are alike, so I have found it useful to embrace my fears and anger and hang ups and madness—no matter how strange or absurd!—and then process, explore, and create. You never know who will end up benefitting from your inner work.

Art—and fiction writing is indubitably an art—has the power to illustrate, move, and enlighten. Despite what many cynics may say, writing is still a dangerous tool, one to be used wisely, carefully, purposefully. We can even call it a weapon to be wielded to effectuate change or at least pry open minds and hearts. Reading—writing’s complement—does not only enhance memory and focus and possibly stave off dementia during the senior years, but also enriches, and helps to deepen moral reasoning, which in turn creates a conversation that might eventually build a consciousness. And a conscientiousness!

When I decided that I wanted to be a writer (truthfully, I’ve known since I was 11 years old), I took what some may consider the least pragmatic course imaginable: instead of pursuing an M.F.A. in fiction, I earned an M.A. in clinical psychology. I feared that an M.F.A. program might homogenize my language or sterilize my thoughts. Also, what seemed to me to be the best reason to write was an effort to better understand the machinations of human motivation and behavior—to get into the phenomenology of people. Now, that’s not to say that one has to pursue an advanced degree in psychology in order to achieve such a goal (after all, it ought to be the goal of all serious writers who seek to do more than simply entertain and amuse; not that there’s anything wrong with that), but it is what has worked for me. Besides, it’s afforded me the opportunity to hold down pretty decent day jobs as a high school teacher, psychotherapist, and currently as a college instructor of human sexuality, the psychology of gender, and developmental psychology.

What makes me commit to writing something as time consuming and demanding as a novel (“The Unmentionable Mann” is the first of three that I have completed, and I usually spend years writing, editing, and refining each one before feeling remotely finished with it) is an irritating, insistent urge to say something that I’ve either not yet heard, or at the very least have not yet heard in a way that I found satisfying. There is generally this unavoidable sensation of not being able to keep something to myself. For me, the germ of the idea usually crystallizes around a social or psychological situation that feels under-reported or poorly reported, a complex or phenomenon that has been misunderstood or disregarded. Things that feel at once familiar and foreign seem to most ardently arouse my desire to dig deeply and dissect bravely.

Chronic in my hovering awareness to avoid the glib, the facile, as superficiality reduces and is dull, I become with each pass at my material increasingly fixated on producing something enduring, something poetic and beautiful, and exact in its expression. To distill into art while reconciling the unavoidable barbarism reported daily in the news or witnessed through the day becomes a juggernaut of a compulsion. Massacres. Cancer. War. The gossamer scaffolding that holds life and art together is under constant threat of crumbling under chaos or tragedy; the key is to cut through the potential carnage, the guaranteed grief, by spilling your soul onto paper.

So, returning to Freud, the need to exercise a neurotic impulse through literary sublimation is a kind of possession that you have little control over; if the nervy tug to create, the agitated pull to explore, and the obsessive command to communicate is what brings you to writing, then please do so, and do it honestly, humbly, and, above all, personally. 

Brian Alessandro writes literary criticism for Newsday and is a contributor at Interview Magazine. Most recently, he has adapted Edmund White’s 1982-classic A Boy’s Own Story into a graphic novel for Top Shelf Productions, which won the National Book Award in 2016 for March. His short fiction and essays have been published in Roxanne Gay’s literary journal, PANK, as well as in Crashing Cathedrals, an anthology of essays about the work of Edmund White. In 2011, he wrote and directed the feature film, Afghan Hound, which has streamed on Amazon and Netflix. In 2016, he founded and continues to edit The New Engagement, a literary journal that has released two print issues and eighteen online issues. His debut novel, The Unmentionable Mann, was published in 2015 and was well received by Huffington PostThe Leaf, Examiner, and excerpted in Bloom. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice and the Independent Book Publisher Association Best New Voice Award. He holds an MA in clinical psychology from Columbia University and has taught the subject at the high school and college levels for over ten years. Brian currently works in the mental health field.


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