The Editing of Life: How Writing Has Made me a Better Therapist

          Whenever I give talks about my first book, Trailing: A Memoir, at least one member of the audience will ask me how my professional background as a psychotherapist has influenced my writing.  I'd be lying if I said it hasn't at all, because of course my interest in mental health and personal development influences that way I hear and tell stories, as well as what I most enjoy reading.  But if I had to do a balance sheet of how my life as a therapist has influenced my writing, I would have to change the equation to discuss how writing has affected my life as a therapist.  

            Writing a book, and all that entails – the discipline and the craft of creating a coherent narrative arc – has been hands down the most valuable training I have received in the art of conducting effective psychotherapy. One of my favorite authors, Hilma Wolitzer refers to this idea, but from the patient’s perspective, in her wonderful novel, The Doctor’s Daughter. The protagonist in the story is named Alice, and she edits books for a living. When a series of circumstances lead her into therapy with Dr. Andrea Stern, Alice says, “Being in therapy...was something like writing a book...You simply made it up as you went along. And there was a plot and a theme; distinct from each other, yet entangled. I’d tell Andrea Stern my story and together we would try to figure out the theme. That would make her sort of the editor of my life. But it was such a convenient and smug correlation. Would a plumber in therapy envision his angst as just a clog of hair and shit in the pipes, something to be snaked out so that the truth could come gushing through?”

            I adore both of Hilma Wolitzer’s analogies, and I suspect they both hold true! But to stick with the therapist-as-editor theme, I’d like to describe the precise ways in which writing a book improved my skills as a therapist:

1.) What are you trying to say? In writing, as in therapy, this is a key question. WHAT, exactly, is the point? A writer that rambles all over the place rarely keeps his reader interested. A therapy client who babbles on making small talk or jumps from topic to topic also needs that “editorial” guidance. The therapist’s job is to cut through the avoidant chit chat and say, “What is the story you need to tell here? Let’s focus on finding the storyline.”

2.) The Narrative Arc and moving the story forward. A work of fiction or memoir that does not show the EVOLUTION of a character usually will not keep an audience interested. Readers seek stories that demonstrate the ability of a character to move through whatever conflict the story has set out to resolve. This is a key component of a successful therapy relationship: that the client and therapist work together to move the client from the starting point of their conflict through to some type of resolution. I do not want to oversimplify the therapy process, and the narrative arc in therapy can be long and with unexpected twists and turns. As a solution-focused, behaviorally oriented practitioner, however, if week after week my client and I are going over and over the same material, I will look at the therapeutic arc and try to understand what is blocking this “story” from advancing. As Hilma Wolitzer said, “there is a plot and a theme, distinct from each other, yet entangled.” I feel that I am working successfully with someone when we are able to keep our eyes on the plot – crafting it as we go – without losing sight of the theme, which we are examining through a lens of insight and understanding. If a client is having difficulty making changes, I will ask, “Is this behavior moving your story in the direction you want?”

3.) Does this character belong in the story, or is s/he just an extraneous distraction? A good story will have characters that the reader gets involved with, and knows who they are and what they are doing in the story. One of the quickest ways to take a good read and make it mediocre is by inserting all sorts of unnecessary “extras.” As in writing, I often ask my clients when we talk about their relationships – is this person good for your story? Is X,Y, or Z person that you keep referring to someone that enhances your life, or is it someone that you put up with because you don’t know how to edit them out? In the written word, an unnecessary character will hopefully be cut out so as to improve the narrative flow. In life, it is sometimes necessary to retire relationships that don’t contribute to the well-being of the person’s story.

4.) Finding the universal. Many of the best loved books are so well received because of the universal nature of the story. The characters that readers will most often attach to are those that they can identify with. One of the most valuable “interventions” a therapist can provide a client is to “normalize” their experience; to break the shame or stigma or sense of aloneness by helping them see the universality in what they are going through. In his book The Gift of Therapy, the reknowned therapist Irving Yalom tells a story of how when he was a young therapist in training, one of the most valuable things his own therapist said to him, in response to a story he’d told about himself, was, “That’s just how we humans are.” Yalom explains how powerful it was – how normalizing – to have this person that he looked up to clump herself in there with him. In so doing she drew attention to the universality of his experience. Indeed, he was not the only one to suffer particular feelings.

5.) Dealing with Rejection. Any writer knows that to persevere in the game of writing, one must learn to deal with rejection, and more rejection, and if that is not enough, another heaping dose of rejection.  It is impossible to please everyone - just read the reveiws of any of your favorite books, the books that you loved so much you re-read them three times.  Invariably you will find someone that has said something absolutely scathing about that beloved book, and it's idiotic author.  So it is in life.  Not everyone is going to like you, or love you, or think you did a great job, and you have to just learn to deal with that.  My dear friend Dominic Cappello who is a brilliant artist and animator calls this "developing your rejection skills."  In both writing and life this is an essential task.  Rejection is never easy, but the silver lining is having an opportunity to stand up, brush yourself off gracefully, and say "I AM resilient....and I am going to keep on trying"  until that "truth," whatever the truth may be, comes gushing through.

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  • Lizzie Harwood

    Wonderful insights here on both the process of writing and the view from the other side of the therapist's couch!

  • Cate, Thanks for such great feedback.  I am really glad this piece spoke to you.  Have you heard of THIS IS MY BRAVE?   A dear friend of mine is participating in the DC event this year. It seems a great forum for writers/performers/advocates for breaking the stigma around talking about mental health issues.  Cheers!