Friday, October 7, 2011

Writing and Psychotherapy: Is there a connection?

Yesterday I read a fascinating blog by Cricket McRae who suggested that a novelist should dig deep into their own experience in order to understand and present their protagonist accurately and convincingly.  As I said, I was fascinated.  Perhaps it was because I had just the night before finished my first book of McRae's, Lye in Wait.  The thing I liked most about that cozy mystery was her delineation of the characters, especially the protagonist and her house-mate.  I felt I knew them, knew how they would react in situations the author did not pose, knew how I would interact with them were we to meet, etc. 

Reading her blog about creating characters, I wondered how much of her own projections went into her protagonist.  Similar occupations, similar interests, etc., but what about at a deeper level.   

Years ago while on a post-doc at McGill University and working at Montreal Children's Hospital as a psychologist,  I asked a supervisor, Sam Rabinovitch, about the treatment of depression in a parent.  Our conversation went like this: 

Sam: "Have you even been depressed?"

Me: "No, I don't think so, not what you would call clinical depression."

Sam: "Have you ever mourned, grieved, been sad?"

Me: "Yes, of course."

Sam: "Then use that experience.  You can magnify those feelings and capitalize on them.  You now know your client better and have a better idea of how she feels.  Only in that way are you going to be able to help her." 

He never once used the terms "countertransference," or "empathy," but simply asked if I could bring my own experience to the task of understanding my client. 

Years later I was invited to watch rehearsals of a local theater group in Lansing, Michigan.  I sat with the director and was intrigued by the same phenomenon.  I thought his relation to the actors was similar to that of a psychotherapist with his client, helping them to go deep into their own experience to portray the person they wanted to be, in this case the characters within the play. 

George Kelly, at Ohio State, had taught us about the use of role playing in psychotherapy, namely, getting the client to be conscious about playing the role of the person that they wanted to be but felt they never could.  "Come on," he would say to the client with social anxiety, "you like to act.  This won't be you, of course, but just pretend for a week to be a social butterfly.  How would you do that?"  Once he had them articulating the behaviors that would characterize a social butterfly - behaviors that would not at all be in their normal repertoire, they would give it a try, but only after they had Kelly's reassurance that he understood that this was not who they really were.  It was just an act.  The results were often dramatic.  The client with social anxiety would find there were parts of the "social butterfly" that she felt very comfortable with, and would end up incorporating into her own identity. The self-doubting, autocratic boss would discover the ease of being a nurturer.  And so on. 

Now, after reading Cricket McRae's blog, I realize that the novelist must be doing the same thing, namely reaching within to give voice to their characters, but I wonder if there is ever a concern that the story might become too autobiographical, or the author might reveal more about him or herself than intended.  In psychotherapy, self-disclosure of the therapist is a tricky business.  Too little and the client might just as well be working with a tape recorder.  Too much and the therapeutic relationship morphs into a friendly social engagement.   

My question is this:  What is the best balance in the triangle where author, protagonist, and reader are the three vertices?


  1. Hmm. Well, I think the balance is that place where the author communicates something universal to the reader. In fiction, that's usually through the protagonist, but it could be through another character.

    You also have a very good point that writing shouldn't be psychotherapy for the author. In the end it may serve that purpose to a certain degree, but the point isn't that at all. The point is to dig deep in order to connect, and if any kind of healing occurs as well, all the better.

  2. The best balance is one that let's us move forward. Sure we can balance on a single point in space, but in doing so, we remain stuck there. A well loaded ship is balanced upon the water, but still moves with the wind and the currents. In balance there is movement; in balance there is growth; in balance there is life.

    Funny...I suddenly feel better now! ;-}

  3. Cricket and Dean,
    Thanks for the comments. Cricket, the idea of creating the protagonist to communicate something universal makes good sense to me. Now if I can only do it. Dean, so does the notion of finding a balance between reader and protagonist that allows us to move forward in our writing and not get stuck. Also, happy you're "feeling better." :) Interesting, isn't it, what a little good writing (and yours always is) can do for the soul. :} JP