Essays

Couch Time for Writers

By Eve Kushner
This article appeared in the now-defunct Writer Online in November 2000.

You supply yourself with essential writing resources: magazines and books about writing, critique groups, and conferences. But how much do you tend to your inner life? If your mind or heart is tied in knots, it could inhibit the flow of your writing. You might consider another valuable resource—working with a psychotherapist.

Couch time for writers
Couch time for writers…

I’m the therapy queen, having seen several practitioners, four long-term. At the risk of sounding like the world’s most messed-up person, I will tell you about my growth in therapy and how it has unexpectedly helped my writing.

I make no claims that you’ll share this experience. Nor am I advocating that all writers dive into therapy, which is no small undertaking. I’m simply saying how it has been for me.

Creating Space Inside

When I started seeing Susan two years ago, everything I did, thought, or wanted seemed objectionable. I tried to rein myself in, which crippled my writing. My censor pounced on whatever I even thought of writing; I failed before I had a chance to start.

Susan and I have examined the negative messages I send myself, tracing the cruel voices back to people I’ve known and working to discredit their perspectives. She gives me vast amounts of space. None of my feelings strike her as too irrational or childish to be expressed. Besides, they make sense to her in light of my past. My honesty never reduces me in her eyes, and I revel in this freedom.

As a result, I allow more “embarrassing” thoughts onto the page. Although I want readers to respect me, I no longer try to depict myself as completely altruistic and mature. I aim instead for honesty.

Developing an Identity and a Voice

Until recently, I had no idea who I was, where I fit in, or how I came across. Whereas others had clear ways of defining themselves, I felt like a blob with indeterminate borders. This identity crisis carried over into my prose, which seemed adequate but lacking in personality. In contrast, great writers sound self-assured on the page. “Here I am!” each one seems to say, the confidence giving rise to a strong voice.

In therapy I’ve come to understand what I care about, how I tick, and what kind of impression I make. I now feel fuller inside and more certain of what I bring to the world. When I write, I draw on that sense of self. Although I haven’t developed a completely distinctive voice, I no longer feel so undefined.

Gaining Insight into Experiences

Written accounts of unresolved traumas can make for bad reading. Such narratives might seem unfocused, heavy-handed, or uninsightful. In therapy I often return to old episodes, trying to make peace with them. As I probe for the truth, I come to view such stories in new ways.

Say I suffered a humiliating rejection in school. After several sessions I might understand that the event replayed my parent’s tendency to push me away. Susan would emphasize that if my parent couldn’t love me consistently, I’m not to blame. But she might think I contributed to the other rejection by crossing boundaries my classmate set.

If I ever wrote about the school episode, I could probably present it more effectively because of this richer understanding. Instead of depicting myself as a victim, I might describe a more intricate relationship with the classmate. My parent’s rejection could function as a powerful subtext.

Developing a Multifaceted Perspective

In a college writing course, we had to describe scenes from multiple viewpoints. I botched the assignment, because I couldn’t grasp how much people’s perceptions can differ. Using myself as a starting point, I figured everybody thought pretty much alike. My two characters brought equal amounts of jealousy and insecurity to their tussle over a man. To show the scene from each perspective, I essentially positioned the same camera in opposite corners of a room, when I should have used different lenses.

After considerable therapy, I realize how differently people’s minds work, both in perceiving things and in processing information. I now see how two people can have conflicts, not because one is “bad” and the other “good” but because they’re complex individuals with different needs and histories. Any writer needs to understand psychology, and therapy is a great way of attaining that information.

Recognizing Powerful Material

Therapy takes so long because clients can’t use every minute efficiently. When experiences are too painful to confront directly, we keep the truth at a distance. I do this by rambling about tangential issues.

If I chatter along and then say something essential, the value of those words may escape my attention. Susan proves particularly helpful here, declaring that I’ve said something important and accurate. She knows because she feels the power of my words. Sometimes she’ll put her hand over her heart. “You’re talking about such painful stuff,” she’ll say, looking like she might cry.

Later, the writer in me might see new value in whatever made such an impact. Maybe the topic has dramatic appeal. At the very least, I feel encouraged that my words have affected someone else. If I made such an impression through conversation, just imagine what I could produce in written form.

Receiving Help from an “Editor”

Therapists and editors sometimes serve similar functions, suggesting new ways of approaching subjects and helping to zero in on the truth. Susan has a keen ear for what rings true. Once when I denigrated someone as a religious fundamentalist, she asked, “Is he really, or are those just words?” She had never met him but correctly sensed my exaggeration. Such incidents alert me to how easily people can detect untruthfulness and lose faith in writers.

Like an editor, Susan suggests alternative wordings. If I say, “It’s my fault he got so angry,” she’ll say, “Let’s try this instead: You did whatever you did, and he had a choice about how to respond. He lost his temper. You aren’t responsible for that part.” As she supplies new phrasing, my feelings shift. Her idea isn’t to nitpick but to help me avoid unproductive thoughts. She also stops me whenever I describe myself pejoratively and substitutes nonjudgmental words. To my surprise, this provides immediate relief. I now feel awed by the way words can shape perceptions.

In conversations with Susan, I also practice showing, not telling. If I say I’m unhappy, she prods for specifics. When I explain that the fog has been dismal, three rejections just arrived, and my dog might have cancer, she understands but requests more information. I recreate scenes, striving for authenticity in descriptions and dialogue so she can see situations through my eyes. Our sessions work the same muscles I’ll use in communicating with readers.

Nurturing the Needy Self

Ideally, we transcend ourselves when we write, concentrating on the text. In less fortunate moments, the self can act like an unruly child, wailing that it has suffered injustices and demanding considerable space on the page. Writing that succumbs to these pressures can go off-course.

In past writing, I felt inclined to show off, cite ego-boosting information, and settle scores. First-person pieces made it particularly tempting to hog the spotlight.

Therapy has helped. Susan provides more than enough attention, validation, and support. When I return to the desk, I’m less needy. My inner brat fades away, letting me focus on my work.

Receiving Support After Rejection

It’s a relief to see Susan after a rejection. “Oh, Eve!” she’ll lament, and I’ll hear how much she cares. Rejections leave me feeling like a total failure, so she reminds me that this is only one editor’s opinion, and that the editor isn’t rejecting me, only the piece I submitted. I might scoff at hearing these words again, but they usually make me feel better.

We’ve also analyzed my intense desire to publish. Yes, it’s nice to see my words in print and to earn money, but what else is going on? Am I craving a more personal type of acceptance? Am I looking to belong somewhere or to be known as people haven’t known me? I’ve slowly understood that publication won’t meet these needs, so my desperation has waned. I’m still eager to publish, but for somewhat different reasons.

Final Thoughts About Therapy

Few situations have nurtured me like therapy has. On the couch I feel heard and seen, accepted and understood. I often leave sessions revitalized and ready to give myself another chance—as a person and a writer.

Anyone could use such support, but therapy isn’t right for everybody. It requires honesty and a willingness to confront painful things. Many people prefer to keep their lives private. The cost can be prohibitive, particularly for long-term work. And some don’t find therapy terribly effective.

I’ve certainly harbored some frustrations. But therapy has taught me how to get out of my own way, especially when I write. I waste less psychic energy and have more faith in myself, which enables me to pursue my dream.

Eve Kushner writes restaurant reviews and the occasional article about Japan. She lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband and their beagle, Crosby.