It’s well over a year since a book of psychoanalytic case studies made the longlist for the Guardian first book award (even if, sadly, it didn’t progress any further). Stephen Grosz's The Examined Life reads like a short story collection, with lots to satisfy those attracted to serious fiction. Yet, only the week before the longlist was published, the same newspaper featured Charlotte Mendelson’s contribution to the Twitter fiction challenge, a neat cameo that works on the premise that therapy takes away one’s well-being. It seems a shame that many writers should share society’s unease about therapy when there’s so much overlap between the two endeavours.
Pat Barker is a writer of fiction who seems to have taken a special interest in therapy, having created the fictional psychologist, Tom Seymour as well as fictionalising WHR Rivers, one of the early pioneers. Just over a decade ago I attended an event where she bravely agreed to be interviewed by the clinical psychologist, Caroline Garland. In a commentary on this, published in the journal, Psychology and Psychotherapy, Heather Wood wrote that Pat Barker (p202-203):
does not tolerate a humble reverence for the work of psychotherapists. The psychotherapists she portrays are flawed and the fictional characters are driven to expose or defeat them.
Barker’s attitude to psychotherapy is ambivalent, at times curious and uncertain, at other times hostile and dismissive …
Barker appears to swing between a tentative belief in a constructive, healing relationship and a view that there can be no good relationship which can reach to the heart of an individual’s disturbance and enable that to be contained, metabolized and worked through.
In discussing her novel, Border Crossing, in a previous blog post, it seems to me that her writing is weakened by this “hostile and dismissive” attitude when her lack of “humble reverence” could be a springboard for some excellent fiction. (Not that she is likely to lose sleep over it, given her track record of literary prizes and publication success.)
Yet even writers who appear more sympathetic towards therapy might feel duty bound to acknowledge that many creatives are not:
He had always had a poet’s disdain for psychotherapy. Myra had not forgotten. It was the novelists, she had come to believe, who could see the point in the process: those who had an ear for narrative and an acute sense of the importance of telling stories. Poets, with their brief and fragmented lyricism, their wilful rages, were deaf to its call. (Sylvia Brownrigg, The Delivery Room, p351-2)
In creative non-fiction the world of therapy gets set up as a straw man to be summarily knocked down. In a lovely article about her mother’s secret past, Emma Brockes attributes the irritating phrase You have to own it to the therapeutic lexicon. While I recognise that phrase from the blogosphere in relation to memoir, I’ve never understood it and would probably bite the head off a therapist who parroted such a thing. Yet it isn’t easy to distinguish the myth from reality if your only sources are hearsay.
Perhaps the fact that there are so many different brands of therapy feeds into this scepticism. Some therapies are pitched as a version of Cheer up, love, it might never happen, while others look set to abrade our insides with a cheese grater. Such stereotypes enable us to dismiss therapy for ourselves as either too trivial or too masochistic to contemplate. Yet neither reflects the richness of the process outlined in The Examined Life. There’s even a form of therapy that might have been specially designed for writers: narrative therapy is about empowering people to take ownership of their own life stories. What’s not to like?
Yet there remains an anxiety that in killing one’s demons one might also kill the muse. Many writers would agree with Susan Hill, as quoted by Susanna Rustin writing in The Guardian, that
the dark places in her own past are “Pandora’s box is best left unopened … for fear that … inspiration will vanish”
The disturbance needs to be nurtured in the belief it’s the foundation of our creativity. But what if therapy – either by broadening our thinking or simply offering support to follow our dreams – actually facilitates writing? Therapy freed up Nick Hornby to write his first novel. He can’t be alone in this.
Yet the therapy implied in Charlotte Mendelson’s Twitter story is something that robs us of our joy. While it’s true that Freud saw common unhappiness as a worthwhile therapeutic goal; what’s often forgotten is the next line of this famous quote concerning healing the mind so that that unhappiness becomes more manageable. It’s about confronting reality, warts and all, so that we can use our inner resources in their entirety, including the parts we’ve tried to disown. Doesn’t that sound just the ticket for a writer who wants to capitalize on her own experience, good and bad?
Not every writer would want to sign up for a course of personal therapy, but writers who fail to recognise the common ground may be missing out according to Susie Nott-Bower:
Therapists are a gift to writers – what is a therapy session but the process a writer goes through to understand the complexities and depths of a character? And what is a therapist but the ultimate confidante? The therapeutic session is a melting pot for extremes of emotion and heightened consciousness …
Stephen Grosz’s book title, The Examined Life, would work equally well for a creative-writing book on developing character or on literary fiction. Of course therapy is scary; how can it not be if it takes us to a place we’ve never been before? The process is challenging for both parties, but so is writing a novel. Therapy and fiction are complementary forms of storytelling leading to a greater truth, and a society that lacks such stories can be very bleak indeed.
One place where those commonalities are addressed is in Connecting Conversations, a series of events in which psychoanalysts explore artistic creativity and practice with leaders from other fields. If you’re interested, you couldn’t do better than to kick-off with Lionel Shriver in conversation with Angela Joyce about We Need to Talk about Kevin.
As a reader, would you trust an author more or less if she acknowledged her therapist? If you’re a writer, are you therapy convert or a sceptic? I’d love to hear your views.