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Therapy: The Cause of, and Solution to, All of Writers' Problems

Standing on the corner of 90th and Amsterdam in Manhattan, I popped a Xanax and checked my calendar for my next therapy appointment. I'd just come from my monthly fiction workshop, during which the entire group had agreed: My protagonist had no inner life. Sitting around a beautifully curated living room on the Upper West Side and eating gluten-free cookies, they dutifully tore apart 30 pages of my novel manuscript, pointing out the sections where my main character read like an emotionless droid. 

“My writing is getting worse,” I told my therapist a few days later, reclined in a cushy leather chair. I'd reread 180 pages of the manuscript, and realized they were drier than anything I’d ever written. Could the weekly therapy sessions I’d been attending for the past couple of years be to blame for making me over-analyze anything emotionally driven in my writing?

"That makes sense," she said. Her take: I’m sitting in each session listening to myself making the same mistakes in my life—everything from weighing myself down with career pressure to continually chasing the wrong men—over and over, and my self-consciousness is being reflected on the page. I’m afraid to take the writing risks I used to because I’m more cognizant of failure. My prose might be paralyzed until I make some big psychological breakthrough—whenever that is. 

Was I the only one whose therapy was affecting her fiction? To find out, I asked several writers about their experiences with therapy. Their responses, as you might expect, were complicated.

Dani Shapiro is from a family of therapists and has penned a couple of bestselling memoirs, Devotion and Slow Motion—the writing of which were inherently therapeutic. She used that same word my therapist did—“self-consciousness”—in talking about her sessions:

I would say there’s a real enlivening quality to good therapy that’s of real creative value—but the last time I was in therapy, I would never schedule a therapy session during my writing days. It was like it wasn’t available to me afterwards …  In the ways [therapy] was useful to me, it really made it an obstacle to getting back to the page on any given day.

Novelist and essayist Siri Hustvedt agreed that I was in a period of “excruciating self-consciousness”—but told me to get back into therapy to solve it.

“I have less fear today, and this has made me more courageous and more productive as a writer,” Hustvedt said of the therapy she’s been attending for the last five years. In our email exchanges, she also pointed to her experience of writing the novel What I Loved (2003) four times from scratch over the course of six years until she was satisfied. She hadn’t been in sessions at the time, only starting in 2008 for unexplained seizures (detailed in The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves), and wonders if the process of writing What I Loved would have been less protracted had she already reaped the effects of psychoanalysis. “I have felt freer, less afraid, and more open to the unconscious forces that inevitably play a role in the writing of fiction,” she said.

Jennifer Egan, who dedicated her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad to her therapist, “Peter M.,” told me that she couldn’t have written the book without him. “Therapy offered freedom from an endless repetition of neurosis-driven thoughts and ideas,” she said in an email. “I feel that my writing range broadened as a result; it's as if a whole landscape opened up that had been invisible to me before, sealed as I was inside my echo chamber of worries and fear and guilt.” 

Besides standard talk therapy, there’s an entire industry of psychoanalysis devoted specifically to breaking writer’s block. In 2011, The New Yorker profiled Barry Michels and Phil Stutz, two Hollywood-based therapists in the business of curing blocked screenwriters. And a cursory Google search will bring up plenty of professionals across the country who advertise services for writers. One site promised that by helping free up creative pathways, I’d also learn how to “deal successfully with fears, inhibitions, depression, and what, at times, can be crippling anxiety, discouragement, and persistent feelings of hopelessness.” 

David Gilbert, author of & SONS, told me that he had a therapist who helped him work through fictional character dilemmas while working on his debut novel The Normals (2004)—difficulties that, he realized through therapy, were “of course” also issues he was struggling with. “He was like a first reader without me having written a thing,” he said. “I first went because I was seriously stuck, in my life and in my work, and he helped me get outside my head and see my negative thinking as an almost three-dimensional object that I could hold in my hand and appreciate as separate yet not equal.”

I started to feel like maybe it wasn’t fair to blame therapy—was I just bored with my writing?—until I emailed novelist Mike Harvkey:

I actually worried about how therapy would impact my writing every time I entered that office and saw my therapist sitting there with that little pad. Digging for my feelings had an immediate negative effect not just on my writing but my character. It made me question everything about myself and my work. No sooner would I write a sentence that I'd be analyzing the fucking thing. Writing, especially a first draft, should be a purge, not a goddamned discussion.

But even Harvkey eventually found therapy beneficial. “Only years later did I realize that therapy also helped me as a writer by making me think awfully hard about human psychology,” Harvkey said. 

The consensus, then, seemed to be that the thousands of dollars and countless hours spent bitching in a horizontal position did help with rendering deep, believable inner lives—the stuff that makes fiction arguably great—all while maintaining sanity. It was the answer I'd hoped for: It's possible both to stay in therapy and write something I don’t hate. (The tortured-artist path may have worked well for lots of authors, but not me.)

So what next? My writing was still lifeless, after all. I emailed Billie A. Pivnick, Ph.D, a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist who works with lots of writers, for advice. I shouldn’t have been surprised when she told me to hash it out with the person I initially blamed for my writing problem: my therapist. And, Pivnick added, “If discussing the problem doesn't change the dynamic, I would run—not walk—out the door and find another therapist. Life is short.”

Image via Shutterstock.