The following piece was originally printed in the Fall/Winter 2017 edition of the BPSI Bulletin, which can be read here.
She seems to hide in the white collar of her pink wool coat as she enters the office, head down, shoulders scrunched. A copy of Sylvia Plath poetry sticks out of her bag. Everything about her tells me she has not had a good night’s sleep. She probably hasn’t eaten either. I do not mention these things. Instead, I say a big hello and offer an equally big smile. “I read what you wrote,” I say. “That image of the train is breathtaking.”
Slowly she begins to fill with life. “I didn’t spend much time on it, really. I’ve been so depressed.”
I repeat what I said. “Breathtaking.”
“Let’s read it aloud?” I say. She nods and reads it aloud, slowly, with great passion. When she finishes, she smiles. I smile. Then she opens her notebook and reports that she’s written 20 more pages this week. Would I like to hear some? I look down as I nod, feeling a tear come into my eye. How does this young woman not know that she sounds more like Sylvia Plath than Sylvia Plath? But then, did Sylvia Plath know?
The first time I meet him, he does not look at me at all. He wears a motorcycle jacket into the room, ignoring the coatrack. He is at least 10 years older than I, and he looks like he is 30. Also, he does not talk.
He smells of motor oil. His boots are thick with mud. I have the impulse to tell him about a critic who ripped my favorite poet to shreds. By some wild coincidence, he also hates this critic. He quotes him from memory with a snarl. We laugh.
Soon he is bringing a dozen pages to each meeting. Only a few of his sentences make sense to me. As a whole, they exude an expert tone. I would say that they even show his keen intelligence. But what exactly is he saying? Whom is he talking to? He tells me he is talking to “the reader.” I say that for today the reader is the person in front of him. What if that reader feels confused? He smiles.
I ask if we can go over a few lines together. He can tolerate that for about 10 minutes. Sometimes when I ask what something means, he says that it is supposed to be murky. That is deliberate. But why, I ask, should the reader keep reading, then, if the writer is trying to confuse her? He laughs. As he leaves, he mumbles, almost to himself, “That was fun.”
Most of the time, their therapists refer these talented people to me. We start wherever I can find an opening, a connection. They are almost always writers, and therefore they are, like me, in love with words. They are captivated by sounds and stories. Usually they reveal themselves to be far more gifted than I, and I struggle to keep up. They are also more troubled. They rarely say much about their troubles. This is for the therapy. We have the craft to share, and the stories. We meet once a week or every other week. Like the good teacher I’d like to be, I always assign a task for next time and recap what I think we’ve done together in the session.
Sometimes the task involves a long project, like a dissertation, that just never seems to get done. The writer is stuck. The clock is ticking. Each dissertation, like each dissertation writer, is like a vessel. Each contains a story, which usually takes weeks or even months for us to unravel fully. Few of them get through the story without using the word “perfect.” It should be perfect and therefore it cannot be at all. I tell them that dissertations need to be not perfect, and hundreds of hours will not help with the production of imperfection. I remind them of the Wallace Stevens line: “The imperfect is our paradise.”1 We read Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts”2 and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.3
I give them basic rules: No editing a first draft. Write for a maximum of one hour a day. Set a timer; after that, you can read for two hours. And then? Move. Play. Talk to a friend. Eat. Walk. Imagine your dissertation chapters. Imagine them as a finished book. Imagine it in a smaller place: on a shelf. It does not have to be your entire life. It can be written in 15 minutes a day. Read that book.4
Their demons do not come right into the room, but linger at the threshold. They belong to a graduate student whose professor told her she was a sloppy thinker. They are embodied in the bully who ripped up a teenager’s math test just after her teacher placed a red star on it. Or the mother who said her daughter might be able to win the school prize with her seventh-grade story about Rapunzel (she hadn’t started it yet). A father’s rage, a sister’s envy, a mother’s alcoholism—all there.
We sometimes talk about these ghosts when they barge right in. I encourage them to write down everything the ghosts say, and then we read it aloud. “You are a fucking asshole and you cannot write. You should be dead.” My position is that the ghost must leave.
“It is time for it to shut up,” I say. I am trying as a teacher/coach to clear a space for freer expression amid the interfering voices. My struggling author remains skeptical when I tell him to take all these notes home and burn them. He reminds me that the noise gets louder at night.
I know that progress is halting at best, but I tell them to write in the morning if they can. What am I holding for them if not a place where creativity can flourish?
When students bring a new piece of writing, we read some of it aloud. We talk shop about individual lines and their effects. We compare these lines to others by their favorite writers and poets. Sometimes we read these writers aloud. Very often they recite lines that they know by heart. Or entire poems. Impressively long passages. When they finish, they look up and smile. If I can recall it, I may finish a line or two myself. We become a chorus and laugh together looking for the right word. We are allies in quest of the right words.
I try not to say too much in this unknown territory. “We’re lucky. We get to explore your amazingly creative mind that lives on the pages.” This is not exactly psychotherapy.
My goal depends entirely on the person. Sometimes they have dared to attempt a course, and they need to write papers and hand them in. Sometimes they say they only feel good when writing, so I try to help them find a project that will last a long time. How about a girl’s version of a favorite book like The Catcher in the Rye? The world might want to read some Letters to Assholes? With others, more paralyzed, I urge taking 10 minutes a day to write. Use the timer. Find a concrete topic to explore. Write about blue. Write about duck feathers. Write about a freezer. The task is to start and keep going. Start. Keep going.5
Sometimes they are really down. They can’t connect, and they didn’t really feel like coming. “Let me read you this paragraph I found,” I may reply. “I was reminded of it when you gave me that poem last week.” Usually I try to read something that they wrote to show I have them in my mind as a writer. “I was thinking about this the other day,” I will say. “I was thinking about your writing.”
We talk about a line of a poem that I find hard to understand. What does Adrienne Rich mean when she says “We are a book of myths / in which our names / do not appear”6? We try to make sense of works that interest them. Who is Hamlet’s ghost and what does he want? Why does Sylvia Plath call her father a Nazi? What does Faulkner’s Darl mean when he says “in a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep”7? Does Alison Bechdel ever draw her mother as herself?
In my own psychoanalysis, I learned how ghosts whispered in my ear that working-class kids didn’t make good professors. They told me that I did not know how to write a new syllabus. They said my students could do better with a different teacher. They told me to eat a few more brownies to help. When I succeeded, they said I was probably just faking it; one day they’d certainly realize I wasn’t that smart. These are personal touchstones that help me with these pained people. No one can do it alone.8
We are not Emily Dickinson in a solitary dark room with a soul at “white heat.”9 We are not Tennessee Williams with a bottle in one hand and a pen in the other.
Years ago, a beloved, now-deceased colleague named Andy Morrison held a poetry group at his house. Although he did not know me well, he invited me to join. A Sunday that would have felt empty was suddenly full. I met one of my closest friends in that room where we listened to beautiful poems and talked to each other about them afterwards. When other analysts learned I was interested in literature, they invited me to their events, or they asked me what I thought of particular authors or themes. They didn’t seem to mind that I made mistakes, said stupid things, or seemed nervous or not smart. They welcomed me into their community. They believed I was already there.
It is true that for me it was helpful to start in psychoanalysis as two people in a room, five days a week. But to really get better, the dialogue needs to expand. It needs to open and open onto other settings and caring people.
Doing this work brings me great joy: not just a personally reparative pleasure but the happiness of having the opportunity to return something to other struggling authors. When I finish a session, whatever was on my mind at the start is gone. In its place is a feeling of having worked hard to make meaning with someone. As Galway Kinnell writes it, “Only that. But that.”
Whatever happens. Whatever
What is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.10
1 Stevens, W. (1977). “Parts of a World”. In The Poems of Our Climate (p. 142). H. Bloom (Ed.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
2 Lamott, A. (1994). Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (pp. 21-27). New York, NY: First Anchor Books.
3 Goldberg, N. (1992). Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
4 Bolker, J. (1998). Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis. New York, NY: Henry Holt.
5 Thanks to BPSI’s Murray Schwartz for teaching me this.
6 Rich, A. (1973). Diving into the Wreck. In Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971–1972 (pp. 22-24)
7 Faulkner, W. (1930). As I Lay Dying. New York, NY: Jonathan Cape.
8 Thanks to Lewis Kirshner and Stephanie Brody for excellent revision suggestions.
9 Emily Dickinson (1924). Untitled. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown.
DARE you see a soul at the white heat?
Then crouch within the door.
Red is the fire’s common tint;
But when the vivid ore
Has sated flame’s conditions,
Its quivering substance plays
Without a color but the light
Of unanointed blaze.
Least village boasts its blacksmith,
Whose anvil’s even din
Stands symbol for the finer forge
That soundless tugs within,
Refining these impatient ores
With hammer and with blaze,
Until the designated light
Repudiate the forge.
10 Kinnell, G. (1995). Prayer. In A New Selected Poems (p. TK). S.M. Intrator and M. Scribner (Eds.). New York, NY: HarperCollins.
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Dawn Skorczewski, PhD is an Affiliate Scholar and a member of the Silberger Committee at BPSI. She is Professor of English and the Director of University Writing at Brandeis University. Along with Murray Schwartz, she is co-editor of American Imago.
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