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    Bridge Ladies Sometimes I think a meteor could strike the earth and wipe out mankind with the exception of my mother’s Bridge club — Roz, Bea, Bette, Rhoda, and Jackie — five Jewish octogenarians who continue to gather for lunch and Bridge on Mondays as they have for over fifty years. When I set out to learn about the women behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, and most of all the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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My Analyst Told Me

One of my writers once told me that she was seeing a psychiatrist who specialized in writer’s block. In hushed tones, she divulged the names of two fancy schmancy writers who were “cured.” I thought she should have head her examined, if you will.

More than a few writers have told me that they won’t go to therapy because they fear it will interfere with their creative process. This is a position I can’t understand. It may be because I’ve always felt that the “creative process” boiled down to two words: hard work. Who could mess with that?

I've always wanted to write a novel.

The big issue for me was always why I pursued my career in publishing from the moment I left graduate school until now, 25 years later. Most of my friends from my MFA program were taking jobs as waiters and bartenders to fund their writing. Some were traveling the world. I believe I was the only one who rolled on a pair of pantyhose the first Monday after graduation and showed up bright and early at Simon and Schuster. Editorial assistant Lerner, at your service!

I have some dark days when I wonder where I’d be if I put the energy I put into the authors into my own writing. But what I figured out (in therapy) is that I really thrive on my work, that the structure it provides is something I need. And that the actual work I do with writers, especially editing, gives me tremendous satisfaction. It’s a fantastic experience to commune with a writer on the page. For me, temperamentally, writing full time isn’t a good option. Did I need therapy to figure this out?

What say you? Any couch potatoes out there? Has it helped or hurt your writing?

28 Responses

  1. Your blog is a revelation to me. Until now I thought I was the only one who believed that I need my neuroses to be a writer (my thinking was that I could write or I could be normal, but not both). I’m also writing full-time now, though I’m not making full-time money at it. I’m in awe of anyone who can write, and work, and have some sort of family/social life. I find just balancing motherhood and writing very hard; both could be all consuming if I let them.

  2. You are such an entertaining writer, that I can’t think you’ve lost anything (in a creative sense) by developing a career around other people’s writing. Plus, I read The Forest for the Trees (loved it). Wouldn’t it just be a matter of choosing to write a novel for you?

  3. It’s only helped. And good luck to you, Betsy–you have done so much for writers, and i hope you indulge yourself as a writer. 🙂

  4. You are clearly a writer, Betsy, and up there with the best of them.

    I agree with Rachel, maybe if you had more time, you might tackle a novel, but even then who’s to say you wouldn’t stick with narrative nonfiction.

    Think Janet Malcolm, Joan Didion etc. They’re writers, terrific writers to my mind. I rate you with them.

    As for whether therapy helps or impedes the writing process, there are several school of thought on this one and not all agree. Among them, there are those who like me might argue that your neurosis drives your writing and without it you probably would have no desire or need to write at all.

    I’m cool with this because as far as I can see there’s not a soul alive who doesn’t suffer some sort of neurosis to varying degrees. If our neurotic tendencies drive our art, so be it. There’s worse things you can do with your time than write.

    Think of Freud. In some ways the pioneer of these notions, a terrific writer for all his foibles. Without them he too might ever have started to write and we might not have the ideas we have, at least not some of them about creativity and madness etc.

    • If Joan Didion or Janet Malcolm were dead, I believe they would be rolling over in their graves to find themselves in my company. That said, you are VERY kind. Malcolm is in my top five. I met her once at a galley show of her prints. She said, “I understand you write.” How she even knew that astonished me. And I said, “No, I just type.” WHich is what Capote said about Kerouac if I have that right. I’m such as ass.

    • Janet Malcolm wrote a great little book about psychoanalysis–“the sport of kings.”

  5. I’ve found that the only times I’ve truly broken through writing blocks are when my butt is in the chair in front of my computer… not on a bar stool or in an analyst’s couch.

    • 100% agree with you here. I’ve tried other methods, but sitting down and forcing myself to write always works. Sometimes I turn to painting and sculpting. That’s a good way for me to get the juices flowing, without feeling like I’m trying to.

  6. 20 years ago I was in therapy and my therapist suggested I write a book reguarding my childhood. I set out to do that, and sent it off to agents and authors. Got back personal letters, but all said that the book was in its raw form and needed a lot of work, or they said the market was glutted with similar books. I stopped writing books for a time, but now have dusted off that manuscript, have looked at it and realized that it did need work, needs some upbeat aspects, not the depressed meanderings I took it down. I am not now in therapy and am working on a different book, but know that this memoir is still waiting to be written.

    • I had a therapist who assigned me a “life story” writing assignment. It was fun, sitting down and manipulating the events of my childhood to this or that effect was therapeutic, but I can’t say the therapy helped beyond that. And while what I wrote was incredibly compelling to me, (like how I can entertain myself for whole quarter hours staring in the mirror) it was a writing exercise, not a manuscript.
      The question I keep coming back to is: are you neurotic because you’re a writer, or a writer because you’re neurotic? Are you depressed because you’re smart, or smart because you’re depressed? They’re all linked, but I can’t help but think that you can be smart and find happiness, and write without driving yourself and your loved ones up a wall.

  7. I’ve found my writing blocks have to do with unanswered questions in my life that had shown up unbidden in my work, and that they couldn’t resolve in the work until I came to an answer in my own life.

    I used to think my personal neuroses drove my writing, but now I see that my questions about the world around me and about my interior landscape are what drive my writing; it’s just that when I’m neurotic, the neuroses are the biggest questions I have. Resolving them clears the way for better questions to emerge.

    I’m a full-time mom and won’t have the chance to be a full-time writer for another sixteen years, but honestly, my best writing has always happened when I’ve needed to carve a place for it between job,commute, home, classes, etc. A big empty day would result in a big empty screen.

  8. I write full time. For me, it is the only way I can work efficiently.

    When I write, I get into a flow. I like to keep a pattern going with my schedule. The greater my writing hours, the better my work turns out…to a point, of course.

    As far as writer’s block, it has never been a problem for me. I read a quote somewhere once that writer’s block was “looking too far ahead” and that stayed with me for some reason. If I ever so much as pause in my writing of a scene, that comes to mind. I realize I just have to lose myself in the moment to regain my footing, so to speak.

  9. Personally, my writing is therapy enough, especially when I delve back into my past and allow my characters do to what I didn’t have the courage to do at the time. For example, rant and rave at my sister over a certain ‘elephant in the room’ situation. Yeah, the writing of that material was hard, in fact, haven’t finished the project because of the emotional baggage, but . . . there’s a sense of freedom and release to be found in writing. So, no therapist for me, just a glass of wine, a laptop, and my depraved imagination. : )

    S

  10. If depression and anxiety are getting in the way of living–including writing–then for purely practical reasons therapy is called for. And maybe some legal drugs. I know whereof I speak. Sitting in one’s study having the hamster wheel of one’s brain spinning wildly for hours at a time, while one is staring bug-eyed at the wall, is not, um, productive.

    But I think it also bears mentioning that intense therapy can also require a lot of creative energy. At one point in my life I was seeing a therapist but also–without really realizing I was doing it–doing a lot of self-analysis (in my journal, etc.). Really digging deep. It needed to be done and really bore fruit; but I’m not sure I could have been writing at the same time. (At the time I had three very small children so I knew I wouldn’t be able to write anyway.)

    For me therapy helped me deal with deep veins of guilt and self-doubt that made it impossible to trust myself. Sometimes I wonder about going back though, and resist because I don’t know what effect “extra” therapy would have on my work.

    Not to mention it’s flippin expensive.

  11. My kids are my FULL time job. At some point, writing will be too. (Soon, I hope). And I think that in order to have the perspective to write, people should be as healthy (mentally) as possible.

  12. The novel I’m writing now started out as a revenge f*** against my first therapist twenty-five years ago. I was trying to make him into a sadistic s-o-b. He ended up being a a boy raised in the Haight who now runs with coyotes. It turned into a love story.

    Logic 101 (if memory serves which it often doesn’t): therapy helps with life; writing is life; therefore A=C

  13. “I have ransacked my oldest dreams for keys and clues-and let me say at once that I reject completely the vulgar, shabby, fundamentally medieval world of Freud, with its crankish quest for sexual symbols (somewhat like searching for Baconian acrostics in Shakespeare’s works) and its bitter little embyros spying, from their natural nooks, upon the love life of their parents.”
    Nabokov—Speak Memory

    Once you accept yourself, bugs and all, you’re good to go.

  14. Years ago I did the therapy route – but it wasn’t for writing. It was to help anchor the reality of my deafness. There is nothing like a shock to the system finding yourself never able to hear again.

    But I did learn something, I was more anchored by my words, my writing than any advise I could be given. If I’m hurting or angry I channel that into a character. Same goes for enthusiasm. Books mimic life. So why shouldn’t we use life to write those books. (Hugs)Indigo

  15. I love therapy!

    I don’t think one can make a blanket statement about therapy helping or hindering the creative process but for me it has absolutely helped my writing. I am more honest. I more willing to explore the gross underbellies of things and revel in the mudpit of human emotion. On the more personal side of things, it helped me work through old issues that I invariably kept writing about. Moving on to fiction was a direct result of finally being tired of the subject matter of my childhood.

  16. If I hadn’t had therapy, I never would have been able to deal with the mishegoss in my family in order to write. The therapy got me from “I really should write about all this” to “I’m writing about all this.” At no point did it ruin any of my natural neuroses – trust me, they’re all intact.

    I’ve come to believe nothing is ever wasted – not years of therapy, not even workshops that felt like excruciating, unregulated freudian analysis. It might not have felt good when it occurred but, in some way, it shifted something inside.

  17. Visiting the couch keeps me writing. I don’t know about the other stuff.

  18. I’m more of a couch cabbage.

  19. Couch and computer no doubt work together in a synchronous way but I don’t see them as intertwined. My time on the couch is to deal with life issues in order that I am a healthy person, whatever I’m doing. If writing is part of what I need to be healthy for, then the two are connected. But I don’t do therapy in order to cure writer’s block or keep me writing.

    It does offer up some pretty rich material though.

    Betsy, you are right up there! So your writing is often done in other forms, it’s still damn damn good. Didion and Malcolm would enjoy your company.

  20. I was in Kiev, Ukraine a couple of months ago with my husband visiting family and friends. We met a Russian ballet dancer named Misha. Misha is supposedly one of the best male Russian dancers in Russia. At 28, he’s already considered “ancient” in some circles. He’s ended up as a teacher, mentor and manager for younger dancers. He said that he was unhappy because he wanted to dance and felt that mentoring these younger dancers took time away from his own dancing. He, after all, wants to be be the next Barishnikov.

    What he didn’t tell me that I intuited was that he was jealous of the younger dancers especially when they are praised. He wanted all the accolades for himself. So he had this love/hate relationship with his students.

    It struck me that you and Misha are in a similar fix. Not that I think you are as selfish and pig-headed as he is. I’ve heard you speak once and you are a warm-hearted, funny person. I’ve read Forest for the Trees and it has touched me in ways no other agent/writer has. You couldn’t have written that if you were off galavanting in Africa or Uzbekistan like your former MFA peers. You rolled your sleeves and did the daily bump and grind, learning everything about the publishing world. And, I believe, deep down, you enjoy carving a manuscript into its finished product. You are a sculptor also. Celebrate that. You are more than just an agent. You are Betsy Lerner, book sculptor extraordinaire.

  21. Therapy didn’t take away my neuroses, it just (mostly) keeps me from self-destructing around them. I guess I gravitate to people that come from dark and broken places, but every artist I know has benefitted greatly from therapy. I’ve never met one single person about whom I could say, “Yeah, he used to be great UNTIL HE WENT AND GOT THAT THERAPY.”

    And writing full-time? Totally overrated. I’ve had “a situation” for the past couple of years where I haven’t had to work and my writing has died on the vine. I was exponentially more prolific when I was squeezing writing in around an incredibly demanding and life-sucking job. Seriously.

  22. Therapy can often be good (for writers and non-writers). And when I’ve been in therapry it has always helped me make a (much-needed) transition from one genre or voice to someplace new that my writing wanted to take me. In that way, therapy is almost a manifestation of the outward changes our writing wanted us to take.

    And I vote “no” on the being a couch-potato. My best work comes when I’m busy professionally & socially.

    And btw, Betsy, your “Forest for the Trees” book was one of the most helpful books I’ve ever read. Not an overstatement to say it was a life-changer. (I actually brought photocopies of one chapter to a writer’s dinner party last year!)

  23. Betsy, you “wonder where I’d be” if you’d become a novelist instead of an editor/agent? You’ve written two amazing books! I so love reading your blog, and so admire what little I know of your career, that I’ve started thinking that maybe I should look into the other side of the field. I love words, sentences, books, and writers—I don’t need to be a writer to revel in that and to make a substantial contribution to capital-L Literature, but I think I’ve got a couple ideas that I owe a chance at literary life .

    That said, if you WANT to write a novel, I think it would be killer.

    I’ve gone through minimal therapy. But then I got bored hearing myself complain and think, well, but what am I going to DO?

    What helps me to write is to be around writers (sometimes)—it also fires up my competitive streak—and to just write. No matter how many breakthroughs you have on the couch, that’s what it ultimately boils down to. I mean, really—do I honestly expect to ever be totally well psychologically? Not bloody likely. Crazy or sane, might as well write.

  24. Betsy, I love the analogy with Capote and Kerouac. I’ve always pondered what it was to be a writer. You hold an MFA and you have work (books!) published. You have done the deed. And so selflessly, at that. You aren’t caught up in writing about your dreams or spying on your neighbors.

    When I worry about productivity and what-ifs, one thing I remind myself is that reading (or writing, for that matter, but especially the former) is never, ever a waste of time. Over the past two years I have been traveling the world and trying to figure out my artistic identity — but nothing feels better at the end of the day than sitting down and dedicating a few hours to reading a beautiful piece of prose.

    (And I admit — surely due to my self-doubt — I prefer editing to writing. In my case, it is much more worthwhile for me to help a writer who is more talented than I am develop than type away at a colorless story no one will ever read.)

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