The Editing of Life: How Writing Has Made me a Better Therapist

This week's post comes to us from friend of GFP and onetime client Kristin Louise Duncombe, a writer, psychotherapist, and the author of the memoir Trailing

Whenever I give talks about my first book, Trailing: A Memoir, at least one member of the audience will ask me how my professional background as a psychotherapist has influenced my writing. I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t at all, because of course my interest in mental health and personal development influences the way I hear and tell stories, as well as what I most enjoy reading. But if I had to make a balance sheet of how my life as a therapist has influenced my writing, I would have to change the equation to reflect how writing has affected my life as a therapist.

Writing a book and all that entails—including the discipline and the craft of creating a coherent narrative arc—has been hands down the most valuable training I have received in the art of conducting effective psychotherapy. One of my favorite authors, Hilma Wolitzer, refers to this idea, but from the patient’s perspective, in her wonderful novel The Doctor’s Daughter. The protagonist in the story is named Alice, and she edits books for a living. When a series of circumstances leads her into therapy with Dr. Andrea Stern, Alice notes:

Being in therapy . . . was something like writing a book . . . you simply made it up as you went along. And there was a plot and a theme, distinct from each other, yet entangled. I’d tell Andrea Stern my story and together we would try to figure out the theme. That would make her sort of the editor of my life. But it was such a convenient and smug correlation. Would a plumber in therapy envision his angst as just a clog of hair and shit in the pipes, something to be snaked out so that the truth could come gushing through?

I adore both of Hilma Wolitzer’s analogies, and I suspect they both hold true! But to stick with the therapist-as-editor theme, I’d like to describe the precise ways in which working on a book improved my skills as a therapist.

1.) Determining what you’re trying to say: In writing, as in therapy, this is a key question. What, exactly, is the point? A writer who rambles all over the place rarely keeps readers interested. A therapy client who babbles on, making small talk, or jumps from topic to topic also needs that “editorial” guidance. The therapist’s job is to cut through the avoidant chitchat and say, “What is the story you need to tell here? Let’s focus on finding the story line.”

2.) Creating the narrative arc and moving the story forward: A work of fiction or memoir that does not show the evolution of a character usually will not keep an audience interested. Readers seek stories that demonstrate the ability of a character to move through whatever conflict the story has set out to resolve. This is a key component of a successful therapy relationship: that the client and therapist work together to move the client from the starting point of the conflict through to some type of resolution. I do not want to oversimplify the therapy process, and the narrative arc in therapy can be long, with unexpected twists and turns. However, if week after week my client and I are going over and over the same material, as a solution-focused, behaviorally oriented practitioner, I will look at the therapeutic arc and try to understand what is blocking this “story” from advancing. As the character Alice notes in Hilma Wolitzer’s novel, there is “a plot and a theme, distinct from each other, yet entangled.” I feel that I am working successfully with someone when we are able to keep our eyes on the plot—crafting it as we go—without losing sight of the theme, which we are examining through a lens of insight and understanding. If a client is having difficulty making changes, I will ask, “Is this behavior moving your story in the direction you want?”

3.) Does this character belong in the story, or is he just an extraneous distraction? A good story will have characters with whom the reader gets involved and whose roles in the story are clear. One of the quickest ways to take a good read and make it mediocre is by inserting all sorts of unnecessary “extras.” I often ask my clients when we talk about their relationships, “Is this person good for your story? Is X, Y, or Z person that you keep referring to someone that enhances your life or someone you put up with because you don’t know how to edit them out?” In a written text, an unnecessary character will hopefully be cut out so as to improve the narrative flow. In life, it is sometimes necessary to retire relationships that don’t contribute to the well-being of your story.

4.) Finding the universal: Many of the best-loved books are so well received because of the universal nature of the story. The characters that readers will most often attach to are those they can identify with. One of the most valuable interventions a therapist can provide a client is to normalize their experience—to break the shame or stigma or sense of aloneness by helping them see the universality in what they are going through. In his book The Gift of Therapy, the renowned therapist Irvin Yalom tells a story of how, when he was a young therapist in training, one of the most valuable things his own therapist said to him in response to a story he’d told about himself was, “That’s just how we humans are.” Yalom explains how powerful it was—how normalizing—to have this person that he looked up to lump herself in with him. In so doing, she drew attention to the universality of his experience.

5.) Dealing with rejection: Any writer knows that to persevere in the game of writing, one must learn to deal with rejection. And more rejection. And if that is not enough, another heaping dose of rejection. It is impossible to please everyone—just read the reviews of any of your favorite books, the books that you loved so much you reread them three times. Invariably you will find someone who has said something absolutely scathing about that book and its idiotic author. So it is in life. Not everyone is going to like you, or love you, or think you did a great job, and you have to just learn to deal with that. My dear friend Dominic Cappello, who is a brilliant artist and animator, calls this “developing your rejection skills.” In both writing and life this is an essential task. Rejection is never easy, but the silver lining is having an opportunity to stand up, brush yourself off gracefully, and say, “I am resilient . . . and I am going to keep on trying” until that “truth,” whatever the truth may be, comes pouring out.