Thursday, 28 February 2013

Wearing two hats, by Maxine Linnell

After my blog last month, Lynda Waterhouse asked me about what it’s like to be a psychotherapist and a novelist. Thanks Lynda, you made me think about it some more! 

I’ll start off with two people I’ve met who’ve been both a writer and a therapist. About 25 years ago I knew a  therapist who worked with people for a couple of years, then suddenly stopped for no obvious reason. A few months later her book of short stories was published. The linking theme of the collection was the relationship between a psychotherapist and her clients. I knew one of her clients, who was pretty sure one of the stories was about her.

A few years ago I met a well-known novelist, who was a psychotherapist for many years. As her books became well-known, she began to have problems in her therapy world. She worked hard not to use any of the people she had met in her consulting room. Her clients read her books. Some were convinced they were the basis of a character, and were angry. Some were hurt and angry that they were missing from her books! Eventually writing took over, and she no longer works  as a therapist. 

It’s a bit of a minefield, and clearly not just for me. I’ve never used the experience of someone I’ve worked with in my books, stories, plays or poems. I feel very strongly about the privilege of people sharing very private aspects of themselves with me, and would not knowingly betray their trust. So I’ve been very careful. But some of the themes and difficulties I write about have been issues for people I’ve worked with. It could be easy for someone to feel betrayed by reading my books, even if I think there’s nothing that comes from them in the stories. It feels very important not to cause harm. 

On the positive side, there’s so much I’ve learned from the people I’ve known, sometimes over years. I’ve learned to listen very deeply, to hear what people say, and what they might be saying under the surface. I wouldn’t presume to say I know, but in the job it’s important to ask, to check it out. So I’ve heard a great deal. I also know a little of how people get hurt, the strategies we find to cope, the best and the worst aspects of human beings. And how none of us is only one thing, and all of us change over time.

I think that’s helpful for writing - I like to think I trust my readers to look beneath the obvious, to be able to handle characters who aren’t just good or bad, heroes or monsters, who develop and change, often through meetings with important people in their lives. 

And there’s that tricky job for novelists, finding an authentic, consistent voice for our characters and ourselves. In Closer, Mel speaks of her experience, what she knows, what she guesses, and what she’d rather not know. Readers usually work it out long before Mel does, and have to go along with her as she discovers the truth, her reactions and feelings, and eventually finds a way through. Perhaps I’m inviting people who read my books to listen as accurately as I try to as a psychotherapist, to look beyond the words on the page.

The training and the work of a therapist also develop empathy. It’s essential to be able to imagine what other people think and feel, to walk in their shoes. There is some research to show that reading stories and novels develops empathy. Through identifying with characters in books who might have very different lives from our own, we can find compassion and understanding for real people. There have been so many times too, when as a reader I've felt a writer really 'got' something I've been feeling or experiencing - and it's helped me know what's going on. Deborah Moggach said recently ‘reading sensitises us as human beings’ - though perhaps that depends on what we read! We can recognise that people have different perspectives, different backgrounds and cultures, different needs and intentions. Writers also need empathy to be able to create believable characters whose lives readers will want to follow. The connections are clear.

Most of the time we look at people from the outside, and they seem all in one piece. I’ve learnt in my therapy work that so many people are walking miracles. They adapt, they learn, they recover, they love, even when they’ve experienced huge suffering and damage over many years. That’s something I want to pass on in my writing: the recognition of how each of us has come through something and managed the best way we can.

Maxine Linnell
Vintage and Closer, published by Five Leaves
Breaking the Rules, published by Bloomsbury
The Mayor of Casterbridge, Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the d'Urbervilles retold, published by Real Reads.
Mentoring and teaching.


Carole Anne Carr said...

Yes, voice is so important. I have been happy with my voice when writing for children. Recently began a book for grown ups but wasn't happy, I couldn't find the voice for this leap into another kind of fiction.

Penny Dolan said...

Just came back at end of day's work and re-read this post. Maxine.

I've always wondered how it worked for people who are so involved with others,too so thank you for your thoughtful descriptions.

Lynda Waterhouse said...

What an eloquent response to my question, Maxine!
I have similar struggles separating the true life stories I encounter in my teaching job with the stories I am creating as an author. This is when a fantasy setting can be useful.
It is a terrible temptation sometimes to suck up people's life stories like a vampire. I often has to ask myself - is this my story to tell?

Maxine Linnell said...

Of course it's the same with our neighbours, families and friends! Yes, there are such wonderful stories everywhere...wasn't it DHLawrence who took his characters from his local village, and ended up disliked by all of them!?