A few posts ago I was outed by Adelina as a ‘spycho-therapist’. I don’t mind divulging it here as no-one except the people who already know me will be able to find out who I am. I wouldn’t want my clients, or even all my colleagues, to know the kind of things I write when I’m not being a therapist. However, when I mention to fellow writers or to agents that this is what I do, many of them immediately ask, “So is your novel about therapy, then?” They nearly always look surprised at my resounding “No.” Surely therapy would be a rich source of material, an intriguing way to structure a novel, wouldn’t it? Surely I must have gathered so much that’s useful from my work? Well, sort of…
There are good novels where psychotherapy is used as a device to frame the story – Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater springs to mind. There are also, of course, novels where a character’s visits to a psychotherapist are a crucial element of the plot or reveal an aspect of her/his life that couldn’t be revealed in any other way. In neither of these cases is therapy the novel’s main raison d’etre. On the other side there are novels, often written by distinguished therapists with a list of psychotherapy books behind them, where therapy is clearly the driving force. The result, I’m afraid to say, is often a book which is therapeutically worthy but doesn’t lift off the page. The writer either doesn’t know how to work on the writing itself or else isn’t interested in doing so. I recently read one of these novels, whose author had previously written a number of accessible and successful books on therapy. It had all the makings of a good novel – potentially interesting characters, a plot that worked – and there were places where the writing came completely alive, but the metamorphosis into fiction hadn’t gone far enough. There was too much explaining, not enough experiencing, and the author was too obviously manipulating the characters towards the outcome. In the preface she said she was satisfied with the book as it was; I couldn’t help thinking how much it would have benefited from some rigorous non-therapeutic feedback.
Now clearly I don’t want to write a book like that – one that shouts ‘therapist’ from every page. Nor, at the moment, do I feel particularly drawn to writing a book where therapy plays a major part. In my first attempt at a novel, written many years ago, there was a character who was a psychoanalyst – based largely on someone I had been to see. He was smug and pompous, though basically kind, and knew less than anyone else about what was going on. He also broke boundaries: some of his former patients had become his friends. (In those days, before I trained, I didn’t know there was anything wrong with that.) I didn’t show him with any of his patients, only talking like a therapist to the people around him, and the novel wasn’t about therapy – apart from saying, more or less, that it didn’t really work. My second attempt, which I started but didn’t finish, had a character who was involved in therapy groups of a more cathartic kind, which did work. Interestingly, I now find those parts of the novel less convincing than the parts that simply portray people’s lives as they live them. Despite that, my guess is that it’s probably easier to write about therapy from the client’s point of view. In the therapist’s novel I described above, the therapist is by far the least convincing character: he knows too much and has things too sorted. The same can’t be said of the clients, who by definition are in a process of discovery, but even so a kind of artificiality can creep in unless the writing is very skilful.
But aren’t most novels about a process of discovery, whether they mention therapy or not? If you think of any novel you have read recently, doesn’t at least one of the characters end up understanding more, perhaps living differently, than they did at the beginning? Even if in real life it may take a therapist to help us do that, so far I haven’t felt I would want to bring in therapy explicitly. Without it, the characters are left to bumble along and find themselves as best they can through the people and situations they meet. Which of course is how it happens in real life, whether we’re in therapy or not. The fictional therapist may provide illumination or may get in the way. They may add to the drama by doing things that therapists never (well, hardly ever) do – but I’m not sure if I would want to go down that route.
Being a therapist is huge privilege. The work is mysterious, profound and deeply moving, even if sometimes boring and gruelling too, but I wouldn’t necessarily want to put it into a novel. My own therapy has made an enormous difference to my life, but again I probably wouldn’t choose to write about it in fiction. For the moment I’d rather stick to being a therapist at the times when I am one, and for the rest of the time being a writer who may choose not to write about therapy.