No one really talks about talking. I mean the talking that happens with a therapist. If we did, the stigma might drop away. People who are skittish with the idea might give it a try. People who have found it helpful might feel relieved to know they aren’t alone.
This week I had the honor of taking part in a panel discussion about creativity and healing as part of an ambitious endeavor by the Danforth Museum in Framingham. I’d been invited to the panel by my friend, artist Helen Meyrowitz. The challenges she faced as a caregiver for her husband during his decline due to Alzheimer’s disease inspired her recent work. The main body of that work, “Wind Beneath My Wings: Baskin Suite,” is a series of furious and poignant drawings that call on birds of prey as metaphor. I’m not a learned art critic, so I won’t go beyond saying: I love Helen’s work. The raw emotion of it vibrates with loss, anger, confusion, love.
As she talked about her beginnings as an artist, she gave credit to her “time on the couch” in psychoanalytic therapy. Helen and I have been talking for years, over dinners, about the things that feed our art. Therapy has come up before. Dream analysis. Life catastrophes. But this time, I made the connection as she said that therapy got her started. The same is true for me.
Though I like to track my writing back to a terrible ghost story I wrote in second grade, my fiction writing began many years later. I had decided to give therapy a try because there were some knots that were tangled up so tight that I could neither cut loose nor find a way to pull them apart. I found myself, not on a couch, but a comfy chair.
As Helen finished her opening comments this week and I took my turn, I told the audience that like Helen, my work began with a therapy session.
One day, I told the therapist about growing up in a family where hunting was part of life. As I described being a child witnessing a slain deer laid out on the family kitchen floor, the therapist did something he rarely did. He made a suggestion: “Why don’t you write about it?”
At the time, I was a journalist. Since therapy is an expensive commitment, I’d vowed to make use of whatever came from it. So I went home and wrote three pages. Those pages became the basis of my first novel. It’s yet to be published, but it is my favorite. The three pages began with a scene reminiscent of the times I saw my father skinning muskrats. He was a trapper as well as a hunter. The words took off and turned into a novel, full fledged fiction but growing from a seed within me.
I do believe, as Socrates said, that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
I also know that therapy saves lives. For some of us, it puts us into a place where we find our true paths. For others, it just keeps us on the path.
Opening excerpt from my novel Neelie James:
Neelie tucked her cotton flannel nightgown around her feet, poking at the worn soft material. Night dampness bit through the cloth and she shifted her bottom on the wooden step. A circle of light broke the darkness, showing ragged wet stars dotting the tufts of uneven grass. How could blood change so fast from scarlet to black-red?
photo by Art Campbell