Writing about Therapy Sessions

therapy

Writing about Therapy Sessions

What can I say? Writers, while not necessarily crazy (sorry, with mental health issues), nonetheless seem to be not infrequent users of therapy in various forms. And there is the whole write-what-you-know thing. So, sooner or later, we try to depict a therapy session.

And it almost always falls flat.

Not because you are a crummy writer but because of the nature of therapy. As those of us who have addressed our problems this way know, it is iterative, repetitive and slow process which takes a long time to get results. All things anathema to story.

So, if you try to truly reflect conversation in a session, you’re likely to get a boring, going nowhere mess which contributes little to the story.

How about speeding things up?

One option is, of course, to telescope the process in the novel. This compression in other areas is often quite justifiable to maintain the momentum of the story. So, the main character is completely open to all the suggestions made by the counsellor, integrates the learning with lightning speed, and is back on the right track in no time. She goes from mistrusting the world to complete and utter belief in the innate goodness of humanity.

First of all, sucky tale. You’ve removed all the struggles and conflict that makes a narrative hum. But more importantly for our purposes, completely unrealistic. Because we know in our own lives, with or without guidance, change doesn’t happen that way. Change is iterative, repetitive and slow.

How to avoid writing therapist scenes

Despite this, the insights that come with therapy may be pivotal to your plot. So how do you write about it without writing about it?

First, you probably need a scene establishing that your protagonist is seeing a therapist. But it might be the first session, where the main character illustrates the real reason she is embarking on this process. She thinks it’s because her family is so difficult but her defensiveness and the sharp tongued way she communicates cues the reader that there are other issues. Tricky to write, but if done well, it provides the reader with important information early on.

From there forward, the therapist might not figure prominently at all. But the main character might recall something learned in therapy which she applies to the present point in the plot. You might even be able to get away with a short—very short—scene where the protagonist comes to a significant revelation which we then see her applying it to refocusing her actions and life.

So you might be able to get the juice out of these sessions without having to do all the peeling, pitting, and dissecting which actually occurs.

If you must write about therapy

It is possible that your plot is integrally tied to depicting therapy sessions.

The only thing I have ever seen which did this effectively was an originally Israeli series, adapted to North American audience called In Treatment. In it, a therapist treated four different patients. And it works. Even though the whole series takes place inside the therapist’s office and the patients are just basically telling the therapist their stories.

So, if you must, you would do well to study why this tell-not-show approach works. If it’s the acting or direction, then you’re sunk. If it is the extremely clever writing (and I suspect it is), study how the writers made it work. Unless of course, it’s just bloody magic.

Lots of Events, No Story

events

Lots of Events, No Story

In the last post, I discussed Amor TowlesA Gentleman in Moscow which, while it had lots of events to recommend itself, a story that went somewhere seemed absent.

I want to talk about how to up the chances that your novel will have forward motion. But before I do it, I do want to repeat that a compelling plot is not the only thing which makes a novel attractive. It might be beauty of the language or brilliant capture of the nuances of a character or a time or a setting.  If this is where your novel is focused, then ignore this post.

But if you’d like to make sure that your story has forward motion, read on.

Events do not a story make

I think the idea that lots can happen in a novel but still not have a story is a tough concept. But without a plot that gives meaning to the events, the reader is left vaguely dissatisfied but doesn’t know why.

So, indulge me if I try another example, this time a good one. In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, a widow and her three daughters try to make their way in the world when her husband’s estate passes to the male heir. They move, they meet interesting new people, the older girls fall in love, etc. So, lots happen. The difference is that the novel has forward motion. We want to know what is going to happen to the family, particularly the two young women. We keep reading for that reason.

This applies to memoirs

By the by, memoir writers should take note of this concept. Memoirs are not, or should not be, just a listing of the events of your life. That’s history not memoir. Remember, a Memoir is a Lifestory, emphasis on story. You want your readers to want to keep reading so you need to build in a sense of forward action beyond the tried and true, I-was-born-I-lived-I’m-writing-this-before-I-die.

Building story in

So after harping on what a difficult concept forward action is to identify, the answer is, I think, is a lot less mystic.

You need to make sure you build in the classic plot structure. You know, rising action, climax, etc. The novel needs to build to some point that the reader cares about. Will the young women marry the right men? Will the hero overcome the monster? Who killed Cock Robin? (Sorry).

I know this seems an obvious and even disappointing answer. But I find a surprising number of writers, perhaps carried away by the fun of creating secondary characters and subplots, forget this fundamental principle. They may end up with an entertaining novel but they are less likely to create a story that readers can’t put down.

So carefully review your manuscript to make sure that you have built this forward action in. This includes establishing a goal or outcome the reader cares about but isn’t limited to that. Does the rising action keep rising at a good pace or does the story get bogged down in interesting byways and asides? Is the climax ‘justified?’ That is, has the protagonist done enough or changed enough so that the outcome is satisfying rather than out of the blue.

So think of this as good news. The fix to forward motion is very doable. A lot of work, but doable. Not unadulterated good news, I grant you.

A Gentleman in Moscow

Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow

Amor Towles’ widely acclaimed A Gentleman in Moscow was published in 2016. It is the story of a Russian aristocrat during the Russian Revolution. His sanctuary/house arrest is the luxurious Metropol Hotel where he meets a girl who shows him the inner workings of the hotel. A moody chef, among other characters, figure in his discovery.

I found I enjoyed reading the novel while reading it but when I put it down, it took me a long time to pick it up again. This happened again and again. At about page 250, I think I figured out what was causing the sporadic reading.

The novel has lots of events, but no real plot. Things happen but the novel doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

A Gentleman in Moscow has other charms

Although I enjoy a good plot, I recognize that novels can be excellent for other reasons. I can and do appreciate living in the world Amor Towles created. The Count is quite a delightful character and his insights into Life are both apt and apropos. NPR’s review of the book says:

All of the verbal excess, the gently funny mock-epic digressions, the small capers and cast of colorful characters, add up to something undeniably mannered but also undeniably pleasant.

And I agree. It is lovely to read when I am reading it.

But there is the problem that I keep putting it down and not picking it up for a long time.

Lots of events, no story

This is tough concept to get. The idea that lots can happen, but there is no real story. The closest thing I think I can get to is when you watch, willingly or otherwise, somebody else’s vacation photos. Lots of places are visited, lots of boats boarded, lots of meals consumed. But it isn’t so much a story as a litany of events.

Which is fine for holiday snaps but readers usually expect more from a novel. I am prepared for people to argue that A Gentleman in Moscow does so have a story. I might even agree with them. But fundamentally, although things happen, it doesn’t have a sense of forward motion. The sense that the protagonist is going to end up somewhere different or be someone at least slightly different.

It might be argued that it is more real life to have a protagonist who is adapting as well as he can to a difficult situation. True. But, as I have said Fiction is Not Life and how it really happened is not actually an adequate defense against the charge of no story.

Fiction has its own rules. In order to feel authentic on the page, it often requires a distortion of what usually happens in real life. And generally, fiction requires that the story goes somewhere even if we don’t necessarily expect our own lives to come to a climax which is resolved in a surprising yet satisfying way.

Well, it is possible that A Gentleman in Moscow does suddenly develop a forward motion even if there was no sign of it at page 250. I’ll let you know when I get back to it.

Next post—how to turn events into a plot.

I Can’t Write Until I Have Something Deep To Say

deep

 I Can’t Write Until I Have Something Deep To Say

I think people sometimes believe that writers must have deep and important thoughts before they start writing. Shakespeare had all the poetry in his head, just bursting to get out. Jane Austen already knew the intricacies of the social dramas she so brilliantly portrayed.

Okay, obviously I can’t check with these guys to be sure, but that’s not my experience nor that of any writer I know or have heard speak of the writing process.

Bad news: can’t do deep to order

Setting out to be ‘deep’ seems a dubious way to start.

First, and importantly, it may stop you from writing at all because you haven’t yet acquired the ‘depth’ that you think you need to write.

Secondly, and equally important, the final product is almost guaranteed to be pretty boring. Earnest and worthy, perhaps. But not good reading.

This approach ups the chances that your characters are representations of your ideas (sincerity, truthfulness, whatever) rather than living breathing entities who can be both inspiring and despicable. In short, human.

Also, novels with an a priori message are prone to long passages where they figuratively hit the reader over the head with “this is my message—get it?” Most readers don’t like being preached at from a fiction pulpit.

Good news: don’t need to

But the good news is that a message is not required before starting to write.

With my first book, I realized what the book was about only near the end of the writing that . But I didn’t have time to redo it as I was committed to a publisher’s deadline. With the second book, I built in enough time to do a redraft which allowed the threads to become clearer. I would have liked to have done another draft to refine it but again, I needed to respect the publisher’s deadline.

What I am trying to say is that whatever depth I was able to demonstrate on the page was as a result of refining, elaborating, streamlining, and sometimes chopping. It did not appear as whole cloth the first time through.

The act of writing prompts the thinking and reflection. One idea flows to another and another. The thinking and writing grows from what it feeds on. And then you rewrite and rewrite to get it right.

So when you consider a book you admire for its insights and depth, recognize that you are seeing the result of the unseen struggles of the author to make his message clearer, more nuanced, and insightful. Don’t compare what you turn out the first time with the author’s finished product. It really is apples and oranges.

You do have something worth saying but you have to work at bringing out. The depth will come with the writing, rethinking, and rewriting.

How do I do it?

Rather than starting out with the intention of writing something deep and important, start out with a situation, or a character, or a moment in time, which feels as if it has meaning for you. A terrible injustice, a generous person, the bravery of a group.

Whatever it is, write the scene which renders that feeling without using the terms I just used (i.e. terrible, generous, bravery). Show the actions of the characters which will prompt in the reader the same feeling that you had/have without naming it. Then rewrite until the message comes across in a satisfying way.

So you can do deep—you just have to work at it.

Make the Magic Look Easy

magic

Make the Magic Look Easy

I’m sure we’ve all had the experience. The speaker is not very experienced. She stumbles over the words. And mumbles. She loses her place and looks distressed. Are we taking in her message? No, we’re focused on the speaker. Worrying about and for her, identifying with her unhappy situation.

A comparable situation occurs when writing and that’s what I want to talk about.

Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

In How Fiction Works, its author James Wood discusses Gustave Flaubert’s mastery of fiction, notably in his 1857 novel, Madame Bovary. Wood points out that such was Flaubert’s dexterity that the reader only notices what Flaubert wants her to register without necessarily realizing it. This is part of the magic—the trick only works if nobody sees how it is done.

And it has to look easy. The work put into it isn’t noticed. Rather like a gymnastics star. We thrill at the ease and confidence she displays on the uneven bars. We only imagine the hard work when she fails to complete her routine successfully.

Magic sometimes isn’t that magic

As I have mentioned in other posts, I don’t know how to create writing magic on demand. But I think I know some things that are likely to increase the probability that magic will visit. And they’re not magic at all.

Master your craft. Firstly, don’t emulate the unpracticed speaker. It is essential that you do the background hard work of mastering your craft. Handling complex techniques such as unreliable narrators and weaving subplots which enhance and do not distract from your main story, need to flow effortlessly for your reader no matter how difficult you found it to pull it off.

Sweat the details.  Readers are annoyed at spelling mistakes, grammar errors, incorrectly used words, and a general lack of professionalism when it comes to the very basics of communicating, never mind trying to make magic. You can’t transport your reader to exciting realms if she’s thinking, shouldn’t that be ‘affect’ not ‘effect?’

Don’t show off. Like using complex and multi-syllabic words when plain ones will do. Remember what Winston Churchill said about that:

Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words when short are best of all.

Same thing goes for sentences. If you make your reader toil to unravel intricate and convoluted sentences, that’s where the attention will be rather than on the marvelous story you’ve created.

Naturally, and as always with writing, there are certainly exceptions to this dictum. If the intent of your writing is primarily to showcase the beauty of the language and your mastery of it, you may be okay.

Sometimes it’s worth it but otherwise it’s just showing off of the I’m-smarter-than-you variety.

Is that all there is?

I know, I know, fairly pedestrian answer. I imagine that you were hoping I had some guaranteed way to ensure magic. And easy magic to boot.

Nope. The only way I know is to work at getting good at writing. As I wrote in the Muse and the Piano Tuner, what you have to do is show up and play. And every once in a while, magic strikes.