The Writing Life

When asked what kind of books you write, you try to avoid the words “self help.” Although self help books have kept many a publisher’s bottom line sound, the genre has a distinctly down-market image “If you know the secret to getting rich, thin or married and can write a simple declarative sentence, you can clean up,” your agent or your editor says, but you don’t know those secrets. What you know is that you write to make sense of your experience, to impose a narrative on your life, to understand why you are the way you are.

As a journalist, you’re used to asking people to tell you the most intimate details of their lives, and the closer their experiences are to yours, the more intrigued you are by the assignment. Your editor always wants you to interview the experts, which is interesting for a while but then you want to be one yourself, even if you don’t want to hang out your shingle and sit in a room and listen. Because that’s all you can do as a psychologist. You can’t talk about your clients, or write about them, or tell them what to do – however brilliant your insight, you must wait until it occurs to them. Or you can write a book.

. At first you’re thinking about all the narcissistic pleasures that the act of first, putting words on paper, and next, having people read them, make possible – money, attention, excitement. Then the idea seems to emanate from the ozone. It’s an atmosphere, it’s heavier than air, and it smells like it’s going to rain or it just did. You listen and read and watch and notice and pay attention without even realizing you’re doing it. You hear people talking about it on the cross-town bus, or while you’re in the dentist’s chair or wishing you’d brought a newspaper to read while you wait for your oil to get changed. Someone says “Did I tell you about my friend who…?”and suddenly it seems as though everyone has a friend who. A man you sit next to on an airplane tells you how it happened to him, and then a woman you meet in line at the grocery store says it happened to her, too, and then the women are talking about it in the sauna at the gym, and suddenly it’s there, and you can’t stop thinking about it, and then it bubbles up from where it’s been lurking in your unconscious and you realize, the book is the answer to a problem you don’t know you have, or thought you’d already solved. And once you know that, you’re ready.

You’re ready for you to ask whoever wants to talk about it to tell you how it felt when it happened to them – when they were single again after the sexual revolution, when they were successful in a time when not many women were, when their grown kids were failing to thrive. You’re ready to listen to them tell you how they fixed it or forgot it or lived through it or got over it or prayed on it or gave up on it. You’re ready to sift through their stories until you find the truth. Not their truth, but your truth. That’s when it stops being a problem and starts becoming a book. That’s when you find the voice, the one that says, I’ve been there, too, I know these people, I am these people, this is how they dealt with it, this is how you can.

Getting the truth – that’s the art. All the rest is craft.

By janeellen

Jane Adams PHD Social Psychologist