Why therapy and writing are similar struggles

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When people speak about not being able to write, they use the term ‘writer’s block’. This makes me think of roadworks, of a low, grey concrete bollard in the brain barring expression, forcing thoughts to turn around before they have arrived. I don’t like to think about ‘writer’s block’ for too long, in case I touch it by getting close. 

Sometimes, in the week before I begin an essay, I enter a kind of trance. Phrases and sentences appear in my mind. When I open my eyes in the morning, I have a new paragraph. The unconscious does the work; the essay writes itself. Or rather, the notes write themselves. The task remains of sitting down on an empty morning and stringing them together into one piece of work.

What makes the sum of such notes greater than its parts is its voice. When I write, a single voice must shoot through the paragraphs in one motion, like a javelin. It is this voice that drives the essay to its landing, sharp and firm. Without it, the piece drifts, flimsy. 

It is this voice that fails when I cannot write. 

It disappears when something breaks my trance; when I wake up on the morning that I have set aside to write and my routine is interrupted. Some of the interruptions seem so insubstantial that they’re embarrassing to reveal. My electric toothbrush is flat so I can’t brush my teeth. A man knocks on the door to deliver my neighbour’s parcel. I check my phone by mistake, out of habit.

Once the trance is broken, it is not possible to retrieve; at least, I have not succeeded so far. I have sat down at my desk, and typed words, and tried to fight the will to give up. But I am haunted by another, better version of me, that could still be in the trance, writing confidently. It is not possible to sustain writing while feeling that what I am writing is a lesser version of what could be written. It is not possible, for me, to write while self-conscious. 

‘I know from experience (a very bad experience),’ recounted the novelist Elena Ferrante in a 1995 letter, ‘that any accident can weaken the impression of necessity in the pages I’m writing, and when that impression fades, it’s the work of months that vanishes, all I can do is wait for another opportunity’.

In therapy for an ‘eating disorder’, I was often lectured about perfectionism. It was my fault that I worried too much about writing. The battleground was inside myself; I had to armour up. A certain parent had demanded perfection, my therapist said, a demand which I had internalised, and it was up to me to reject these standards, to be more comfortable with not getting things right.

I heard this as an injunction to tolerate the imprecise, the unclear, the not-wholly-addressed. I became lazy in university essays, not expanding on points or challenging my own claims, because to push an idea to its hard edge was to align myself with the parent who had insisted on that abrasive, excessive drive.

Soon, essays became more of an ordeal than they had ever been. The therapist was ordering me not to take them so seriously, to lower my standards, to be satisfied with submitting a piece of work with which I was not pleased. This was all ‘healthy’, I learnt. But one of the few pleasures I had, and had had all through school, was teasing out novels, poems and plays, turning them over in my own words, finding out where I, and critics older, more insightful and more talented than me, could take them. University had promised to help me do this better, to expand my approach to literature. But my therapist was telling me to limit and contain myself, in the name of ‘health’. 

In such a conflict, I froze. Each fortnightly essay became frightening. It was ‘unhealthy’ to devote myself to it, throw my time into the reading, absorb myself entirely in the assignment’s demand. The tendency to do this was a symptom of my ‘eating disorder’. So I cut myself off from this drive. But I still had to turn in a piece of work, then sit in my tutor’s office for an hour discussing it. To please my therapist, I wrote poor essays. I was embarrassed to have to defend them to my tutor, but I felt that was the price of ‘recovery’. 

On account of what I understood to be ‘health’, I gave up the literary education I could have gained. I barred myself from immersion in work; I told myself to be comfortable with lower grades. 

Something had gone very wrong in therapy. 

In hindsight, it was not the pursuit of perfection that had made me worry in the first place. It was the expression which writing demanded.

People suffering have sometimes been denied a voice. Those around them are not willing or able to hear what that person really thinks or feels. To speak becomes dangerous. And when ‘the penalty for plain speaking is too great,’ writes Hilary Mantel, ‘the sufferer must seek some other way to utter. Sometimes, for a patient, only symbolic expression of distress is safe’. That symbolic distress is often called a symptom.

In the case of someone driven to write, but fearful of expressing themselves, that symptom can manifest as the blank page, the block, the broken trance.  

These days, it is only before writing essays which will contest other people’s version of events that my trance breaks. Under historic pressures to stay silent, my voice falters. Words fail. 

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Therapy involves the ‘detailed exploration and description of a person’s experience,’ writes Paul Gordon in his book The Hope of Therapy.

The Philadelphia Association, a therapeutic group to which Gordon belongs, looks to phenomenology, a branch of philosophy which ‘urges us to look closely at phenomena, at things, and to describe them as richly and finely as possible’. In this model, therapy is an expansion of language, a closer engagement with thought, not an escape from it.

After too many years seeing the ‘eating disorder’ therapist, I quit, and instead began psychoanalysis with a member of the Philadelphia Association. Suddenly, therapy became a demand for articulation, for the hard work of putting oneself into language, testing the limits of meaning. ‘Analysis doesn’t help you feel better,’ said Lacan, ‘it helps you speak better’.

For Gordon, poetry is the art form most analogous to therapy. T.S. Eliot wrote of poetry’s ‘raid on the inarticulate’, of how the poet is concerned with finding the ‘right words, or, anyhow, the least wrong words’. Precision matters; often, only intense absorption can deliver it. 

‘Just as the personal stakes are high in any serious writing, writing that really matters, so the stakes are high for many who seek therapy,’ Gordon continues. Yes, the stakes are high; writing is serious; committing oneself matters. Such statements never would have been admitted by my ‘eating disorder’ therapist. 

In The Redress of Poetry, Seamus Heaney wrote of the poet’s ‘abiding anxiety’ as he lifts a pen. To set about extinguishing the anxiety of writing is antithetical to the task itself. Poetry, Heaney claimed, resists the intellect’s ‘eagerness to foreclose’, instead fortifying ‘our inclination to credit promptings of our intuitive being’. To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, yes, the road is dark, and it’s a thin, thin line. The right words are ever hovering just ahead. But the anxious quest to find sharper language brings, to some of us, the greatest effects. 

‘The way I write when I concentrate – everything needs to be precise and correct,’ the author Jon Fosse told The New Yorker.

‘I don’t accept it if a comma is wrong…And, to follow all these rules and to listen to them, it demands much more memory and mental capacity than I believe I have as a person. But I think we are much more than we know.’

Clearly, there are instances in which the intellectual standards required of people are unsustainable and counter-productive, and a therapist might help by challenging such demands. But my ‘eating disorder’ therapist said my anxiety around writing was unhealthy, and that my desire to submit very good essays was not mine. This desire belonged to my parent, I was told, and to separate from that parent, I had to separate from the satisfaction of writing literary criticism that my tutor marked highly. The therapist was dreadfully wrong. She confused my instincts, which were already so weakened. And her labours created a block that left me more incapacitated than before.

It was not perfection that paralysed me then, nor breaks my trance now. It is the effort of expression.

Heaney’s claim that poetry offers a ‘redress’ is similar, Gordon writes, to therapy’s ‘bearing witness of the past, a refusal to allow it to be silenced’, and also ‘the sense of putting someone or something upright again’. In my stating what happened, sometimes the stakes feel too high, the exposure to attack not survivable. But in citing this, it becomes ever more urgent to put those thoughts which I fear most being heard into language. They cannot be said, have never been said, and therefore must be said. The block with which these thoughts sabotage themselves proves their need for articulation. And so the terrible breaking of the trance, after which writing becomes impossible, becomes the means by which I can move beyond it.

Because what I have called a trance might also be described as a fortification, the building up of stone-hard sentences that brazenly insist on their emergence into fierce notes throughout the week. They turn up with such ferocity because they are terrified of being knocked down. My task, perhaps, is recognising that these thoughts will survive, can sustain several weeks of waiting to be placed into an essay, no longer need immediate protection from threats to their right to exist. When my voice weakens, and with it the potential of writing, it is because these thoughts have been so used to erasure that they cannot stay in shape long enough to become paragraphs. 

That is fine. Things take time to become acceptable, I have learnt. It is not a failing. And it is not my fault. It is not because I have not fought hard enough against perfectionism (a term I cannot stand). It is because articulation is a struggle, most particularly about things that matter. But it is a struggle never to be given up.