A few years ago, a writer friend asked if I would teach her university class on the personal essay while she was on leave. I laughed. "Thank you for the invitation," I said. "But I don't know anything about the personal essay. My writing has been novels and short stories and academic articles."
"You can do it. You're a shrink, right?"
Most writers do or have done some other line of work. Loving analogies, we like to think that the lessons we have learned in our other work are particularly apt for our writing—a wonderful coincidence! Indeed, my other work has been as a psychoanalyst, and I am as wedded to this conceit as my fellow writers whose work has been on an oil rig or studying genetic mutations in drosophila or teaching English to Japanese businessmen.
What my friend understood, which I, with my then woefully thin understanding of the genre, did not, were the natural connections, beyond analogy, beyond conceit, between psychotherapy and the personal essay. For the past century, the emblem of the journey into self-discovery has been the psychoanalyst's couch, but preceding Freud and the consultation room lies a history of personal essayists, leading back to Montaigne in the sixteenth century, who have shone unsparing light on their own thoughts, emotions and desires. Indeed, a person embarking on writing a personal essay and a person embarking on a psychotherapy share many aims: a desire to tell a story, to penetrate the surface to reach a liberating meaning beneath, to feel enlarged by experience such that the tabloid account is transformed into something poetic and mythic. The material, though, needs to be harnessed: both essayist and patient must gain sufficient control over their emotions and automatized ways of thought to step back and reflect, to not succumb to the countervailing forces lobbying for secrecy, subterfuge, the status quo.
We all yearn to learn from our lives so we do not stumble like Sisyphus up the same hill over and over but, instead, discover the art of living well. For those interested in the therapy situation or the personal essay as a means to this end, there are pages to be borrowed from one another. The personal essay can provide an artful account of earned insight often more useful than tomes of session transcripts or the bastardized synopses of years of therapeutic work. Conversely, for the writer, the therapy situation can provide a road map for the diversions into defensiveness and self-deception, the way we fight self-knowledge as we seek it.
Running a workshop for college students on the personal essay, even one with a hefty reading list and a focus on the technical aspects of writing creates a hybrid situation: neither the couch nor Montaigne alone at his desk nor students and professor around a seminar table. Unmediated by the cover of fictiveness of the poetry or fiction workshop, transferences to the instructor, relationships between students, and the group process all intensify. Add to this the sensitive nature of the stories young people are so often bursting to tell and the usual psychic turmoil of college-age students—emerging reflective capacities, risk-taking behaviors, separation from families of origin, sexual exploration, identification of career path—and a powder keg rests at the instructor's feet.
Still, I was surprised when my friend told me about occasions she'd escorted decompensating students to the university mental health services, the material that had emerged in the workshop catalyzing an emotional explosion. This was clearly not desirable. Having learned from my work with "borderline" patients with their trademark mood swings and high-intensity affect that such emergencies could be curtailed by establishing what therapists call the therapeutic frame, I decided to attempt a parallel for the workshop setting. Instead of suicide prevention contracts and agreements about honesty, session boundaries, payment, and vacation policies, the planks of the workshop frame would include a shared body of work by established authors to which we could refer in our discussions of student essays, a clear definition of each person's responsibilities in the workshop, a consensual code of conduct for giving and receiving feedback, and a rigorous emphasis on the mechanics of writing.
With this in mind, I began the class with a two-week span of reading only—a boot camp introduction to the personal essay that included classic and exemplary essays. As with the evaluation phase of a therapy, these two weeks functioned as a transitional space during which initial relationships were explored and negotiated within the context of information gathering. Once the workshop component was added, class time was divided into continued analysis of personal essays by accomplished authors and scheduled discussions of student work. We read examples of the sort of essays students were working on prior to their assignments being due, and then workshopped the students' pieces as we proceeded with the reading for the next topic. Structure, structure, structure—but like the therapy hour bounded by its start and stop time, within that structure, all material was welcome.
No matter the material—the story of the bulimic wrestler, the story of the Iranian girl whose mother kept her Koran hidden in brown wrapping paper—consider the reader was a foundational principle. "It's confusing to the reader," a student might say, "when you switch at the bottom of the second page from the past tense to the present tense." Or, "You can't assume, that your reader knows you love boys, not girls." Not until these grammatical and narrative confusions have been rectified, students came to understand, can we address the weightier issues of the readers' responses to what we are up to: that our readers will cringe, lose faith, and ultimately withdraw if we use the essay to vilify our partners, siblings, roommates—if we don't, instead, look at ourselves and what we did to make such person so enraged that he/she poured nail polish remover in our contact lens case.
In a writing workshop, students have the additional empathic task of learning how to edit one another's work, which is at heart a lesson in learning how to be helpful. To edit a classmate's work, a student must try to understand both the writer's conscious purpose and the greatest possibilities for the writer's work. A comment such as "This essay should really be about your father rather than your sister" is not a helpful editorial intervention any more than it would be for a therapist to tell a patient what career to pursue or whom to marry.
Equally difficult, young people often need to be guided on how to receive feedback: how to listen without knee-jerk defensiveness, how to observe themselves from another person's point of view, how to consider this information respectfully while ultimately taking ownership of their own work so they make their own decisions. Both the writer who decides to change the opening of the essay—to ditch the long shot for the scene—and the writer who discovers that he stands by his original opening are forced to examine their own motives and goals. They have strengthened their literary muscles and taken a position on what belongs to them.
Should therapists and patients read personal essays? Absolutely. There are dozens of excellent personal essays published each year that give readers a window into another person's discovery of an insight that unlocks a compulsive repetition or allows for a feeling of liberation. We can't witness the trajectory of someone else's psychotherapy, but with these essays, many darkly humorous, the authors show us their transformations as they withdraw their hands from the fire, as they see the absurdity of so much of the pain we create for ourselves. Conversely, should fledgling essayists and writing teachers think about the frame in the way that psychotherapists are trained to do? Absolutely. Writing a personal essay requires beating back our defenses and looking head-on at our foibles, misconceptions, foolishness and sins. Where better to understand this process than the therapy situation?
As an analyst, I would say that the personal essay is a perfect storm for personal growth. As a writer, I would say that the personal essay offers an opportunity to shape raw experience into a narrative that clarifies who we once were, who we are now, and who we hope to become. In the therapy setting, it is the responsibility of the therapist to create a frame and point the patient in a promising direction. In the workshop setting, the instructor takes this role. Ultimately, both guides, therapist and instructor, aim to grow obsolete—for narrators to tell their stories on their own.