My two careers developed side by side, twins with slight, but obvious differences, vying for dominance at times, but mostly living together in harmony, each one unable to imagine life without the other. I’ve been a practicing psychologist for thirty years and with the publication of Last Seen: A Dr. Pepper Hunt Mystery, on May 23, 2017, I became a novelist.
On the Myers-Briggs test of personality types, I am an INFJ which stands for Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling and Judging. While this pattern of personality characteristics makes up only 1 percent of the population, I am in good company with Agatha Christie and J. K. Rowling, both INFJs, and at home with other authors. According to an online survey, most writers score either INFJ (Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Judging) or INTJ (Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging).
As it happens INFJ is also the personality type most compatible with being a clinical psychologist. People with this pattern are strong communicators and listeners, who naturally search for meaning and feel a need to understand people and their individual motivations. Creativity, insight, empathy, goal-oriented, perfectionistic, and private, are characteristics of this type.
I was always a writer. Putting words on paper stilled the chaos in my mind. My internal process often overwhelmed me and I wondered if other people were really as untroubled as they seemed. In fiction I encountered the inner lives of characters and began to believe that everyone inhabited a world of secrets far more interesting than what showed on the surface.
My confidence as a writer grew in proportion to the feedback and encouragement I received in each new writing community I joined. In classes, workshops, and writers’ groups criticism was balanced with the encouraging, magical phrase, “keep writing.” It was what I wanted to hear. I did keep writing, but I never considered a career as a full time writer. There were the looming questions—what if I’m not good enough? What if I can’t support myself by my writing? I was the daughter of working class parents, and I couldn’t imagine life as a writer with no reliable source of income. It seemed a dilettante choice and a privilege out of my league and my life experience.
Instead I went to graduate school to become a psychologist, a profession that would allow me to learn more about the mind and human behavior, which could only improve my writing. I took my inspiration from two of my favorite poets, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. Each of them maintained full time professions, (Williams was physician and Stevens was an insurance executive), and still managed to write well and prolifically.
The process of writing my doctoral dissertation took three years and temporarily knocked out any aspirations I had for writing anything else ever again. Thirty years later it is still a shining accomplishment and a testament to my ability to stick out the hard times. Having written a novel, I can no longer say that it was the hardest thing I ever did. It prepared me for writing mystery and the demanding task of crafting creative thought into a strict form. When things got tough in the middle of writing my novel, I held onto the words of my advisor, “You sure can work”, through years of rewriting and revision.
People consult psychotherapists when the life they created produces disturbing symptoms– anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, indulgence in dangerous distractions, impulsive acts that bring regret. Psychological suffering is evidence of living in an outgrown story that hurts like walking a too-small shoe. As I listen to each narrative unfold, I wait for clarity to arise from specific details. I use the same process when I’m trying to understand a patient as I do when I’m trying to create a credible, fictional character. Creativity, insight, sensitivity, empathy are required for both endeavors.
The therapy room is full of rich and complicated stories, some of them so involved that if a reader encountered them on the page, they might think the writer’s imagination had gone too far. Every therapist has known hours filled with grief and despair, the paralysis of fear and panic, obsessions and jealousies, uncovered memories of unspeakable abuse, suicide longings, hours lost to dissociation when the pain is too great for the mind to remain in the body, trauma relived, and the everyday, enduring heartache of love and parenting. Churning human drama—the stuff of great fiction!
But nothing I hear in the consulting room will ever appear on the page. Privacy is required for treatment. No one would disclose private thoughts and feelings if they thought they would later find them published in a work of fiction. But a thing that is true about human experience is that there are no new stories. Writers know this. Wikipedia and other sources list only seven basic plots for novels.
What makes therapy so compelling for the therapist and challenging for the patient is unraveling each individual’s unique narrative within the universal experience. As a novelist I use the same skills when creating a fictional world. The plot is enhanced as characters that readers can relate to come alive to speak and act and move the stories across the narrative arc of the novel.
People often say to me, when I tell them I’m a psychologist, “you must have heard it all”. Maybe not all, but I have certainly heard a lot. And what I’ve been privileged to hear has definitely contributed to what I know of people and the world. And although the details will always remain private, I believe, the stories I’ve heard in therapy have made me a better writer.