Category Archives: #2022debuts

Integrating my Author and Therapist Selves

#Debut2022 #WritingCommunity

My father took my aspirations of being a novelist seriously from the start. His advice? “Get your first four chapters in, get your advance, and get to work.” Which was the way of the publishing world when he was Chief Art Director of Viking Press back in the 60’s. I don’t remember Dad ever using terms like “query letter,” “agent,” or “submission.” He certainly never mentioned “Platform.”

Today, you need a completed, polished novel and an agent to sell it in order to get an advance—which may or may not cover expenses so you can focus exclusively on revising your book. And you’re also required to have a platform, to put yourself “out there,” to maximize your social media presence. I cannot imagine what Dad—who died in 1995, before the internet dominated all our lives—would make of that last sentence, or why I need this very site.

And here’s the thing which makes expanding my online footprint daunting. I’m a psychotherapist, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker to be precise. Being discreet—not “out there”—is part of my job description. Not just regarding the lives and identities of my clients, but also my own. Not that anyone expects therapists to be total blank slates anymore. We are no longer silent, bearded men upon whom patients superimpose whatever traits their unconsciouses desire. We’re people. Google-able people. Clients read our bios, view our profiles and photographs, learn about who we are from our practice mission statements, accessing anything about us that feels relevant to their therapeutic experiences.

In the 22 years I have been practicing, I’ve found that clients want you to be real with them, open to sharing bits of your story that may increase the connection between you without making it about you. It’s a tough balance, knowing when and how much to self-disclose. Many of my Black woman clients chose me because they wanted a therapist with first-hand knowledge of racism, particularly the racial trauma that comes from being an American woman of African descent. Again, many of my clients are mothers who appreciate knowing that I’ve raised children of my own. When I self-disclose, it’s usually in the form of a brief illustrative anecdote that relates to the client’s story, though I’m always clear that their experience is unique. It also depends on the situation and the individual. Some clients feel safest when they know something about me, others prefer to know nothing of my existence outside the office.

Another factor is that I live in the town where I practice. Over the years, plenty of clients have seen me out walking my dog or herding my children around a grocery store. The notion of being spotted by clients while I was out living my “real” life used to fill me with anxiety.

My finest moment was when my son, then two, completely lawless in the manner of two-year-olds, barreled into a client of mine at a swimming pool. The client was an older male—hence not a mom—and for what it mattered, I had on a bikini. Awkward enough to run into a client while your child is acting out, dashing the fantasy I believed clients had of therapists having their shit completely together. It was another thing entirely to stand in front of a male client wearing what was essentially underwear. Cringes all around.

My supervisor at the time, a lovely older woman who had raised two children while practicing therapy in the town where she lived, said, “You’re human. They all know you have a life.” She encouraged me to raise the encounter with the client when I saw him next, which I did. We both laughed about it. He asked how old my son was and I told him. No mention was made of the bikini. It would take me years for these encounters to stop rattling me, to stop trying to present a shrink-perfect image at all times.

Being a writer means making a conscious choice to present a public version of my private self. This process actually began with a talk I had been invited to give at a synagogue about the meaning of being a Black Jew, a member of two distinct groups—one ethno-racial, the other ethno-religious. An announcement of the talk caught the attention of author, journalist and now my friend, TaRessa Stovall, who is also Black and Jewish. I credit TaRessa with coining the term “Blewish”—an identity of multitudes, including Daveed Diggs, Rain Pryor, Rebecca Walker, and Tracee Ellis Ross. TaRessa interviewed me before the talk, wrote a piece about it for our local paper. While I ultimately published the talk in Interfaith Families Online, it was TaRessa’s article which gained the most attention. Some people got confused and thought I’d written it; others read it and googled me, turning up little besides a scholarly article—the first thing I ever published—in Social Work and Healthcare, about African American Women and their exclusion from the literature on body image disturbance and eating disorders.

But there was such a difference between a social worker writing about clinical issues and a woman sharing her personal story. The former was about research, interviews and observation; the latter was just about me. My visibility surged in a way I wasn’t sure I wanted it to.

Nevertheless, I started blogging a few years later, which was the biggest breakthrough for me. I wrote about my first career as a ballet dancer, my residual relationship with ballet, my subsequently complicated relationship with my body. I wrote about my eating disorder history, my experience as a Black biracial child growing up under the umbrella of my mother’s white privilege, how it vanished when I was with my Black father. I wrote about my parents’ marriage, my father’s death and, much later, my mother’s. I wrote from my heart, uncensored, sharing my raw, unfettered emotional core. I wrote about my grandmother’s rejection of me, my evolving Black identity, my evolving Jewish identity, motherhood, Obama, dogs, Betty Grable—you name it, I wrote about it. And … it was out there on the internet for anyone to see. Including my clients, most of whom frankly don’t read it. That’s not what they need from me. Either way, it’s okay. As my supervisor said, my clients know I have a life.

Soon online journals were publishing my essays. If you read those, especially the ones in Longreads and The Common, you know exactly who I am. Again, it has to be okay. At one point I considered a pen name to separate the writing me from the therapist me. That didn’t feel right.

By now, I’m experienced enough, confident enough as a therapist to handle the duality. As a writer you don’t want to hold back. You need to be real, not stiff or sanitized. You need to dig deep and notice what you feel. Which is why writing has made me a better therapist and vice versa.

Which brings me to now. I have a novel—a work of fiction—not a work about therapy or my own life—coming out in about a year.

Without using any “material” from clients, Embers on the Wind touches upon subjects I discuss with them daily—motherhood, family, race, gender, and identity. What does it mean to love and loathe a sister at the same time? What does it mean to be underestimated, undervalued, and yet resented for one’s perceived good fortune? What does it mean to struggle when others appear to have everything handed to them? What does it mean to be a modern Black woman living with the weight of the past, of your ancestors’ hopes, fears and dreams?

And suddenly, the overlap of all my work is clear, without need for compartmentalization. I wear multiple hats, but remain the same, integrated self beneath them.

It is in this spirit that my blog is reborn as my Author Website—the tagline of which I’ve changed from “Writings on Body Image and Identity” to “Stories of Motherhood, Identity and Being.”

This is the site where I can record my honest thoughts about life, parenting, race, and politics. It’s also for general therapeutic observations which readers can take as advice or leave. And of course, it’s for my new author life, my book news. It’s all here. It’s all me.

Thank you for reading and for accompanying me on this journey.

Breaking Out of a Post-Revision Rut

(3 Easy Steps which may or may not work for you) #WritersLife #2022debuts

Recently, I received an editorial letter that was beautiful, complimentary, insightful and inspiring. I couldn’t wait to plunge back into my book, tackling my editor’s suggestions, transforming the story into everything it needs to be. I spent two full weeks furiously rewriting, revising, recreating, even hatching a brand-new romantic subplot between two characters who’d barely met in the last version. While solving some minor plot holes, I discovered that my roster of characters included two Peters, a Westly AND a Wesley. Oh! And a woman who tearfully fled a room in Harlem not two paragraphs after lighting up a cigarette in Quebec. But I fixed it all. Got it in on the due date, awash with relief. But then, once the holy-shit-I-did-it euphoria faded, I was wordless.

You’ve felt this too, right? The crash after flying on literary adrenaline? Whether it was completing your NaNoWriMo draft, a huge revision for your agent or critique group, line edits for your editor, or polishing a masterpiece in time for the last submission day of an essay contest. You hit send. Only to find yourself devoid of language, unable to write another phrase.

What if nothing comes? What if that was it? Everyone experiences wordless days, even weeks. But knowing you’re in good company doesn’t make it any less unnerving.

While I don’t claim to have anything resembling a magic formula to end writers’ block, here’s what has worked for me.

Step 1. Acknowledge the rut and find some other way to feel a sense of purpose. If it’s not your non-writing work, clean out a closet, make banana cake, volunteer to help someone with something—anything.

Purpose is the first thing that shakes me out of my rut. I am fortunate that my day job, my profession as a psychotherapist, is all about other people and what they need. When my writer-brain goes blank, I still have a shrink-brain: wholly absorbed in my clients, their strengths, their struggles, pain, and victories.

(And no—in case anyone is wondering, I have never, will never, use my therapy clients for “material” in my fiction. Those are two separate plots of turf. That is a strict rule which I will never violate. Though I do believe that my ability to think through stories and motivation enhances my work as a therapist and vice versa.

That said, if I am writing non-fiction that involves mental health or my experience as a therapist, I might write about a client—just with permission and a disguised name.)

Having a therapy practice is a gift when I’m struggling to get back into my writing. Partly it’s the sense that there are other ways I can have an impact. Partly it’s a reminder that there is a world out there much bigger than my books, a world of real live people with complicated histories, emotions, and aspirations.

Step 2. Read. Fill up on other people’s words until yours start to flow again. To jumpstart my process, it always helps to read something by someone I respect.

Have you noticed that throughout this post I keep slipping into the 2nd person? Maybe because I just read a raw and powerful essay by Deesha Philyaw about writing about love—which happened to be second person voice. (Also, if you have not yet done so, please pick up a copy of her masterful The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.) Read and keep reading.

Check out my Instagram for recent books I’ve recommended.

Step 3. Look over the last paragraph of the last thing you wrote.

Open up a document with a writing project you’ve got going—full of words you once wrote (that was you, remember?). Read over a paragraph. If it needs some work—fix it up till you like it and take it from there. If it’s good, you’ll feel re-energized, maybe enough to add another sentence. And one more. And before you know it, you’ve got your momentum back.

Full disclosure: just now, between the above sentence and this one, I took a break and read over a chapter in a WIP I’d been working on before I got my editorial letter. I read the last paragraph and was inspired to fix it up a bit, to add a few sentences and then stop in a place where I’ll be excited to pick it up tomorrow.

Alternately, open up a blank document. Stare at the blank screen for a minute and then tell yourself you’re just going to play around with some thoughts, maybe write a quick post—something about how it feels to be wordless. Because even those words count, right? Better than nothing.

And onto the blank screen, force out some of the residual words which did not make it into your revision, or which got extracted from some old version of something you wrote somewhere. Free-floating, aimless words, looking to partner with one another and make a bit of meaning. There might be just a few of them, disconnected, but words nonetheless. And when you look over the no-longer-blank screen, possibly adjust the spacing, it looks like you’ve got the start of something. Maybe.

You know, I think writing this helped. I think I’m back now.