On reading and not writing

August 30, 2016

I’d sort of given up on blogging, since life was just too hectic and I wasn’t finding time to do anything much at all. But then I found that life without blogging was not necessarily more productive than life with blogging. So I’ve decided to start again. Even if it’s just a way of checking in and saying “this is what I’m reading and not writing”. So to make it sort of easier to write, I’m doing a Q&A.

Q: What are you reading at the moment?

winnicott A: I’m reading Winnicott by Adam Phillips. I’m enjoying it but it’s definitely harder to read this on Kindle. I lose the thread and it takes days to pick it up again. I’m interested in Winnicott because he’s more hopeful than Freud or Klein. He was also one of the first clinicians to stress the primary importance of the mother-infant relationship. He says there’s no such thing as a baby, only a baby in relationship with its primary caregiver.

He stresses the importance of playing, of creativity, of holding (physical and emotional), and of transitional objects. He’s interested in aggression, in real and false selves, and in many other things as well. I just wish that I had more time to read and think.

I’m also reading “Towards an Emancipatory Psychoanalysis: Brandchaft’s Intersubjective Vision”. brandchaftIt’s long, it’s good, it’s dense. I’m reading this for our self-psychology reading group, and so it’s one chapter a month. I’m also reading this electronically since the physical copy was very expensive. Even with the pound taking a slight dip with Brexit fears, books are still outrageously expensive.

I need to find a good novel to read. Maybe a re-read. The last novel I read was “The Little Paris Bookshop” which was good but not great. I always feel a little guilty saying that. Is it me? Is it the book? A combination of the two? Seeing a Goodreads rating of below four stars also tends to make me think that it’s not just me.


Q: What are you writing at the moment, if anything?

A: I tend to write a lot of concussion reports since it’s rugby season. To be honest, I really dislike them. I write the minutes of meetings. I write off and on in my journals (both electronic and book-form).

Q: What would you like to write?

A: I would like to write some sort of memoir, but I know that that’s not possible at the moment for a number of reasons. Firstly, I could never bring myself to write about my family knowing that they might read it. And secondly, I need to work on my writing fitness.

Just today I thought that I would like to write about my mother. It’s a difficult topic but it just feels right. For a long while I thought I should write about my dad. Since he is the more well-known of the two (famous even, one might say). Sons writing about their fathers seems more logical, right? But actually the more difficult story would be the more interesting one. But I can’t write about it here. Part of me thinks that I would have nothing to say. But I know that’s not true. I also have a whole drawer full of journals which I could trawl through. *sigh* It’s complicated.

And you? What are you reading at the moment? And writing?

What I learned in my holidays

February 13, 2010

1. Betty’s Bay is good for the soul. This is the loft where I sit with my laptop and read blog-posts when I’m not gazing out at the view instead.

2. The sunsets aren’t bad either. This is just from my phone, so you can imagine how much better it is in reality.

3. You shouldn’t trim your bushy eyebrows with nail-clippers unless you’re trying for that slightly moth-eaten look.

4. Old cars need to be serviced once a year. Writing a reminder in November that I should “check for last service and schedule new one” didn’t help me in February when the car konked in.

5. Small-town mechanics can basically name their price. The expression “having you over a barrel” springs to mind.

6. If I want to get some writing done, I should be stricter about blocking off time and not getting distracted. I started working some old journal material into a story and then ran out of steam. I petered out.

7. Whoever came up with the expression “petered out” has some explaining to do. I’m sure I’m not the only Peter who objects to that phrase.

8. Being single on Valentine’s Day needn’t be so bad. I’m thinking of it as a celebration of love. Pet love, family love, friend love, book love. Romantic love can wait.

9. I should read more Alice Munro. Picked up her collection “Runaway” and was blown away. Not immediately but she has this way of working into your heart and then you wonder how you lived without her. Ok, perhaps not that dramatically. But she writes so simply and evocatively. Her short story “Runaway” has what Karen Russell (commenting on Carson McCuller’s story The Jockey on a New Yorker podcast) calls “unexploded bombs”. I would just say: read this story.

10. I tend to over-analyse things. Perhaps it’s part of my training. And I am a big fan of insight, which I now regard as necessary but insufficient for meaningful change. One of my supervisors used to say, “Just stay with the feeling”. You could probably say the same about writing. Don’t think your story too much. Feel it. Easier said than done though, right?

Shades of Blue

May 3, 2009

“I thought, if I wore the plain dark blue one you would take it as a sign that I was depressed, or rather as a sign that I was giving in to my depression, instead of fighting it. But when I put on the bright one, I thought you would take it as a sign that I’d got over my depression, but I haven’t. It seemed to me whichever tie I wore would be a kind of lie.” Alexandra smiled, and I experienced that deceptive lift of the spirits that often comes in therapy when you give a neat answer, like a clever kid in school.” — from Therapy by David Lodge

I’m starting work at a new sick bay tomorrow and despite the attendant anxieties of having to get up an hour earlier in the mornings and adjusting to new staff and new clients, I’m looking forward to the challenge. Over the last few days I’ve been finishing up my files in preparation of handing over to the new community service psychologist. Quite a lot of work that finishing up turned out to be — and a good indication of how much I have procrastinated over the past year. After a particularly trying session for example, the last thing I felt like doing was writing up my process notes. What I tended to do instead was to leave the rough notes in the file for the day when I would come and tidy everything up. Unfortunately that day arrived on Thursday and as I surveyed the pile of unfinished files (18) and the amount of time remaining in the day (four hours) I knew that I would be working over the long weekend.

I’m almost there and it’s been a good experience mostly. I’ve enjoyed revisiting my (not so) old cases. The nature of this work is that there will be many clients who come for a session or two and then not return and it’s interesting to speculate about why that is. Incidentally, I saw roughly 75 patients over the past 12 months. (I couldn’t give you the average number of sessions per client but the longest period of therapy was probably about 25 sessions.)

As I’ve been tying up loose ends, I thought I’d share a couple of short cases studies here along the lines of “shades of blue”. The title reminds me of the movie named “Three Colours Blue” but I see from a quick Google check that that movie has a different focus.

But before we get to the snapshots of depressed clients, I wanted to make a quick comment on Laurence “Tubby” Passmore, the main protagonist and narrator of David Lodge’s Therapy, whose quote is above. My clients seem to live in an entirely different world to the likes of Laurence Passmore and the main differences have to do with class and race. Wearing a tie to therapy? Does anyone actually do that? Laurence’s therapist Alexandra, whom he describes as “a rather beautiful, long-lashed female giraffe drawn by Walt Disney”, tells him that he could have dispensed with a tie altogether and he has a answer for that which is not relevant here. But I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to have patients such as this. An educated, articulate patient with not very demanding problems. Perhaps the real problems will emerge (I’m only on page 40).

My patients (on the whole) generally make for less entertaining reading but I often think that some of that heartfelt anguish could translate into powerful narratives. There’s the issue of confidentiality of course and my clients’ stories would also need a lot of work but there’s something therapeutic about the act of writing a story. For today though, I’ll just give two snapshots of two different shades of blue. If the details are scanty, you’ll have to forgive me for not referring back to the files.

Patient 1: The first-year university student

AJ* is a 19-year old male in his first year of a university degree who was referred by his mother for alcohol abuse and depression. She’s worried that he’s failing the year and that he’s drinking too much. He’s also very negative and uncooperative towards her and she’s worried that he’ll just get worse. His dad died about 7 years ago and she thinks that he misses him very much and that this is contributing to his depression.

AJ himself is one of those late adolescents who reluctantly comes along to the session because he realises he doesn’t have much of a choice. He says he’s not abusing alcohol (any more than his classmates) and that it’s true that he’s failing the year but there are problems around computer-access and assignments not handed in and things would be so much easier if his mom just bought him a car and why does he have to work part-time at the supermarket anyhow? He has some symptoms of mild depression but he doesn’t really meet the criteria and his drinking doesn’t really seem to be the issue here either. It turns out that AJ has recently started dating one of his classmates (his first girlfriend) whom he cares for very much and whom he has been dating for about three months. His mother sees the deteriorating grades together with the deteriorating attitude towards her and the increasing time spent with the girlfriend and feels resentful. Why should she, a working single parent, have to slave away for a son who is not pulling his weight? It’s a good question and in the relatively small amount of time I have with them I focus on this point. We hammer out a compromise: she’ll pay for another year’s university fees if he manages to pass (and take more responsiblity). If not, then he’ll have to pay for himself.

Ideally he should also make use of the available counselling to get himself back on track — but transport is an issue and he’s already struggling to make enough time for his studies. The mom is also not willing to come for therapy on her own, or together with him. Why should she? She’s not the one with the problem. True, I want to say, but perhaps there are unresolved issues around her husband’s death that she could explore? There are clearly issues around mother-son communication which could benefit from a neutral counsellor. I get a strong impression that the mother is feeling left out in this scenario. Her son is quite happy to use her money (and cooking and cleaning services) but he’s not her darling little boy anymore. And she’s rightly fed-up.

Patient 2: An SA story

Beauty* is a 36-year old single parent of three boys (18, 7 and 5 years). Her husband died about two years ago of AIDs and she herself is HIV-positive. She also has a poorly-paid job, financial difficulties and family problems. Her 18-year old son is involved in petty crime while her 7-year old is misbehaving at school and is not doing his homework. The doctor writes me a slightly bizarre referral in which he mentions that the patient has difficulty with aggression. He doesn’t pick up any mood symptoms (other than the aggression) but notes the overwhelming stressors. If ever the media wanted a poster-woman for an SA mother being overburdened with stress this woman would fit the bill. Where do we even start? The trauma of being HIV-positive and losing her husband? The behaviour problems of her two eldest boys? The disempowerment of not being able to provide properly for her family, not being able to drive, being stuck in a poorly-paid job? The consequences of being angry all the time?

I do what I can for her, which is to empathise with all her worries and offer regular therapy to help her to contain her emotions. Validation, problem-solving, a place for her to be understood. After a few sessions she doesn’t come back. Perhaps the shoulder to cry on is not enough. Perhaps the travelling time combined with time off work is just not worth the little tangible help that I can provide. In our last session I note her frustration with (Western) doctors who just don’t understand her and who weren’t able to help her. She says she’s going to see traditional healers instead.

Friday fessing: Baby steps

November 14, 2008

I need a writing project. Something that drives me to write, to revise, something that keeps me up at night. At the moment most of the writing I do is in the form of morning pages, blogs and case notes (in that order). But today I feel anxious and becalmed. It probably doesn’t help that I just had a row with my mom over the curtains.

You’re not doing it correctly. Why did you take the whole thing down? Your father does it in 10 minutes….

Mom, you’re not helping. They’re down now so just help me or go back to your room. (And so on for a good few minutes while I struggle with the intricacies of re-hanging heavy curtains.)

Sit down at my computer and the mower starts up. There’s no way that I’m going to get away with letting my 69-year old mother mow the lawn all by herself. I reluctantly walk down to help her. Gussie didn’t come in for her Whiskas … Can you download the emails? … You will remember to walk the dogs, won’t you?

No wonder I can’t write a thing. I don’t need a writing project. I need my own house again – or at least a bit more privacy. But for the next few months I’m stuck here. I keep reminding myself that it’s one step at a time.

Actually I already have a writing project. It may not be a very sexy one but I should go ahead and finish it. I’m bound to get more enthusiastic along the way. The goal was this: write 20 articles around the themes of Empathy and Violence. I keep getting distracted with thoughts of writing a short story, a poem, an op-ed piece for the papers.

But these never really materialise and today the anxiety and laziness are winning. I’m not ready to give in yet but I’m clearly not making progress. To help myself, I’m breaking it down into baby steps. 1. Buy an exercise book to plan this project. 2. Make room for it on my writing stand. I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before. Having things down on paper is so much more helpful than trying to keep everything on computer. I’m going to work my way through the 20 articles. They don’t need to be fantastic, publishable (at this stage) but they need to be thought-through.

I’m also going back to gym and, on a related topic, I’m finding some writing exercises to stretch my creativity as well. One that I thought of is also an exercise in empathy:

Imagine you’re gay. Describe your day from this perspective. What would be different? What would stay the same? (Maybe I should also reassure P that this is just an exercise!)

Update: This exercise makes me uncomfortable for a number of reasons, but I think the main one is that it treats the issue of identity (more specifically sexual identity) in a simplistic way. Just the instruction itself: “Imagine you’re gay” already sets up an ‘othering’ process where gayness is considered something separate and different, something that has to be imagined. Rather than edit it out, I thought it might be helpful to confess my discomfort here (but I’ll save the rest of this discussion for another post.)

Friday ‘fessing

June 28, 2008

It’s not been such a good week writing-wise. I now have roughly 10 articles to do in just over three weeks, which translates into an article every two and a half days. This in addition to my day job. Something’s gotta give – and I think it will have to be the day job. I will have to take leave since the deadlines for these articles are not negotiable. Having said that, I am enjoying writing the first one. Blocking off writing time is the difficult part – since there is always the temptation to do other things. I haven’t formulated proper writing goals for the week but the general idea is to set regular targets and be disciplined about them

There’s also the anxiety aspect. It’s quite hard to remain calm in the face of very difficult deadlines but I’m not panicking just yet. The next three weeks will be tough – so not much blogging for me (unless I hit a great patch where I’m writing, blogging and reading all at the same time.) It’s possible (but a bit unlikely).

Friday ‘Fess Up: The Writing Journal

June 13, 2008

This is my first Friday ‘Fess Up. Two (marketing) stories written and dispatched this week so not a bad week. And my editor said one of the stories I sent him was “superb” so I felt good about that for about 10 minutes before I remembered the hours that the story took to write and rewrite.

I started a writing journal in February this year to help me finish my master’s thesis and then work on the freelance marketing stories I’m doing on Belgian companies. The journal’s called “Notes on a story” and currently runs to about 7,000 words. Often my entries are just rants, only tangentially connected to the work I’m doing, but they still work as a way of unblocking the writing process. I usually start with the question, “How do I feel about this story?” and then take it from there. Here are some entries:

How do I feel about this story? Well I’m a bit intrigued by it. But mostly anxious. I’m anxious that I won’t have enough to say. That I’ll break my back and get to 500 words and then be totally written out. … There’s just so much you can write about a paper and pulp company before your eyes start to glaze over and you look for the tiniest excuse to go and do something else. …. But no. Stay here I will. I’m cold but I’m going to write for 30 mins about W. And try and balance the big picture with the details. Big and small. That’s the way to inch this baby forwards. Left brain and right brain. Plan and details.

How do I feel about this P story? Honestly not that good. I’m anxious about it – there’s a lot to balance. … It feels as if it’s all just so much effort today. I’m worried that I can’t do it anymore. The last story was a fluke. It practically wrote itself. This one is so much harder. And I’m less fired up. Given myself 60 minutes to try and put some stuff together but the urgency’s just not there. … For some reason I’m thinking about that hymn from Atonement, “Dear Lord and Father of mankind”.

I always feel nervous before every story – it’s what keeps me on the edge. Without it I’d just be rehashing old stories – plugging them in to the formula. …I want to write. I do write – and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. That’s part of the joy of writing – all the rewriting and wrestling with the text.

How do I feel about this B story? Yesterday I was depressed about it. Ugly pesticide company polluting the environment. Evil empire. Bad dressed up as good. Look how successful we are etc. But today I’m more accepting of the fact that a company can be not all bad and that it might have a lot to say for itself. And if I can do this story then it says something about my ability as a writer / journalist.

The writing journal is a bit like the morning pages in “The Artist’s Way”. Writing just has to flow without too much censorship, but the censor is always there, tut-tutting and saying, “you can’t say that”. The wrestling is as much with the censor as with the words themselves. But it helps to look at the big picture and the small picture and to keep plugging away.

I love Calvin’s take on writing 😉