Why Talk Therapy Is on the Wane and Writing Workshops Are on the Rise
Published: March 23, 2012
The New York Times


A generation ago, when “Annie Hall” won the Oscar for Best Picture, talk therapy occupied a prominent place in our collective imagination, whether or not you partook. If you wanted to spend several hours a week baring your soul to a stranger who was professionally obligated to listen and react, you went into therapy. Today you join a writing workshop.

Plenty of folks still seek therapy, of course, including writers. And not all of us are damaged individuals who write to work out our neurotic conflicts. (I’m sure there are plenty of well-adjusted authors, even if I have never actually met one.) What I’m suggesting isn’t a correlation, so much as a broader cultural shift — that literary endeavor has supplanted therapy as our dominant mode of personal investigation.

The waning of psychotherapy has clear roots in the rise of psychopharmacology. Drug companies have been hard at work over the past three decades, marketing meds to troubleshoot our faulty brain chemistry. As managed care has compelled more and more psychiatrists to trade their notebooks for prescription pads, the classic image of the patient on the couch has been replaced by a man with a pill in his palm.

The ascent of creative-writing, particularly in an age dominated by the impatient pursuit of visual stimulation, might seem harder to explain. But my sense is that people remain desperate for the emotional communion provided by literature.

Consider this: Back when I started writing fiction in the early ’90s, there were a few dozen M.F.A. programs in the entire country. I had no idea the degree existed — and I was an English major from a liberal-arts college. Today, there are nearly 200 such programs, along with more than 600 other undergraduate and graduate degrees in creative writing. Thousands of people attend literary conferences and take courses at writing centers. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ annual conference, once a lowly gathering of faculty from 13 member colleges, has grown into a kind of sprawling four-day trade show that plays host to more than 10,000 writers, editors and aspirants.

Over the past few years, I’ve visited dozens of these programs and conferences. I’ve met hundreds of students and talked with them about their work. Some are young college grads hot to become the next Dave Eggers. Others are grandmas hoping to document or embellish some bit of personal history. In each case, what strikes me aren’t the particulars — age, attitude, ambitions — so much as their essential motive. What they really want isn’t fame or fortune but permission to articulate feelings that were somehow off limits within the fragile habitat of their families. They are hoping to find, by means of literary art, braver and more-forgiving versions of themselves.

I think now of the student I met last year, a beautiful, nervous young woman of Caribbean descent who had written a comic essay about the grueling ritual of straightening her hair. Despite her breezy tone, glints of despair kept showing through, particularly in those passages when it became clear that her immigrant parents enforced this humiliation.

“It sounds like there was a lot of pressure on you to be perfect,” I said.

The woman, whom I met only a few minutes earlier, began to weep in quiet convulsions.

It is at this point that I can hear the phantom convulsions of my literary comrades. “Damn it, Almond,” they’re saying. “You really are making workshops sound like therapy.” Fair enough. The official job of a workshop is to help a writer improve her prose, not her psyche. But this task almost always involves a direct engagement with her inner life, as well as a demand for greater empathy and disclosure. These goals are fundamentally therapeutic.

What’s more, the workshop is (or should be) only one small part of a larger creative process that involves reading, reflection and writing. It is this solitary work that marks the writer’s most sustained investigation of the self.

As much as we like to indulge in this fantasy, authors don’t create anything out of whole cloth. Like the patient on the analytic sofa, we fixate on particular stories and characters and themes because they speak to the fears and desires hidden within us. Our inventions inevitably take the form of veiled confessions.

J. D. Salinger didn’t write “The Catcher in the Rye” because he suffered a nervous breakdown after the death of his little brother. But he did conjure Holden Caulfield from the deepest part of himself, as a means of wrestling with his own anxieties about loss, madness, and the cruel deceptions of the adult world.

The beauty of the artistic unconscious is that it allows us to sneak up on our own intentions or to disguise them altogether. A few months before the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s life, a fan asked him to identify his central topic. As the author of 14 wildly inventive novels, Vonnegut might have cited the perils of technology or the corrosive effects of wealth or the moral tolls of war. Instead, he said this: “I write again and again about my family.”

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