Like most writers, I have an inner critic. Unlike most critics, mine has a name. I named her Lola many years ago when I was writing my first round of poetry for submission into an anthology. Lola would sit there, in the recesses of my brain, shouting mean things at me: “You suck at this. Why are you bothering? No one’s going to care or read it anyway!” I didn’t like Lola very much.
But eventually, as I grew more confident in my work, Lola would sit on my shoulder reminding me of simple rules: where to put an apostrophe, that towards is not a word, it’s toward, and so on. Her reminders, though annoying to someone who really could care less about syntax and punctuation, actually became helpful.
I have spent the past two weeks rewriting nearly 300 pages of a book I have the better part of three years into. Lola has been by my side every step of the way. Lately, she’s taken on a kinder voice. My editor, who also has a critic, said the best thing a writer can do is befriend their Lola. Reading that, with hours and hours of work ahead of me, I wanted to tell my editor to go hang out with her critic permanently and leave me alone!
But around 3 a.m. on day three, it happened. Drunk on lack of sleep, I realized the only way Lola and I were going to get this over with was to get through it. And we made peace. She kept her mouth shut just long enough for me to get the skeleton of what is now a much better novel out.
Now, with the first round of a content edit under my belt, I hold my breath waiting to hear how many pages of rewrite are in my future. But this time, when I hear “your book starts on page 89” from my editor, I’ll have Lola on my side. Together, she and I – now my muse – will get it done and Katherine and all her amazing clients will be better for it.
Until then? Me, Lola, our carpal tunnel: We finally sleep.
I’ve been asked why I’d chose now, where I’ve just entered the field, to write a book about therapy. My short answer is simple: Why not now? I love writing and I love therapy. Why put it off?
The long answer(s) follows:
I’ve been writing since before I had braces. Writing isn’t new to me. My first degree was in journalism and I’ve written for more newspapers and magazines than I can count. I’ve been involved in writing groups and have been writing poetry since 2003.
What is new is the therapy. I was laid off from my job as a marketing director at a mental health agency in 2010. A lifelong learner, I wanted to go back to school to get my master’s degree. I debated law and psychology – both fields I’ve been interested in for a long time. I decided to go with psychology because I wanted to help people. I was inspired by the work I'd seen clinicians do at the mental health agency. I was tired of writing pamphlets about suicide prevention and wanted to do something more to help people who were hurting. I felt like there was only so much a person could do with a pen.
Now, with a degree in marriage and family therapy, I work as a clinician. I also work as a child advocate. I spend several days a week in court (there's the law part of my interests) speaking as the voice for young children who cannot articulate their wishes or what’s best for them. I love the work I do and am very passionate about the families I serve. When I am with them, they have my full attention.
With that said, writing is therapeutic to me. In therapy school, we learned about the importance of self-care. If therapists didn’t have other interests, we’d all spend our time sitting around thinking about our clients problems and/or what a cold, cruel place the world can be. When I first started working with abused kids, I wasn’t able to sleep at night. I’d take on their troubles and have nightmares. To cope with that, I decided to pull out my dusty journals and write. It helped.
One day, I had a client tell me that I couldn’t possibly understand her problems because I was a therapist. She assumed this meant that I had all the answers and that my life and relationships were perfect. I explained to her that this was far from true and that it’s nearly impossible to do therapy on yourself. It’s definitely impossible to do it on your family! While my education often helps me to figure out why people in my life do the things they do, it certainly doesn’t have much more control (or sense) than that.
So, as I was writing in my journal, I decided it might be fun to write about a therapist and her (sometimes messy) life. That therapist would sit through sessions with clients who expected her to have the answers and do the best she could. But at the end of the day? She’d still have her own problems and issues to address. She’d find a way to juggle her clients and their problems with her own. (“It has to be doable!” I’d tell myself). I wanted to write about a therapist who found the balance I so desperately crave for myself in my own work and writing hobby. I also wanted to put the message out that that we therapists learn a lot from our clients too! Everyone has something to teach.
Katherine came about as a way to understand myself and how to balance things. But later, she evolved. She is now a way for people not in the field to understand that therapists and psychologists are people too. Writing this book has not caused me to lose focus of my work. Instead, it’s helped me in my work. By taking time out to do something that I love – writing – I’m a better therapist for it. By helping Katherine find balance, I’m teaching myself to find balance too.
“Crazy Like Me” is not a clinical text book. It’s fiction. The characters aren’t real. Katherine isn’t me. But the book is very much a realistic picture of what it’s like to be a new therapist – Katherine is newly licensed herself – and the struggles many of us face to balance our lives and work.
I don’t claim to know everything there is to know about psychology or therapy, or writing for that matter. I don’t think anyone could claim that. The human mind and human experiences are very complicated things. Each person walks their own journey, alone, through this life. We are fortunate enough to bump into quirky, inspiring, and not-so-great people along the way. They all have something to teach us and us them. For me? Those people now include both Katherine and the clients in “Crazy Like Me.”
When the content editing phase of this publishing process is complete, things will slow down for me. Line editing, I hear, is much easier than big rewrites. (Please let this be true!) I’m fortunate enough to have support as I go through this process of balancing what feeds my soul and helping others to be their best selves. Right now, it’s a pretty ugly juggling act. But I have faith that eventually I’ll have the grace of a ballerina - even with this.
I hope that answers your question…
Even a writer loses her words when she reads an email from her editor that her 246-page book starts on page 149. This statement (of fact) not only negates about 30,000 words, but also renders two follow up novels pretty much irrelevant. What’s 165,000 words deleted? No biggie. I can take it. I’m not crazy. I swear!
So here’s where I stand: Apparently, I have about 100 pages of salvageable writing and a very tight deadline. Who can’t fix an entire novel in a few weeks’ time? I’m Erin, Word Warrior! Hear me roar! …It only took me three years to write it...
Working on 37 minutes of sleep last night, I’m praying my clients will understand when I fall asleep during sessions tomorrow. I don’t think I’ve ever hoped for a busy day at work (to keep me awake) so badly in my life. And if court moves slow? Well, let’s just say I hope the judge doesn’t mind snoring in the lobby. The great news? He’s a really cool guy, and, based on his alertness during preliminary hearings, I suspect he’s writing his own novel at night. He may even pass me a pillow!
You know what else is fun? It’s fun when your 66,594 word document suddenly has a pop up that says “there are too many spelling and grammar mistakes in this document. Run a spell check later. Better yet, sign up for summer school." (Or something like that. That happened at 5:17 a.m. and was the catalyst to my "nap" before work).
Those of you from the Cafe who have asked me how I'm doing it: I cannot imagine how I’d be getting through this process without the support of people who love me. They are giving me a place to vent, offering helpful suggestions, and finding ways to make up for ways in which I’m falling short. (House cleaning is a great example of this). Most important, they are keeping me laughing.
Thankfully, I am able to use humor for what would send more serious people into an early grave. I believe in my characters and I believe in this novel. For two years, I explained to my clients that life is a marathon, not a sprint. If you know me, you know how hypocritical that is. And when I realized that, I stopped saying it. Ever the type A, I don’t do anything slow. This is great news. It means this content editing step will be finished sooner rather than later. But it also means that sleep won’t be happening. At the same time, I have to take my own crummy advice - to slow this down and not feel rushed.
My brother plays the stocks. I hope he puts something into 5 hour energy. Because I’ll be buying them out. I expect a surge on that one any time. It may be 149 days before I emerge. In the meantime, you know where I’ll be – hidden in Katherine’s world, trying to dust off the rough spots…While this feels impossible, I know in the end, that Katherine (and I) will be better for it. So, thank, you, Colleen. I won’t throw darts at your picture. I promise.
The great thing about being a therapist and a novelist is that I know a thing or two about self-care. The horrible thing about being a therapist and a novelist is that I have no idea how to make time for it. As a graduate student with two teenage boys, I would sit in class listening to professors preach about the importance of self-care. They would suggest doing things unrelated to school, reading, and learning. Basically, they felt it was important for us to rest our minds. I found it odd that they would say this on the cusp of 20-page paper assignments and 10 to 20 chapters of assigned reading.
As a therapist, I encourage my clients to participate in self-care. “What is that?” they ask. Heck if I know! Great question! I explain self-care might mean going for a walk, spending time with a loved one or pet, taking a trip to the beach, a long bubble bath, or even a nap. When I do this, one of two things happens. Either they come back the next week feeling refreshed and thanking me for the suggestion and tell me of their plans to incorporate this into their regular routine, (good luck with that) or they tell me they didn’t have time. If they could read my thoughts, they’d know that I truly “get” the not having time thing.
I have three novels, all part of the “Group Therapy” series, staring at me. They remind me of stray animals on their second week of foraging for food. Two of them are in the wrong tense. One is only a first draft. The first book is in the hands of an editor who has warned me so many times I’ve lost count that I won’t like her by the end of this process. While I’m not intimidated by this - I come from old school newsrooms where editors call you an “idiot” from across the room - I’m not dumb enough to think the editing process will be enjoyable. To me, editing is like cleaning the house. It has to be done but it’s not fun. It feels great when it is done, but is better when done by someone else.
But the whole author thing isn’t all that’s preventing me from doing something for me. Therapists spend their days listening to other people’s problems. While we are taught otherwise, we often take those problems home with us. It’s not easy to put things like child abuse in a box just because it’s 5:01 p.m. In writing “Group Therapy,” I was sure to have Katherine struggle with this same issue because it’s a big part of working in the field.
Realizing I haven’t slept more than three hours a night in three weeks, and that I’m now getting sick, I’ve decided to plan out some space for self-care. For me, that’s going to look like a daily nap. Every day, I make time for my children, my writing, my clients, my family, and my work. But the one thing I don’t seem to do well is make time for me. I write three to five hours a day. I’m a mother 24 hours a day. I’m thinking a 30-minute cat nap will be reasonable. I’d let you know how it goes, (don’t hold your breath) but I’ll be sleeping. See you in my dreams.
You want to talk about crazy? It’s looney how I could write nearly 200,000 words on the life of Katherine Murphy and her crazy clients but somehow be at a loss for words when it comes to giving the series a title. Really, Erin? It seems to me that somewhere in all those words, there should be a title that jumps right out. I think I have those words – two of them – for the second book. (Enter the sound of me knocking on wood). They leaped out at me and make me smile every time I think of them. But we aren’t there yet and getting ahead of myself isn’t going to help matters much. As I lose sleep over coming up with a new name for “Group Therapy: A Novel,” I find myself anxiously waiting for emails from my editor, Colleen, who I’m praying will have a magic wand to cure my loss for words.
I’ve been thinking about Sylvia Plath – her own kind of crazy – and “The Bell Jar.” I haven’t read it in a few years, but the way I remember it, she compared living in a mental institution to living under a bell jar. Her title was a metaphor. But at one point in the book, Ester also uses the words bell jar. She may even use the exact metaphor. I think I need Katherine to use a phrase for a strong metaphor: The big difference? I’m no Sylvia and Katherine’s no Ester.
If I can’t mimic one of my favorite authors, I have to find other ways to get a title on this thing. In my quest, I took the next logical step: I googled – thank you Internet – “ways to title a novel.” One suggestion is to go with a cliché or widely known expression with a new “spin.” Here, I’m thinking “Crazy got your Tongue?” or “Crazy is as Crazy Does.” Still not feeling it.
One thought was to use numbers or other sequences to help with a series. This could mean “Ten Types of Crazy,” with other books in the series being numbered “Eleven (Insert something Brilliant)” and “Twelve Sessions to Sane.” But I’m not really sure that’s me, or Katherine either. We both hate numbers.
Another suggestion is to bite off the titles of other books; preferably best sellers. In this case, it would be something like “Are you there, Crazy? It’s me, Katherine” or “The Crazy Person’s Guide to the Galaxy.” But I just can’t see myself doing that either. It feels like plagiarism. If there’s one thing about my writing, it’s unique.
As I take this first step in the “real world” publishing process, I’m starting to understand why Sylvia put her head in the oven. She had the metaphor and the two words but she didn’t have the Internet or the luxury of brainstorming spread sheets and an editor only an email’s reach away…
If I had to diagnose myself based on the first story I ever wrote, I’d go with narcissistic idealist, not otherwise specified; a personality disorder.
As a first grader, I wrote a book about an aardvark. Its title, a real grabber, was “Nire, the Purple Aardvark.” Always one to see the world backward, it doesn’t surprise me that I named my quirky protagonist after my own name, spelt in reverse. While I was sure Nire would make it to the best seller list, I quickly learned that the literary world can be a cold place with little room for purple aardvarks. Earning only an “honorable mention” for that book in a Young Author’s contest – something given to every kid who participated – I knew Nire and I had a long way to go.
I haven’t stopped writing since that first attempt at putting my words into print. My first teenage job was writing hometown “news” – aka lists of community events - for a free weekly newspaper. I was paid 10 cents an inch and thrilled with my bi-monthly $13 loot. The byline was priceless. Since, I’ve worked as a journalist, a marketing director, and now a therapist. I’ve written about everything from children’s books about rainbow cows and talking apples to exotica, suicide prevention literature, journal articles, memoir and poetry. When I stop and think about all the topics I’ve touched on, I realize I might want to add schizophrenia to that diagnosis.
For me, that’s what makes writing fun. Where else, but in art, can you wear such different hats so easily passed off with an “oh, well, she’s a writer?” Writing has made my world such a fuller place. For me, writing is a love affair: It’s allowed me to fall in love with hundreds of characters. Add love addict to that diagnosis.
While I’ve come a long way from my days with Nire, and apparently increased my pathologies, some things have not changed. My favorite color is still purple. I continue to write for the love of the art. I’m still attracted to writing about quirky characters. My mother, my first writing mentor and a retired English professor with a heavy red pen, is still my number one wordsmith coach.
But some things do change. As I hug my 40th birthday and brace to send my oldest son to college, I’m grateful for this exhilarating time in my life. I began writing this series as a graduate school student struggling to juggle a family, internship and fulltime clinical program. Katherine Murphy - the protagonist in this series, originally titled “Group Therapy” (I’m still awful with titles) - became not only my escape, but my friend. I do not regret the papers I pushed off until because Katherine had clients to see or a hot date with “Mr. Maybe.” Instead, I realize now that my life career choices have all lead to this one honor: to bring Katherine and her lovable clients to life. Katherine has taught me more than I could have asked for. She has taught me how to play. A character that started off autobiographical, she had the guts to take on a life of her own, and in doing so, helped me - at midlife - reclaim mine.
As a therapist who specializes in narrative therapy - the art of helping people define themselves, tell, and rewrite their own life stories - I feel privileged to tell Katherine’s. Nire will always live in Katherine’s heart the same way she lives in mine. If I had to diagnose myself now, I’d go with word addict, type A - a condition I never desire to change. There is no cure, treatment, or expectation for my recovery. Instead, my only hope is that you enjoy Katherine’s story as much as I do!
The Therapist (poetic version of a brainstorm)
by Erin Lee
Narrative, Bowenian, solution-focused
Smiles creep inside (again)
And she has no idea where they come from
Is it the voices?
Is there a cheerful one?
Shut her up.
Axis two, borderline, bipolar
She remembers (everything)
And she has no idea where it came from
Or where he went
Was it all a lie?
Is it locked somewhere inside?
Axis one, major depression, addiction
And she knows exactly how to fix it
He’d leave his children
(She’d never tell).
A couch waits
An appointment to keep
Asking her advice.
CSL, MRI, DBT, CBT
Tissues, if he cries.
“It’s not the weak who cry
But those who’ve been strong too long”
Hurting deep inside.
Knowing how to fix him
But knowing she can’t do his work for him
To the voices.