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.