"I assumed the burden of the profession, which is to write even when you don't want to, don't much like what you are writing, and aren't writing particularly well."—Agatha Christie
ROBERTA: Jungle Red Writers and readers, do we have a special guest for you today!
Dennis Palumbo is a writer and licensed psychotherapist in private practice, specializing in creative issues. He’s the author of Writing From the Inside Out (John Wiley), as well as a new collection of mystery short stories, From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press).
Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter, his credits include the feature film My Favorite Year, for which he was nominated for a WGA Award for Best Screenplay. He was also a staff writer for the ABC-TV series Welcome Back, Kotter, and has written numerous series episodes and pilots.
His short fiction and articles have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, EMMY Magazine, and many others. His column, “The Writer’s Life,” appeared monthly for six years in Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America. Currently, he’s a contributing writer to The Lancet, Britain’s leading medical journal, and does commentary for NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
I’m especially interested in Dennis’s career path, as it’s the opposite of mine—he started out as a writer and now works as a psychotherapist. Welcome Dennis! Since we have a lot of writers who visit the blog, could you start out by talking about writers’ block? Who gets it and why, and what can we do about it?
DENNIS: What does it mean if you get writer’s block? It means you’re a writer...and that’s all it means.
Unlike most people who talk about writer’s block, I happen to think it’s good news for writers! Why? Well, let’s look at the conventional view of a block...it’s a wall, or some other kind of unpassable space or obstacle. That’s why writers feel like they’re banging their heads against it.
However, I conceptualize writer’s block differently. If you look at the biographies of writers (and other artists) you admire, you’ll notice at least four or five major “blocked” periods, in which they either didn’t work, or else their work became stale and repetitive. And then, suddenly, a new, exciting phase of work began.
Simply put, I believe writer’s block is a natural, necessary developmental stage in the growth of a writer, similar to the developmental stages we all go through as we mature. Just as a toddler stumbles and falls repeatedly before learning how to walk, I believe writers must navigate and master similar developmental “steps” if they’re to mature as writers.
For example, maybe the writer is blocked (struggling with a character, or stuck at a point in the work) because what’s coming next represents a real growth spurt in the writing (i.e., maybe the writer is trying to structure a difficult plot for the first time, or is risking writing about personal or sexual issues for the first time, etc.).
This “block” then must be navigated, worked through, so that the writer’s work can grow in craft and personal relevancy. But do I have any proof that writer’s block is good news for a writer, and is actually a necessary part of a writer’s growth in craft? I think I do.
Just ask yourself: have you ever worked through a difficult block without thinking that you were a better writer for having gone through it? Almost every writer I’ve worked with who struggled to navigate a block has stated that he or she felt they were better writers on the other side of it!
ROBERTA: How does therapy with “creative types” differ from traditional therapy? At what point would one of us know we need to see you?
DENNIS: Doing therapy with creative people is both different and the same as doing therapy with non-creative types. (How’s that for a wishy-washy answer?)
Seriously, regardless of what issue a creative person—--let’s say, a writer---comes into treatment for (say, writer’s block or procrastination or fear of rejection), we usually find that these issues are inextricably bound up in the same personal issues that hamper other parts of their lives.
So, for example, if we explore procrastination, which is often due to a fear of shameful self-exposure, we might discover how the writer felt criticized and judged as a child, so that finally finishing a piece of writing now
as an adult leaves it open to criticism and possible rejection. Invariably, in such cases, I often find that the adult writer is likewise fearful of criticism and rejection in his or her personal relationships.
What makes my practice unique, I think, is that as a writer myself, I’ve struggled with and worked through many of the same issues my writer patients with. For instance, if a writer is anxious about pitching an idea to an executive at NBC, I can relate, having done so myself hundreds of times. Because even though some of the writer’s fears may have their roots in early childhood experiences, there are also plenty of non-psychological, pragmatic reasons to be anxious about pitching to a network (or editor or agent), and I feel I can help with both aspects of his or her dilemma.
Make no mistake, writing---and every other art form---is hard. The life is uncertain, the rewards often more personal than public, the financial realities sometimes pretty bleak. As Robert Frost said, “The one thing all nations of the earth share is a fear that a member of your family will want to be an artist.”
When will you know that you need to see a therapist? When the issues you’re confronting, personal or professional, interfere with your social, familial or professional functioning. When you not only are blocked, but begin beating yourself up for being blocked. When not only are you afraid of rejection, but you begin berating yourself for having such a fear.
Remember, feelings themselves aren’t the problem---it’s what you think those feelings “mean,” what you think they “say about you” that causes real misery and paralysis. If you’re experiencing anything like the above, it might be a good idea to consider seeing a therapist.
ROBERTA: Since your Jungle Red hosts are all mystery writers, we’re dying to hear about FROM CRIME TO CRIME. Why did you turn to crime?
DENNIS: I’m afraid it’s a life-long love, which started when my parents bought me a beautiful hard-bound version of The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes when I was 12. I’ve been hooked on the genre ever since.
Actually, the very first thing I wrote that got published was a crime story, “Many A Slip,” that appeared in 1978 in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. This was even before I was a writer on TV sitcoms like Welcome Back, Kotter, and before My Favorite Year. Then, throughout my career as a screenwriter, I enjoyed mysteries and thrillers.
Then, many years later, after retiring from film and TV writing to become a licensed psychotherapist, I returned to my life of crime by writing more whodunnits for EQMM, as well as The Strand and elsewhere.
What makes my new collection of short stories, From Crime to Crime, so unique is that most of the tales feature a group of hapless amateur sleuths based on real people---a therapist (me) and three of my friends. Like the Smart Guys in the stories, my friends Mark, Bill, Fred and I met every Sunday afternoon for deli and beer, to argue and debate and rant about the issues of the day.
In the fictional Smart Guys stories in my new book, I merely grafted this truth about us and our rowdy get-togethers onto the classic “armchair mystery” format---borrowing heavily from Agatha Christie’s Tuesday Night Club and Isaac Asimov’s Black Widowers tales.
(Incidentally, it might amuse your readers to know that the real-life members of our old group have since enjoyed seeing themselves immortalized in print. The only complaint came from Mark, who felt I didn’t emphasize enough his great success with women. Poor deluded boy.)
Anyway, I’ve been gratified by the response to the Smart Guys stories, as well as the three stand-alone stories that complete the collection. Though even two of these stories also feature amateur sleuths: one, a female police psychologist whose session with a patient threatens to turn deadly; and the other, about a penniless patent clerk named Albert Einstein who gets caught up in the search for a turn-of-the-century serial killer.
Thanks for opportunity to answer your questions. I hope I’ve done a decent job. I also hope your readers will check out my new book, From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press). If they do so, I’d love to hear their comments about it.
They can contact me, or get more information about me and my work, by visiting my website, conveniently named www.dennispalumbo.com. Thanks again!
ROBERTA: And now the doctor is in, ready to take your questions....