Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On Dennis Palumbo

"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....


  1. Hey, Dennis, Welcome to Jungle Red! Your comments on writers' block made me think of the article ("The Eureaka Hunt" by Jonah Lehrer) in this week's "New Yorker" - it explains something I've noticed as a writer, that it's when I take a break from work, take a shower, a long drive, or when I'm lying in bed letting my mind drift that I work my way out of whatever plot-hole I've managed to dig myself into and been stuck in sometimes for weeks. Is there a way to "make" that happen or do I have to wait to get kissed by the muse?

  2. Can depression at the root of procrastination/block problems. Now, I do not mean manic episodes where someone bangs out 5 chapters in two days then crashes. I know well or have worked with several authors in various genres who have been diagnosed and are taking meds--they attribute ALL of their block problems to depression. The litmus test for them appears to be the consistency of the symptons even in thise blushing times of success or accolades from fans/critics.
    Your take?

  3. Dear Hallie,

    Thanks for your comment. However, I'm afraid I'm a bit suspicious of "inspiration"...I think waiting to "get kissed by the muse" can end up being very frustrating. In my experience, writers who work hard and consistently, regardless of how "stuck" they feel, are much more likely to be creatively available when the solution DOES present itself. So I think my answer to your question is: yes, those "Eureka!" moments DO happen, but usually against a backdrop of dilligent effort. As Louis Pasteur said, "Chance favors the prepared mind."

    Thanks again for your question.


  4. Dear Christopher,

    Very good question, one that deserves a much longer and more considered response than I can offer now. But, in a nutshell, I'd say that depression may very well be one of the strands woven into a writer's struggles with a block...yet it can be a kind of chicken-and-egg dilemma. Is the depression affecting the writer's ability to cope with and work through a block, or does the fact of being blocked itself contribute to a state of depression. As I've said before, if we give a self-invalidating MEANING to the fact of a block, or to a depression that seems to stem from such a block, we're only digging ourselves deeper into a hole of self-loathing and shame. In other words, if we start thinking things like, "If I were a real writer, I wouldn't be stuck." Or "I bet all the successful writers don't struggle like this." None of which are true, of course, but the frustration of being stuck on a piece of writing can certainly lead to this kind of negative thinking.

    Anyway, Christopher, that's the best I can offer off the top of my head.
    Thanks too for your question.



  5. Hi Dennis,

    What an interesting career path and writing history. "Welcome Back, Kotter" will forever stick in my brain as a great sitcom with such a variety of characters.

    I must check out From Crime to Crime as I struggle with writing mysteries with non-professionals.

    Anyway, I'm having a tough time keeping my question short.

    Basically, I love writing. If I don't write I feel cranky. I need to write. And I even put it on myself to 'put up or shut up', so I quit the corporate world 2+ years ago to focus on writing and yet, still, I really only crank something out when I have a paying deadline.

    I've always been like that and put all writing projects off until I know I can't put them off any more. And when I sit down to work, I write what needs to be written, and feel it's good at its core (I work well with critiques and feedback).

    I could be making so much more money if I finished projects well ahead of time, yet, I wait until I know it HAS to be done and then I do it.

    I have all the freedom in the world to craft my own schedule, yet I don't have one. Most days come together as they happen.

    Any recommendations for how I can figure out why I persist in this behavior? I love therapy and have worked with therapists and coaches over the years, so am always seeking to learn more about myself.

    Thank you for your time. :D


  6. Dear Lisa,

    Thanks for your question, and if you do pick up my new book, "From Crime to Crime" (Tallfellow Press), I hope you'll let me know what you think of it.

    Your issue about needing deadlines is a familiar one, but one that has many possible sources. I'd have to know more about you, your childhood experiences, etc., to be very specific. However, as a general rule, procrastination (stalling on a project until the last possible moment) is often a protective mechanism we use to ward off potential shameful self-exposure. Regardless of our ambition, talent and work ethic, if we fear that the final writing "product" will expose us to criticism, shame, or the confirmation of long-held negative views about who we are and how talented we are, we procrastinate. We want to delay that event as long as possible.

    Again, I'm sorry to offer such a tidy answer to a complex question, but time constraints demand brevity, I'm afraid. But I hope I've given you something to think about.

    Thanks again.


  7. Me again, Dennis. I was skimming your post again and my eye caught on the comment about how you could understand the anxiety of pitching to a network executive because you've been there. Wonder if you could describe a little what that's like? For a lot of us, it's a dream, though I can imagine being a wreck if it came true!

  8. JRW -

    You have such interesting and cool people. I really appreciate the time you take to present them here at JRW!

    Hi Dennis

    It's always great to see how a professional writer's life unfolds. For awhile I was on the fast track, but the vagaries of this industry are impressive. Arguments between principals of an agency, changes of mind or agency focus etc. etc.
    Then too there's the don't quit your daytime job aspect. So, I keep consulting as an Automtoive Crash Safety Expert. It's been gratifying, because I've saved thousands of lives. However, still have no productions or publications.

    It's pretty clear from your story what your focuses are. And, I wouldn't even consider the therapist route a detour in that it totally adds to your understanding of character and motivations, much the way my pre-med anatomy study etc. added to my autosaftey crash career and my writing. I can bring all of that to my writing as well as my zen nature!

    I do have a screenplay question. I pitched a script to the CEO at Ford about one of their own recently. He bucked it down to one of his directors of communications. Bottom line - they won't do anything on spec. They want a fully developed project brought in. They were very interested in the story, but not the development aspects. Another screen writer friend said, "Good. If they got involved it would be an infomercial anyway and I'd lose any creative control I thought I'd have."

    At this point, I have no agents I want to take this to. There is a last resort guy, but he's caused some issues in the past - so, he is last resort.

    Any thoughts about how to approach this? Actually, I have two scripts, "Dummies Don't Lie" an auto crash drama that delves into the emotional aspects of a person that "saves peoples lives" and a script titled "The American Siblings" - about a guy who meets his half sister after 40 years and how that unfolds. That's the one that I pitched to Ford. One of the things that makes this script visually interesting is opening during a high speed crash event.

    What has motivated me is that I just re-read the script after about a year and as I read, I realized I hit all the notes I wanted perfectly - plot turns, characterization etc. I read it from a detached perspective - like I was evaluating someone elses work. I really, really liked it! - as I put it down I said - this has to get produced!

    Hence my question. Some have seen this as a TV drama. I feel it could go either way with some tweaking for TV.

    Any suggestions would be welcome!!

    And, great interview. I'm so glad I drop in here regularly!!


  9. Dear Roberta,

    I remember, as a fledgling writer, that it felt like a dream come true to me, too, the first time I pitched a series idea to a network executive. And, of course, it is!

    But, like all dreams, there are often some disturbing parts...for a writer, a pitch to a studio or producer or network exec is anxiety-making for some pretty good reasons: for example, your livelihood depends on their buying your pitch, so you feel a bit like Willie Loman in "Death of a Salesman"---vulnerable to their response, hoping you get them on a good day, hoping they need what you're selling, hoping they haven't heard a similar idea just an hour before, etc.

    Also, frankly, it's hard to explain what's in your mind and heart to execs who often are terrified themselves of losing their jobs, or how poorly their last decision to buy something turned out. So not only the writer, but the exec him- or herself is filled with anxiety.

    So, bottom line, there's a lot of tension in the room!

    Take care, and thanks for asking me to participate in your blog. It's great!


  10. Dear Mike,

    Tough questions. (Boy, you guys are all so smart and articulate, I feel I have to bring my "A" game to the answers!)

    Anyway, to be honest, I wouldn't know anything about pitching to a corporation like Ford, though I suspect your creative control would be extremely limited. (Though, as every Hollywood writer knows, it's pretty limited with a studio or network, too!)
    And though it sounds like they have development money, and interest, I'm leery of doing such a significant amount of work on spec for them. On the other hand, if you write the script on spec and are pleased with the result, then at least you have a marketable spec script.

    Re agents: if you've had a bad experience with your "last resort" agent, I wouldn't go back to that well again. Better to query new agents, even though this is a pretty tough time to secure one.

    Again, these questions require more time than I can manage here, but I hope my answers offer some help.


  11. Interesting response to Roberta's question!

    One thing I hadn't thought about was the exec's immediate performance history going in to such a meeting. I've heard the 3 strikes and you're out story about book editors I've known, but never thought about it in terms of studio/TV execs!

    We're on the same page Re:New Agents. I just wanted to make sure I wasn't throwing away a good influential contact because of judgments on my part. He didn't get the job done twice after encouraging me to write things. So, thanks - that's very useful!!

    And, even though I've finished the script, sounds like I should stay away from Ford and find an agent. I won't even mention the Ford thing.

    As I said, great answers, great interview!



  12. I've always heard that writers are a crazy bunch, but that the "craziness" is necessary to the work. Would it be possible, though therapy, for a writer to become so well-adjusted that he no longer needed or wanted to write? And what happens to the talent, the ability to write?

  13. Dear XScribbler,

    Boy, I hear this one a lot...and it's a total myth. For one thing, I've learned from my own clinical experience that the issues and emotions that motivate a person to write don't come from a "crazy" or pathological place, but from the real impulse to create---to share what's in a person's mind and heart with others.
    I know that the conventional wisdom is that creativity emerges from psychological disorder, but I don't buy it.
    For example, Van Gogh had a lot of traits that we might label bipolar today...but it's also true that he was surpremely talented! I've worked with a lot of non-creative bipolars. On the other hand, Chaucer was a cheerful, well-adjusted, successful family man...and he wrote "The Cantebury Tales."

    In my clinical experience, helping writers address neurotic fears and doubts only frees them to be more creative, not less.

    Thanks for the question.


  14. Thanks, Dennis. You gave the right answer. Now, just make my family believe it!