November 2016 – Family Legacies

Catherine Baker-Pitts

Catherine Baker-Pitts

The work of the New Directions program is, on one level, to engage participants in explorations of psychoanalytic perspectives on life, culture, relationships, clinical practice and writing. On another level, for many of us New Directions provides a community of friendship and support, a thoughtful and creative space to in which to explore who we are and who we might be, individually and in relation to others. Coming just a week after the presidential election, the November 2016 New Directions weekend, Family Legacies, was one that I and others experienced as particularly poignant. For many of us, the election gave rise to feelings of shock, anger, despair and fear as well as soul-searching about how it happened, what it might mean, and what might happen next. Coming together for the weekend with others who shared an intensity of response was comforting, but also provided the opportunity to consider the forms of our responses moving forward.

Serendipitously, the topic and the speakers for our weekend created a powerful platform for discussing feelings about and implications of the election and the future of our nation. Organized by Dr. Catherine Baker-Pitts, the weekend focused on the trans-generational transmission of trauma, shame, and secrecy, as well as resilience and hope. As Baker-Pitts said in her introduction,

This weekend conference really isn’t only about our family relationships but our social home and our communal legacy, so apropos this weekend. …We’re in the midst of a collective trauma, a commentary on all of us and our agency as an electorate. Our identity as a country is in tatters, a horror show of not-me parts embodied in the hated other. We are facing misogyny, racism and xenophobia, cowardly states in the looking glass of our country. The lynching of black men, now in its modern form of mass incarceration — it is a racial trauma, one woven into our national legacy. …The writers this weekend have each given voice to disowned traumas of slavery, of immigration, of war. These stories filled with despair and resiliency need to be told.

img_4626While it is usual in this blog that I focus on the talks given by the speakers – and the talks this weekend were exceptional – it seemed more fitting this time to focus on the conversations that took place after the talks, the interactions the speakers had with the audience of New Directions participants. Each conference talk is scheduled for 90 minutes, and speakers are instructed to limit their talks to 28 minutes, leaving us with an hour for discussion. As a group, this weekend we considered on-going expressions of racism and the historical legacy of slavery, income inequality and the alienation of America’s working class, immigration, and misogyny, along with discussions of our own feelings of anger, fear and shame.

41ga8h8u6hl-_sx367_bo1204203200_In Freud and the Non-European, the Palestinian post-colonial theorist Edward Said (2003) argued that Freud’s original project was anti-racist, a struggle to remove “degeneracy” from discourses of race and blood (and 51hzmugevvl-_ac_us200_particularly Jewish blood) and to say that each human struggles with good and evil. In Freud’s Free Clinics, Elizabeth Danto documents the free psychoanalytic clinics opened between 1920 and 1938 in Vienna, Berlin, and eight other cities to serve working class and poor patients. However, as Lew Aron and Karen Starr document in A Psychotherapy for the People,  psychoanalysis has existed in a complicated social and historical context in which its progressive mandate has often been sid61xmscvndcl-_ac_us200_elined and its relevancy for addressing racial, gender, sexual and social class divides is often lost. This weekend, it was a relief to many that we were able, as a group, to have candid discussions of our nation’s wounds and woundings. It was equally a relief to be with a thoughtful and caring group that was struggling together with questions about how to move forward, sharing the img_4571conviction that we each need to find ways to actively work on building and defending the society we wish for.

Our first conversation took place with Marita Golden, author of numerous books exploring the complexities of African American lives. Golden told to us that “racial wounds begin at home” and described how, through her writing, she became reconciled to her parents’ limitations in their historical context. Here, Golden describes the societal crisis that shaped her life journey, “that I came into this world, this society, a black baby born in 1950, a black girl… My crisis was how to be in society that really only had place for me in the margins.” For Golden, her life has been an on-going “inquiry about who I want to be and can be… I’ve spent my life using my writing to discover who the hell I am.”

In our conversation with Golden following her presentation, our talk turned to how to think and write with compassion for those in our lives who we cannot come to see as heroic.

51idsm4kvzl-_ac_us200_Audience member: You brought up Hillbilly Elegy and it made me think about the difficulty of writing memoir when your people are not the heroic people, when your people are those other people and the difficulty of doing that with compassion and with care and with finding a transcendence …of being able to learn out of that and that’s a challenge. …I identified [with J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy] and he does talk about being the one that got away. And you love those people and they love you and they would do anything for you but they are those people too. And you have to find a way to not separate yourself from them as you are separate from them.

51uygkcko3l-_sx321_bo1204203200_Golden: One of my favorite memoirs, and I think this guy does it beautifully, is Rick Bragg’s All Over but the Shoutin’. And I think he beautifully writes about having gotten out by the skin of his teeth and being what he calls a poor white, okay, and being called that by other whites and then the whole racial thing and he writes with such compassion about that. And I think the harder something is, the the more necessary it is.

img_4587Audience member: Simultaneously, we just have been talking about continued people’s empathy with and connection to the people we came from, but simultaneously, we are swimming in the society and the culture in the present day. History is like a river and the source is of the river hundreds of years ago… …And we are all swimming in this river of history, so simultaneously we are trying to maintain compassion and objectivity and reaching out to one another while we are also swimming against currents where it seems like… the legacy of historic trauma accumulated and accrued is projected onto, let’s say, color, and people unconsciously and consciously can’t resist… symbolically it has a kind of grip on us…. My question is, in writing, can we simultaneously while speaking in the present about maintaining empathy with the people we’ve escaped or the people we are reaching out to, also encompass the historical perspectives?


img_4600Golden: Oh yes, and that’s one of the things that happens in a really powerful narrative. For example, in Bragg’s book, there is a beautiful section where he talks about his father going off to fight the war in Korea. And his father was just basically this poor white boy who had never been on an airplane until he went off to war, who never had been out of his state until he went off to war. And so what he does is he uses his father’s life as a metaphor for sociological and economic big issues that had kept his father marginalized as a poor white in the South until he was needed for cannon fodder. And so what a good narrative can do and does do is bring that big picture in by making it micro.

Sue Grand

Sue Grand

The conversation with Golden set a tone for grappling with the difficulties and necessities to speak compassionately yet with authority across difference. The difficulties of talking across difference were present in the talk given by psychoanalyst Sue Grand, whose published work explores the link between traumatic and multigenerational memory and the perpetuation of violence, othering and evil. Grand drew from her paper about her own analysis with an African American psychoanalyst to, in part, describe some of the complexities of working through conscious and unconscious racism. Addressing the fear of our love or desire for connection across racial divides as potentially destructive, Grand said,

I lost my grandmother, I wanted to attach to my therapist but the racial complexities were full of things like who was going to abandon who, how am I going to lose the person, how is hatred going to come in and destroy this, and the whole issue in our culture that if you are black you can’t have a white mother, if you are white you can’t have a black mother. You can’t belong to that person, really. There is such a profound splitting that we internalize that is all threaded through an experience like that.

In response, an audience member described her struggle with shame and fear about the destructiveness of whiteness:

img_4628-1Audience member: I was thinking as you were speaking about that fear of doing damage and how present that has been in the last few days [since the election]. My son is multiracial and he has said to me things about how hard it is to even look at white people, which I assume includes his mother, in the last few days. He says that walking across campus, he finds it difficult to even look at people because he doesn’t know who is going to look at him like “Screw you. I got you.” And the shame and hatred that he feels. And some of it in relation to my students or him or whoever, people I meet on the elevator or the Metro, I become filled with fear and anxiety that my very presence [as a white person] is doing harm, is hurting them in some way. There’s a way in which I imagine, like in talking with my son, that I can take a kind of therapeutic stance, like “I can take that, you can give it to me, I can take it, I can hold it.” But there’s a way that takes a distance [from our own racism] as well because one of the things I heard you say is, in the dream you were talking about, there was some unconscious identification with racism, and that’s the part that I find disheartening, and I don’t want to take a distance from that part.

img_4636Grand: I just want to say that one of the things that is important to communicate from this paper is that [my analyst] gave me the opportunity to communicate that I could have a destructive part in a loving and lovable personality, and to make reparation. The biggest quandary when we experience our own destructiveness is if you feel that there is no way to make reparation for that part and if there is no way to be received in your basic loving goodness, if you are only that [destructive] part, then we’re going to be more terrified and uncomfortable about recognizing that part and recognizing that somebody could see that part of us. This is very important and its going to be very important now.

Members of the audience described other feelings of destructiveness following the election.

img_4591-1Audience Member: This whole week I find myself trying to find smidgens of grace in my heart for people who …don’t see things as I do and I keep finding myself thinking about reconciliation fatigue and I think that can go back generations too, whether it is within the most intimate situations within families or across cultural lines. …I have to work – simply out of fatigue for the whole thing– to have a little understanding and grace in my heart for people who act the way they do; some of them go as far as to rewrite history, like the holocaust never happened and slavery wasn’t so bad. …I’d like to have some discussion about how we might understand the fatigue of trying to reconcile all these complexities over the generations and what we might do. In those moments it is very easy to call others “the other”.

Grand: One of the things we are called upon for now for is that we must have a clear line in the sand about hatred, about persecution, about protecting people. This is, for me, non-negotiable. How do you do that without just hating the people that voted this way? Certainly, I have trouble because even if I don’t think that these voters were all motivated by misogyny and racism, they certainly were willing to overlook it, like it was okay. I have people in my life who voted Trump, good people who I’ve known forever. What do I do? I’m struggling.  Part of me just wants to go find people who voted for Hillary or not, and okay. But I can’t live like that. That’s just another kind of alienation. That’s not going to work. So what do I do with actual people in my life? Do I ignore it? Do I say something? How do I work with this? So we’re going to be challenged, because we can’t just live in our own bubbles and that’s not a good idea anyway.

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Stephen O’Connor

512wov0wa6l-_sx328_bo1204203200_This question of how to move forward is one we continued to discuss with author Stephen O’Connor, whose book Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemmings imaginatively explores how Jefferson could be so profoundly committed to democratic ideals in his public philosophy while rationalizing his own slaveholding and coercive, non-consensual relationship with Hemmings. O’Connor’s talk highlighted how easily we deceive ourselves about who we are, and he extended this worry to responses to the election and how easy it could be to let the momentum generated for the left at this political moment slip away. O’Connor described his considerations about where to put his efforts following the election and his conviction that it is essential that we keep talking to others across the hateful divides that seem more and more to be taking over the country. On the question of where to find hope, Marita Golden offered a powerful conclusion to the discussion with O’Connor:

goldenAs an activist myself, as I witnessed and thought about everything that happened I thought, “Okay, let me channel my inner Fredrick Douglas. Let me channel my inner Ida B. Wells.” And when I think about them as lifelong activists who are living at a time when black people were lynched, black people were enslaved,  facing all the ebb and flow, rights given, rights rescinded. Woodrow Wilson comes in the office and he put up curtains in government office buildings to separate black and white people. So African-Americans, we have a long history of dealing with Trumps in various guises. I think that this is a really important moment, a moment where those of us who claim moral authority will be tested.  I think that out of this, we can do some amazing, amazing things, as long as we don’t get distracted and keep channeling our inner Ida, our inner Frederick Douglass, because there’s so much work to be done. It’s like a sculpture; you have to burn it up before the beautiful thing is made. And I really think that Trump, if we play this thing right, he’s going to take us so deep, we can be beautiful on the other side of this.

51dvbeymnl-_ac_us200_Throughout the weekend, I reflected on the thought that the shock of the election was the shock of being faced with the harsh fact that the wishes and hopes that represent our best selves can so easily be rejected. I thought about Sylvan Tompkins’ definition of shame as rejected love or the thwarting of our good intentions and of Franz Fanon’s 1952 writing in “The Fact of Blackness” in Black Skins/White Masks: “I shouted a greeting to the world and the world slashed away my joy. I was told to go back to where I belonged (pp. 114-15).” The sense of shock and surprise is surely greater among those of us who are used to the privilege of being able to imagine that the world more or less supports us in our basic being; it is a fresh wound. For others of us who have experienced ourselves as regularly marginalized, this election once again gives rise to fear and anger, but of the sort that is an old wound that is opened again and again.

Our time together at New Directions gave us an opportunity to talk and offer consolation across the commitments and concerns we share, without ignoring differences. It allowed us to think about the considerable contributions that writing makes to our “continuing journey to be human,” as Golden said, but also allowed us to collectively support one another in what else might be needed moving forward. I was both comforted and energized to be with this remarkable group of intelligent, articulate, reflective and compassionate people during our November weekend.  I am grateful to Catherine Baker-Pitts for bringing this weekend to us and to the speakers who so generously shared their minds and hearts with us.

 

February New Directions Weekend: Friendship

Elissa Vinnik

For this post, I’m pleased to introduce my new blogging collaborator, Elissa Vinnik. Elissa began attending the summer writing retreat two years ago and this year joined the New Directions community for our weekend program. 

Elissa is a proud public school 11th grade English teacher who lives in Brooklyn, NY and writes poems and pursues activism when she’s not busy learning from her students or giving feedback on their their work. She’s a member of the New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCORE) and she can often be found talking, thinking, or reading about how to make public education more anti-racist, feminist, and queer; making art, reading books; and what to eat or cook next.  

I’m very happy that Elissa agreed to work with me on the New Directions blog; what follows is her first post. I am sure you’ll be as impressed with Elissa’s reflections on our most recent weekend as I am.  – Gail

On Friendship and Radical Imagination: Reflections on Towing a Cow by a String

– by Elissa Vinnick

Weeks after Donald J. Trump assumed the position as the 45th president of the United States, analysts, therapists, and others gathered at New Directions to consider the role of friendships in our lives. In a weekend organized fittingly by a pair of friends, Anne Adelman and Christie Platt, participants heard from Steve Tuber, Ph.D. about the friendship and play; Lisa Gornick, clincal psychologist and writer about how examinations of friendship in therapy and fiction offers opportunities for change an growth; storyteller Judith Stone about the surprising friendship that was born only moments after an analysis was terminated; and Erica S. Perl, a former attorney turned children’s and young adult novelist about friendship in children’s literature.

I watched, listened and learned as these speakers made observations, constructed narratives, and distilled with precision the roles friendships have played in the undercurrents and shifting tides of their lives. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that I was particularly drawn to the children’s author, Erica Perl, given my daily proximity to young people in my work as a teacher.

Ida and Dotty, Illustrator Julia Denos, Publisher Harry Abrams

Perl described the messages she hopes her characters convey to her young and young adult readers. In her book Dotty, an elementary school aged Ida brings Dotty, an imaginary polka dotted cow, to school by way of a blue string that she carries in her fist. Initially, the other children have strings and imagined creatures of their own; however, when they give up their menagerie of creatures and discard their strings, they tease Ida for holding onto Dotty.

Erica Perl

It is the reader’s job, Perl noted, to assign words like “imaginary,” “bullying” or “teasing” to the narrative; they never appear in Perl’s work. Her readers, she asserts, make meaning through images and dialogue without the aid of such signature words. Not only are young people attuned to her characters’ emotions, but when asked how the character Ida feels in the moments when she is teased, Perl describes how her young readers identify five or six emotions: frustrated, sad, lonely, embarrassed, hurt and angry. Children, she reminds us in her talk, have the ability to make as much meaning from the absent words as they do from those presented, and they have the capacity to identify multiple emotions at once. We underestimate younger people’s ability to tap into the nuances in moments of tension, loss, or joy.

I wonder if we adults overestimate our abilities to assess our own varied emotional landscapes and see what lies in the negative space even as we know this is the ongoing task of the adult, the teacher, the writer, the friend, the analyst, or any combination thereof. Just hours after learning from Perl and Dotty, New Directions participants presented their own work at the Saturday evening Open Mic. Like the children working to make sense of Ida’s teasing, many who read at Open Mic were trying to make sense of their rock-filled emotional landscape during these political times, the dogged hilarity and triumph of a group of analyst writers in search of the impossible: a port-a-pottie at the Women’s March on Washington; the memory of a years ago date who casually dropped the word “pussy” prompted by the wearer’s very own pink pussy hat; the passionate disgust shouted in silence on behalf of a Muslim family being searched at an airport; and the excruciating and gruesome specificity of a nurse’s notes taken years ago when abortion wasn’t legal and the writer’s patient had tried to perform her own. The writing was powerful and emotions ran high for many of us. True to its strength and spirit, the New Directions community provided  a collective for announcing, exploring, and holding of the anger, joy, fear, sadness, hope, despair and many other feelings these political times have set in motion.

There were the graduates from New Directions, too, who shared with deep senses of gratitude, joy, and triumph in their reflections about their New Directions experiences. After reading an article than had been deemed too political, one graduate told her audience with awe what “a help [it was] to read what other people were writing about what it’s like to be working and thinking in a time when everything is against thinking.” I watched a writer admit at the microphone her own hesitation to name herself as such and then continue only to describe the process of launching a journal in which her own essay is featured beside poems and essays written by people she “never would have thought were writers.” She told the audience,

I realized that this is New Directions. This capacity that I’ve…developed here to have confidence to feel… The competence to write something myself… To really be able to express what is really important to me now and bring other people into that.

Another graduate told the audience,

Little did I know I would find a type of family here with warm supportive analytic writers who would gently and boldly help me discover, develop and understand my own inner home as a writer. With each weekend, I found myself looking forward to it with excitement and dread…

There was the staying power and juxtaposition: the joy and the dread, just like the aforementioned hesitance and competence, and earlier in the evening, the humor and the darkness, the beauty in the seeing of the pain. It reminded me of the children Perl described naming so many conflicting or complementary emotions.  When asked about bringing Dotty to life on the page, Perl said:

I wanted to write or say what I wanted to hear as a child. You don’t need to outgrow your imagination. It can be a friend to you. It can be a friend to you just like a teacher can be a friend to you or an imaginary friend can be a teacher to you.

Perhaps this is the radical imagination we need in these times to be worthy friends to one another: to see in ourselves and our friends imaginary bespeckled Dottys so that we might nurture the identities and inner homes we don’t yet inhabit. This carrying of our imaginations with a mixture of “excitement and dread” can be our balm, our refusal to outgrow what we might become or create if we are willing to let ourselves be buoyed by the same confidence and pride with which Ida tows her Dotty.

May 2016, The Winnicotts: Writing and Speaking Plainly

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Joel Kanter opens the weekend

The May 2016 New Directions weekend was entitled The Winnicotts: Writing and Speaking Plainly. Organized by Joel Kanter, the weekend involved considerations of the work of both Donald Winnicott and Clare Britton Winnicott. Kanter, a clinical social worker, is on the faculty of the Institute for Clinical Social Work in Chicago, and is the author (among other works) of Face to Face with Children: The Life and Work of Clare Winnicott. In his opening comments, Kanter described the focus of the weekend as including a reflection on the willingness of both Donald and Clare to work, learn and communicate within and also beyond the clinic and the psychoanalytic world. Their involvement in social services and interactions with the public through Donald’s BBC talks to parents, their on-going work with caregivers and their influence on public policy, instantiated what Kanter described as a commitment “to create dialogue among psychoanalysis, the helping professions and the general public.” He noted that their work was not only written but was also spoken to a variety of audiences, leading to an understanding that communicating effectively with an audience involves writing plainly, in a voice that evocatively conveys one’s thoughts.

IMG_4178The weekend featured three speakers in addition to Kanter. Lesley Caldwell is a trustee of the Winnicott Trust and the co-editor, along with Angela Joyce, of Reading Winnicott and with Helen Taylor Robinson, of the forthcoming 12-volume The Collected Works of Donald Winnicott. A training analyst for the London Child and Adolescent programs, Caldwell is also an Honorary Professor in the Psychoanalysis Unit at University College London. Anne Karpf is a columnist for the Guardian, a writer (most recently of How to Age) and a sociologist. She is Reader in Professional Writing and Cultural Inquiry at London Metropolitan University. Her research on Winnicott’s BBC radio broadcasts to parents was presented in a 2014 BBC4 program, From Donald Winnicott to the Naughty Step. Jim Anderson is Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University, a faculty member at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, and Editor of the Annual of Psychoanalysis.  In his writing, he specializes in psychological biography and has published papers on the lives of William and Henry James, Woodrow Wilson, Edith Wharton, Sigmund Freud, D. W. Winnicott, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Leslie, ND (1)

Leslie Caldwell

Lesley Caldwell provided the first talk for the weekend. She began by introducing Winnicott as making a psychoanalytically informed approach available to a much wider audience.  She described one strength of his writing as its function as a kind of initial communication with himself and then as a reaching out to others. This notion of writing to learn what it is that we think provides an counterpoint to those who imagine the writer as knowing what is to be said in advance. Caldwell reviewed some of Winnicott’s core beliefs about the interrelation between caregiving and therapeutic work: that the therapeutic space is a re-presentation of holding in caretaker’s arms and is a shared space; that the continuing presence of therapist is guarantor how an ordinary location — the consulting room — becomes an affective, psychic location wherein whatever is brought finds a place; and that the therapeutic space is shaped by the psychoanalytic conventions of hospitality – consistency and continuity — and structured by the regularities time, reliability, payment and potentiality. Caldwell described Winnicott’s understanding of the creation of the professional setting of trust as expanding and exceeding definitions of interpretation and asking the question, “What is therapeutic about communication?”

IMG_4174Caldwell then moved us into a consideration of Winnicott’s communication with children in the consultations he did. She walked us through a consultation with a young boy and Winnicott’s use of the squiggle game.  (For those who would like to read accounts of Winnicott’s consultations, his Therapeutic Consultations in Child Psychiatry provides seventeen examples of his first, fruitful interviews with children.) In particular, Caldwell pointed to Winnicott’s restraint in the case example, his understanding of the limits of therapeutic zeal and his maintenance of silence as he and the boy worked out the pace of their exchange. She argued that in his work, Winnicott quotedemonstrated that the desire, form and purpose of communication changes as the status of the object changes for the patient. Acknowledging that silence can be significant communication, she pointed to Winnicott’s skill at asking what the silence may mean for each patient in each meeting, acknowledging that being known and recognized may not always be appreciated. Caldwell suggested that the same questions are significant in the decisions we make as writers.

Anne Karpf

Anne Karpf

Anne Karpf spoke with us about Winnicott’s more than 50 scripted talks and discussions on BBC from 1943 – 1962. Aimed at mothers and other child caretakers, Winnicott laid out in plain, accessible and relatable language the fundamentals of his theories – that the baby is a person from start and has to have a good enough relationship with a caregiver who can be loved, hated and depended upon. Winnicott, like many of his peers in the years during and after the war, was deeply concerned about the the origin of compliant and even fascistic states of mind (for more on this concern, see my 2010 chapter with Paula Salvio, Who let the dogs out?  Unleashing an uncanny sense of audience in the writing workshop, in Michael O’Loughlin’s, Imagining children otherwise: Theoretical and critical perspectives on childhood subjectivity). Karp stated that Winnicott’s talk reflected his concern that mothers might lose touch with their own ability to act if they are dependent upon books or experts but also shouldn’t be working blind when things go wrong. In his broadcasts, Winnicott worked to create the kind of space he hoped for in the clinic, a space of non-impingement in which the audience’s development of understanding could take place at its own pace. This was, he hoped, a space that engendered not compliance but thinking. Karpf likewise described Winnicott’s two producers, Janet Quigley and Isa Benzie, as “formative midwifes in subject matter and approach,” especially making sure Winnicott did not use specialized psychoanalytic language and did not make listeners feel inadequate or guilty (for more, see Karpf’s 2014 article, “Constructing and Addressing the ‘Ordinary Devoted Mother.’”

IMG_0138Karpf noted that while these talks formed the basis for Winnicott’s best-seller, The Child, the Family and the Outside World, as well as Talking to Parents and Winnicott on the Childfew people attend to the fact that these books started as broadcasts. Echoing Kanter’s observation about the connection between writing and speaking, Karpf stated that Winnicott regarded writing that would be broadcast to an audience then revised for formal publication as developed through single process, each part feeding and shaping the other in a way that makes Winnicott’s writing so engaging and readerly. Karpf closed by asking why psychoanalysis does not have a public voice akin to Winnicott’s today to counter the quick fix culture of contemporary psychotherapy.

Kantor (1)

Joel Kanter

Our third talk was provided by Joel Kanter, who focused on the collaboration between Clare Britton Winnicott and Donald Winnicott. Attending especially to Clare’s efforts as a social worker with evacuated children living in group settings during World War II, Kanter explained that after the war, Clare was put in charge of child social work training at the London School of Economics, eventually being honored by the Order of the British Empire. Claire began psychoanalytic training at age fifty, had an analytic practice for the last ten years of her life, and established The Winnicott Trust following Donald’s death. Kanter played audio recordings from his interviews with Clare in which she described her moving efforts to maintain connections between some of the children and their parents.

ww2_children_rescued_with_toys

From: http://www.bbc.co.uk

Kanter also discussed Clare’s efforts to help her staff, who worked with the children unable to be placed in homes due to a variety of problems, to work without fear in response to the many difficult situations they faced. In addition to the numerous deprivations caused by the war, many of the children presented behavioral challenges, including running away, stealing, fighting and starting fires. Consistent with Donald’s broadcast message to parents, Clare described Donald, who consulted weekly with Clare and her staff, as helping them to trust their instincts and to survive the many crises and challenges they faced.

As Kanter notes in his book, Clare was not much inclined to gain the limelight through writing and publication. Her ideas and experiences were influential and evident in Donald’s post-war publications, in concepts such as the transitional object, which Clare called “the first treasured possession” after observing the attachment of evacuated children to stuffed animals, scraps of fabric, photos and toys and then realizing that children use objects in the world in the same way that they used their primary caregiver. Clare’s influence was also clear, Kanter told us, in an increase in confidence and a heightened personal voice that resulted from their personal and intellectual collaboration.

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Jim Anderson

Jim Anderson provided the final talk of the weekend. Anderson’s work on Winnicott began in the 1980s, when he received a fellowship from National Endowment for the Humanities that allowed him to spend 6 weeks in London interviewing everyone he could find who had known Winnicott. This research led to a 2003 article entitled “Recent Psychoanalytic Theorists and Their Relevance to Psychobiography: Winnicott, Kernberg, and Kohut.”  Anderson provided us a psychobiographical sketch of Winnicott and particularly his concept of the true and false self. Describing Winnicott’s disappointments in his own analysis, Anderson suggested that it has often been the case that when great psychoanalytic innovators didn’t get what they needed in their own analyses, they went on to create a way those needs could be provided for in analysis with their own patients.

RudnystskyIn his 1993 book on Literary Uses of Winnicott, Peter Rudnytsky writes that Winnicott and those in the Independent Object Relations School were the first to offer “a satisfactory psychoanalytic account of aesthetics” (xii). Rudnytsky states that in most previous psychoanalytic writing about art, art was viewed as derivative or regressive; these perspectives did not offer “a comprehensive metapsychology of art” (xii).  Rudnytsky goes on to say,

Uniquely among psychoanalytic approaches to art, Winnicott respects art’s integrity as an autonomous human activity, while continuing to insist on its infantile origin. He derives art from play…  Art provides a lifelong refuge to which we can turn as we negotiate our perilous oscillations between illusion and reality (p. xiii).

Anderson illustrated this aspect of Winnicott in a way that offers much for us as writers to think about. Anderson told us:

winnicottWinnicott wrote, “the artist has an ability and the courage to be in touch with primitive processes which the psycho-neurotic cannot bear to reach, and which healthy people may miss to their own impoverishment.” He was referring to people like himself. His life-long struggle to realize his true self resulted in his being in contact with his deeper impulses, conflicts, appetites, and feelings and to have a vital experience energized by the forces within him.

Memory, Memoir and Meaning

Kerry Malawista

Kerry Malawista

Our February 2016 weekend, organized by Kerrie Malawista, focused on memoir writing. Participants were engaged by four speakers, all memoirists: the poet Mark Doty; author and psychoanalyst Deborah Luepnitz; Janna Malamud Smith, a psychotherapist and essayist also known for her memoir of her father, the writer Bernard Malamud; and non-fiction writer and commentator Marion Roach Smith.

Those of us who have paid scant attention to either the reading or the writing of memoir quickly learned that our ignorance is indicative of a larger disregard for the genre. Memoir, it turns out, shares in common with psychotherapy the accusation that it caters to self-absorption. And yet, as Malawista’s opening comments suggested, as psychotherapists we should know better. Describing good memoir writing as drawing from the same tools as a good therapy, Malawista described both the memoirist and the therapist as “observers of nuances of voices, dialogue, and tone.” She stated,

Ogden, in Reverie and Metaphor, describes how the patient has to transform her experiences from I-ness — unselfconscious subjectivity — to me-ness, the self as object of scrutiny. A therapy that is nothing more than a confession or a complaining about the same problems over and over or a search for a revenge and blame doesn’t make anyone better. Nor is it a recipe for good writing. Catharsis is only the drafting stage. The initial purge of raw material must lead to mulling it over, revising and polishing, resulting in new ways of seeing old problem, and hopefully leading to a positive resolution.

Both a therapy and a memoir, she told us, are based on facts of life transformed to be literary, artistically true, and aesthetically pleasing.

Mark Doty

Mark Doty

Mark Doty, through his weaving of story and reflection, illustrated just such a transformation of personal narrative into an artful talk. Doty paralleled Malawista’s comparison of therapy and memoir, describing what he constructed in his therapy as “a serviceable narrative, not simplified, not over-determined by a singular focus, not straining for a comprehensive perfection, but a shape held together by many strands, even those that couldn’t be freely woven into the form, the kind of story we could live with.” Doty provided a series of stories which, in recounting them, proved to be misrememberings that allowed him to think that which he could not previously bear to recognize.

“To write memoir,” Doty said, “is to participate in an on-going project of examining the past, something we can never finish, bringing more of the done into the light, examining why we forget what we do, allowing our memories to shift as we move into different relations with them over time.”

But how is this not self-aborption? How does it contribute something to the larger world? Doty responded to this concern, saying, “It vexes me that people think of memoir as an expression of self-absorption when it is, at its best, a disciplined practice of intention, and unexpectedly, a practice of humility. What is this uncertain thing called my life? What is its shape? How can I know it? How can I say it better? What lovely, humane work that is.”

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault

Doty’s conclusion, considering memory as “a disciplined practice of intention,” reminded me of the writing of the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, no doubt because I am currently teaching a Ph.D. seminar on his work. Foucault was concerned with the potential for subjectivity under contemporary neo-liberalism, which draws us all into banal forms of self-absorption that promote the constant consumption of goods and the conforming of our selves to normalized version of what we “should” be like. How, he asked, under such a regime, can we can undertake forms of ethical self-fashioning? For Foucault, much as Doty suggested, this involved a disciplined, critical self-reflection which aims at taking responsibility for one’s own acts. Ultimately for Foucault, our self-fashioning is an on-going set of practices that propel movement toward what else we might be, and it is intimately connected to the ethical ways we are with other people.

Janna Malamud Smith

Janna Malamud Smith

Janna Malamud Smith took up this question of how we are with others in considering how memoir shares with psychotherapy a potential failing, insofar as it involves disclosures that may serve the needs of the therapist or the writer but not necessarily the patient or those written about: “I have to be counted in on the memoir writer’s failing of causing pain and anger, the child’s carrying into adulthood of valuing a limited perspective, as well as the therapist’s failing of calling attention to my own life and own subjectivity.”

Smith nevertheless finds importance in engaging in memoir as one of the practices of art that provide a safe space for uncertainty. “Why does that matter?” she asks. Her response is that the practice of at provides a practice of critical reflection such as Foucault suggests:

Watching a performance, I can briefly set aside my vigilance, my public posture. I can reflect, associate, wool gather, remember, discover, feel moved, and then return refreshed or depleted but nicely shaken up so I can bubble over. It’s a space where I can question the received order, the social condition, the nature of lives.

Returning to the question of memoir writing as a relationship to important others, Smith concluded her talk by saying that the question of how to reconcile the memoirist’s need to tell the story with the wish to do justice to one’s loved ones has served to “undercut any sense I had of my own virtue and my certainty.”

Perhaps to undertake either therapy or memoir writing provides a practice that demands depth and care of thought in order to understand one’s own failings of virtue and uncertainty. Perhaps this is the shape of the humane work undertaken by the ethical memoirist and therapist.

 

Listening to the Unsayable, Part 2

The following is the second guest blog entry from the October 2015 weekend, Listening to the Unsayable. The weekend was organized by Karen Earle, with the goal of “examin[ing] the complexity of the movement out of silence toward symbolization in our work with clients and in our work as writers.” Below, Elizabeth Trawick, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Birmingham, Alabama and long-time New Directions participant, reports on her experience two of the weekend speakers.

From Elizabeth:

In my eight years of New Direction’s participation, I have learned so much, certainly enough to write up a meeting. I am a psychoanalyst. I know what I think of the presentations, generally stimulating, informative. Especially because I have not published, Gail’s request for a volunteer blogger was really an opportunity. Time I showed appreciation for all I have taken from this program and learn more at the same time!  Add to that, the topic for the weekend, “Listening to the Unsayable,” and I am in my psychoanalytic heaven of hearing what leaps from the unconscious into life, of understanding how to transform that which springs into symbolized thought rather than raw emotional states, actions, somatizations.

Annie Rogers

Annie Rogers

Perfect.  And, I would have a ‘co-blogger,’ Mary Carpenter to share the weekend.  Without thinking much of who the speakers would be, we divided the weekend. She got Saturday; I got Friday and two speakers: Annie Rogers and Deborah Blessing. Blessing, a long-time New Directions participant, I know. But who is this Annie Rogers, the opening speaker of the weekend? I open the readings that are on the website before each meeting and, frankly, I am appalled. Rogers is a Lacanian.  Not just references to Lacan but copies of his writings. What have I done? I do not do Lacan. I am conservative. I live with Freud, Klein, Bion, some Meltzer. Signifiers tantalize then befuddle me with their promise of meaning that always seems beyond my intellectual capacity. Oh, holy shit, not Lacan, but I have volunteered.

Going through the circulated papers, I find hope. Annie Rogers sent us a piece of her own writing, “Ghosts of the Ineluctable: Psychosis and the Enigma of Language,” a title that is daunting to me, a clinician, not an academic. This paper, however, is a deeply personal account of Rogers’ experience of severe psychosis in her adolescence, an account of that time and her life following psychoanalysis.  In her Saturday morning presentation, I found that the frank truths  from this paper continued into her talk and my ‘holy shit’ of disgust was transformed to a ‘holy shit’ of awe. A person who has lived in psychosis with symptoms as severe as hearing voices, convictions that various beings inhabited her body, loss of ability to speak, keep track of time, suicide attempt; a person with symptoms severe enough to require hospitalizations; a person who through psychoanalysis and language became able to consider this experience and then speak it. To me, this is simply awesome.

Annie Rogers wrote, “I use this experience from the depths to consider how language transformations create ghosts of the Real that are, in fact, truths from psychosis.”  Her voice of respect for what we call psychosis (that may in fact be the deepest of realities) filled her talk and filtered into the discussion.  I am reminded that many years ago, forty actually, as a resident in psychiatry, we thought about the meanings of psychotic experience.  What was a person saying, when she yelled, “Get out of my face?”  or claimed I was the devil come to taunt?  I mourn the loss of that level of consideration, gone now to check lists and deadening medications.  Though I still do not understand Lacan, I sigh with relief that truly serious thought can greet this realm of being. And, I say, “Hurrah to New Directions” for reminding me of that.

ND October 2015-1040025 (1)

Incandescent Alphabet

In her talk, Annie Rogers presented material from her new book, Incandescent Alphabet, a study of art made by psychotic persons which she travelled the world to see and study.  Slides of this art gave us a pathway through the psychotic experience and mode of representation. Here, I am not going to try to write what she said. I do not understand it well enough to write accurately, but I am stimulated to read this book and to consider anew a level of experience that is so often pushed away from my rational mind.

Often when I hear someone whose knowledge is so far from mine, I feel stupid.  Not with Annie Rogers. Her serious, personal communication came across as a humble struggle to use language as “a symbolic system, a metaphor that assigns the subject a place inside the social order.” Led by  this attitude, we engaged in an exhilarating discussion that continued the struggle to voice what is often left speechless. We roamed from art in institutions to the current culture of re-sculpturing the body with tattoos, surgery, and gender reassignment, to relations to higher powers and autism.

Links to the writing experience came forth with comments that as writers, we are often trying to say the unsayable and write without knowing what we are saying. Rogers suggested that we try “to write into a space where the next thing that comes baffles you and you write into that.” Asked about how she works, Rogers said that it depends on her pocket of time. Small pocket and she edits. A larger piece of time and she sets up a desk, a table, lays out items that inspire her, walks around, finds a dream space, writes, scratches out. She keeps a sketch book.  “If a line knocks on me, I write it,” and she draws it too. And, finally, she has come to love revision.

Deborah Blessing

Deborah Blessing

From this morning, we moved to an afternoon talk by Deborah Blessing, a long-time, quiet presence in the New Directions community. It was indeed good for me to hear the voice that goes with that presence. In her presentation, “Howling at the Moon,” Blessing linked the eerie experience of hearing wolves howl to the experience of  patients who seem impervious to contact, as if they are howling at a non-responsive moon, a lone wolf looking for a pack. Such patients may have language to describe intellectual pre-occupations but are troubled by the ‘unsayable,‘ indeed, the unknowable. Through deep listening to her own experience, Blessing can find room to hold the persecutory sense of a void of unreachable distance to another often experienced by such patients, a sense of another who can’t be reached that seems to emerge from an early experience of not reaching one’s objects.

Most impressive about this presentation was the way in which Deborah Blessing contains the experience of alienation communicated by such patients, resisting the urge to herself become either alienated or a source of alienation.  All the skill that we think of as ‘containing’ was amply presented. She then carried the experience with her without knowing what she carried or, perhaps that she carried it, until the hearing a resonant sound from the wilderness– the wolves howling.  It seemed her unconscious had continued processing, waiting for what Bion might call  ‘the selected fact’  that pulled pieces together. Clink, the arch stone was in place.

Blessing’s presentation was of patients who seemed more organized than those presented by Rogers. This appearance of organization came from the ability of Blessings patients to use language, even while such verbal communications were not interactive. Blessing experienced them more like deposits made into her. Reflecting on this kind of verbal interaction,  it seems to me that Blessing could be considered as a canvas, patients’ words as brush strokes leaving marks just as the artists left marks of their unconscious on canvas or in clay. These verbal brush strokes found a human canvas in the form of a therapist skilled enough to ‘hold the frame’ and later consider them.

Perhaps Deborah Blessing’s skill grows in part from her ample experience in infant observation. She studied at the Tavistock in London and continues to work with infant observation in Washington. It seems that this training has formed a base for her deep respect for non-verbal communication and for her understanding of the way in which listening to her innerness gives life to to the patient’s innerness.

Again, a lively discussion after Blessing’s talk.  Her  presentation resonated with experience of therapists in the room.  Those of us who have struggled to sit with eerie feelings, to find words for them, to move through our barriers to hear, welcomed this paper.  More language for our world.

Before I close my first blog, I have to thank Karen Earle, a poet and psychotherapist, who organized this weekend.  In this world of evaluations, she definitely gets a ten for meeting the goal for the weekend that she expressed in her introduction, to organize a weekend to focus on

…the language of the deep image poets, language that seems to leap unbidden from somewhere – leaps which the poet Robert Bly describes as “psychic leaps,” donated to the poem by the imagination. This type of language always excites me – whether I come across it in poetry that I’m reading, whether it’s given to me as I am trying to write, or whether it arises in the therapy room inviting me to listen more deeply.

Karen Earle

Karen Earle

The Steering Committee

The Steering Committee

Thank you, Karen.  Thank you, Bob Winer and the Steering Committee.  Thank you all who work to give new directions to our minds.

October 2015 Weekend – Listening to the Unsayable

I was unable to attend the October New Directions weekend. I’m pleased and grateful that two New Directions participants, Mary Carpenter and Elizabeth Trawick agreed to work as guest bloggers for this weekend.

What follows is Mary’s entry about Shelley Rockwell’s talk, “Finding the Unsayable through Poetics.” Mary is a freelance writer based in Washington DC, and the author of two young adult books Rescued by a Cow and a Squeeze, a biography of Temple Grandin,and Lost and Found in the Mississippi Sound: Eli and the Dolphins of Hurricane Katrina. To learn more about Mary, visit her website (and definitely read her books).

Dr. Shelley Rockwell

Dr. Shelley Rockwell

Shelley Rockwell, PhD, training and supervising psychoanalyst with the Contemporary Freudian Society, Washington D.C.

One of the more enlivening features of the guest talks at New Directions is the time reserved for discussions with the speaker following each talk. Responses to the talk given by Dr. Shelley Rockwell, PhD, psychoanalyst with the DC Contemporary Freudian Society, titled “Finding the Unsayable Through Poetics” demonstrated this. “I’ve never heard such a beautiful anti-psychoanalytic paper,” one New Directions audience member said. After the appreciative laughter subsided, the respondent continued, “You were able to tell us all the news at each poem.” The audience understood his point, that analysts usually say very little and never say “all.” He added: “At the end, you pulled it all together by saying, ‘This is treatment.’  I was so blown away. I have no idea how you did it. You probably don’t either.”  People laughed again, and that was the tenor of most audience responses: engagement with the subject matter and a deep appreciation of how Dr. Rockwell crafted her talk.

By Saturday afternoon of a New Directions weekend, participants can be dragging, but Dr. Rockwell’s talk combined beautiful recitations of poetry with incisive statements about the writing and functions of poetry, keeping the audience alert and appreciative.  She began by reading excerpts from three poems, weaving in her own explications along with historical background on the poets and their relationships to war and death.  The talk was completed when she tied these elements to the poetics of doing psychoanalysis. Anticipating the respondent above, Dr. Rockwell pointed out that each poem has an “anti-poetry element,” a chant or repetitive phrase that appears to have no meaning, not unlike a patient’s repetitive reporting of the stories of their experiences. Patients’ repetitions risk becoming tedious to the analyst unless, as one does with repetitions in poetry, each iteration can be examined and appreciated by listening for the slightest change or variation in word choice, tone of voice, or selection of detail, so that in fact these differences provide rich and important clues from the analysand each time the story is repeated.

Federico García Lorca

Of the three poems, perhaps the most fully presented in Dr. Rockwell’s talk was “Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias” by Federico Garcia Lorca, written in 1934 after the death of his friend Ignacio Sanchez Mejias in a bull fight and as Spain was heading toward its civil war two years later.  The poem begins with the phrase “five in the afternoon” repeated 17 times just in the short excerpt she read, with each repetition usually separated by only one line of poetry about something related to the death, until the final iteration where the language changes to “Exactly at five o’clock in the afternoon,” the time that the poet’s friend died of gangrene after being gored in “a thigh with a desolate [bull’s] horn.”  Dr. Rockwell called this repetition the “drumbeat of reality, almost unbearable…also soothing, almost incantatory.  The chant is support for the mourning.”  She explained that the poem “develops the arc of mourning” so that in the end the bereaved poet finally finds the love and connection he has to his friend.

With each repetition of the phrase “five in the afternoon,” the quality of the voice changes slightly, the tone shifts slightly.  “At what point does it become sadistic, aggressive?” Dr. Rockwell asked, pointing out how the sentences between each repeated phrase alternate between reality and non-reality, sustaining a connection almost to denial, but then returning. In an analytic session, she pointed out, the patient’s talk is oral and uncrafted – not poetry – but the analyst must respond with imagination, which becomes empathy.  “We take what the patient is saying, we can listen like a poet, with a poet’s ears…the analyst must have an imagination, but must first have the facts.” When one audience member asked, “How do you accompany the patient, how do you find the metaphor to help that patient?” Rockwell said: “You struggle to find the language.”

In answer to a question about “anti-poetry,” Dr. Rockwell referred to another of the three poems, “I’m Explaining a Few Things” by Pablo Neruda, saying that by the end Neruda becomes a journalist but “he can’t escape being a poet, and we can’t escape this either: it takes hold of us.” New Directions co-chair Dr. Bob Winer, referred again to the line “tell you all the news,” pointing out how doing that is almost impossible, how the patient in treatment has just one point of view; on the other hand, we can’t talk about anything important, such as the holocaust, from just one point of view.  “That would diminish the meaning,” Dr. Winer said.

Audience discussion with Dr. Rockwell

Since the response to this presentation was the most appreciative I’d ever experienced at New Directions, I wondered if it had something to do with the appeal of the poetry, along with Dr. Rockwell’s efforts to bring out the beauty and the pain while also helping us explicate the technical effects of the repetition – all of which extended beyond issues of analysis to all of us as humans.  At the same time, her talk went straight to the non-poetic issue of the potential for tedium of therapeutic sessions, which, for those of us who are not therapists and those of us who have ourselves been therapeutic patients, will always be a source of curiosity.

New Directions April 2015 Weekend: Betrayal

Elizabeth Thomas

Elizabeth Thomas

Elizabeth Thomas organized this weekend’s conference. The theme was an exploration of an experience that is both utterly familiar and deeply unsettling – that of betrayal. Thomas described the weekend by saying that betrayal is something that therapists know “all too well, because we encounter it regularly in our work and because we live it – as the one who has been betrayed, or as the betrayer – every day. Betrayal is inescapable.”

Dr. NANCY SHERMAN  gave us the opportunity to consider betrayal in the lives of American military personnel. A distinguished University Professor and Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, this spring she published Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of our Soldiers. Her other publications include The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of our Soldiers (2010), as well as numerous books and papers related to topics of ethics, history of moral philosophy, ancient philosophy, military ethics, moral psychology, and the emotions. Sherman is a research graduate of the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute.

Nancy Sherman

Sherman described the feeling of troops returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan of being betrayed by commanders and unit members, by civilians who have “been at the mall while we were at war”, and by politicians who have failed to take responsibility for the wars. Taking issue with the diagnosis of PTSD as too narrow to address what troubles many troops, Sherman described “moral injury” as a wound that is occasioned by injustice and contempt. She noted that it gives rise to an anguish and resentment that both demands a dignified response and that binds society by holding us to moral account.

Sherman explained moral injury as being perpetrated by others against the self, by the self against others, by others toward others, and by the self toward the self. She stated that the perpetrator, the victim and the witness are all players in moral conscience. If one experiences moral injury at the hands of another, it incurs moral anger. If we take it up on behalf of another, taking the role of the witness, it gives rise to moral indignation. When it is based in self-accusation, it is guilt. Sherman described the extreme guilt felt by many soldiers who have fallen short of their ego ideals, often organized by the military code. The fact that the code itself is idealized and often impossible to meet doesn’t always register and failing at it often leads to intense shame, including suicidal shame. Sherman illustrated this in stark terms, by citing 23 – 26 veteran suicides per day.

Sherman coverDrawing from case studies with two veterans, Sherman argued that while PTSD and its treatment assumes a fear-based response that can be treated through desensitization, moral injury involves guilt and shame and requires a different kind of response. One cannot become desensitized to moral injury; rather, it has to be worked through to build self-empathy, self-trust and self–hope. That is moral healing in which the patient rebuilds a sense of his/her own moral goodness and a clearer picture of the goodness and badness of others. This latter piece requires the opportunity to develop greater clarity about the moral injuries involved, including moral morass of war, the politics of war, and the ethical dilemmas and reality of impersonal good and bad luck.

A lot of this healing, Sherman argued, takes place for veterans inside the clinic with a therapist. But it also occurs outside the clinic, insofar as the veteran is able to build trusting and supportive relationships with others including loved ones, teachers and mentors who help the veteran grow intellectually, psychologically, and morally so they may flourish. Importantly, Sherman argues that veterans also need a nation to return to that holds itself accountable, that talks about why it goes to war and whether the war and its partners are just.

Linda Hopkins with Masud Khan

Another speaker for the weekend, LINDA HOPKINS, drew on her 13-year research into the life of Masud Khan and his relationship to D.W. Winnicott to describe a betrayal within the psychoanalytic community itself. Hopkins is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in Washington DC.  Her book False Self: The Life of Masud Khan won the Gradiva Award in 2007 and the Goethe Award for Psychoanalytic Scholarship in 2008.

Announcing that her talk might be upsetting to those who idealize Winnicott, she described her talk as a story of how Winnicott consciously betrayed Khan and caused him great harm. Khan was an Indian-born psychoanalyst who had a training analysis with Winnicott and went on to became Winnicott’s editor and close collaborator. In fact, several informants including Charles Rycroft claim that Khan wrote much that is credited to Winnicott and that Khan’s love of Winnicott was so great that he did not ask for credit. However, upon his death, Winnicott’s will did not name Khan as his literary executor, a role that defaulted to Claire Britton Winnicott, who disliked Khan intensely. At this point, Khan’s precipitous decline began – alcoholism, sleeping with patients, committing acts of professional suicide, and ultimately, drinking himself to death.

Hopkins’ talk brought out the complicated, intertwined and often fraught realities of that era of psychoanalysis. I have been aware of Khan for some time, having interviewed Adam Philips several years ago for a project on the relationship among Donald Winnicott, Claire Britton Winnicott, and her brother, Jimmie Britton, who is an enormously important figure in my field of English and literacy education. I was glad to see Khan getting some recognition. He is a brilliant and tragic figure and his near obscurity, especially in the U.S., may be its own form of betrayal. As Harold Bourne, writing a review of the book for The British Journal of Psychiatry, suggests, Hopkins’ biography

…should be obligatory reading for psychiatrists under 50 and psychoanalysts of any age…. This is not just the story of one man but a work of scholarship concerning the psychoanalytic community in post-1945 Britain and France, and dominating North American psychiatry until the century ended, yet now outside the experience of most psychiatrists under 50. They are not only deprived of a fascinating epoch recently in their field but more limited in vision by that than they may realise.

One fascinating and troubling omission I experienced in our discussion of Khan was what role, if any, racial, religious and colonial/post-colonial politics might have played in Khan’s reception and subsequent demise. I’m looking forward to finishing Hopkins’ book (which I started last night) to see how she deals with these complicated and painful issues.

February, 2015 – The Writer’s Voice

Kate Daniels

Kate Daniels

The question of the writer’s voice framed a series of remarkable talks by a group of poets and therapists assembled by Kate Daniels for the February, 2015 New Directions weekend. A poet, director of creative writing at Vanderbilt University, and New Directions graduate and writing instructor, Kate framed the theme of the weekend in her opening talk:

Writers, but particularly creative writers, are obsessed with the question of voice in writing… voices we admire and might like to emulate. …We long to hoist ourselves above the scribbling hoards by creating our own remarkable, unique voice in our writing, something that is as identifiable and natural to us as our own fingerprint or the smell of our own sweat. …What exactly we mean by writer’s voice, however is not so apparent. There is certainly something distinctive about a writer’s actual words on a page, a writer’s ability to create a convincing facsimile of an identifiable speaking voice… But writer’s voice is not just about this … not just style. A fundamental aspect of writer’s voice precedes the words on the page, for writer’s voice also has something to do with the permission that we give ourselves to write and to lay claim to our own experience. To find one’s voice as a writer is to come into relationship with oneself and the world… That’s our topic, as mysterious, ineffable, and inarticulatable as it is.

The weekend’s first guest speaker was Jim Gorney, a psychoanalyst in practice in Knoxville, Tennessee with a graduate degree in creative writing. In his talk, which can be seen in its entirety here,

Gorney drew from literature, case material, personal history, popular history, and music. In its composition, the paper was a powerful demonstration of writing as a practice of carefully developed skills brought to life by the author laying claim to his unique experiences. The talk explored the critical importance for adolescents of having access to a creative process of playfully projecting themselves into a potential space. It is a space into which they can project the dreams that allow them to lay claim to their adult lives.

Delmore Schwartz

Delmore Schwartz

Gorney demonstrated his thesis by mapping two journeys into potential space – a literary text and a clinical encounter. He read to us from Delmore Schwartz’s short story, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. Gorney described how Schwartz attempted to use the short story as potential space. In framing his clinical example, Gorney drew from Masud Khan’s argument that clients use the analytic space as a potential space to sustain moods and play with potential psychic experiences that their ego capacities cannot yet actualize. To demonstrate the promise of this view, Gorney provided a case example of a patient, Ann, who was finally able to use Gorney as a transitional object and the consulting room as “a potential place of play and field of illusion” (Gorney quoting from Andre Green, On Private Madness). In his exciting and altogether unexpected conclusion, Gorney took us back to Delmore Schwartz. Describing Schwarz as ultimately unable to free himself from persecutory parent introjects and therefore unable to fulfill his early great potential as a writer or to assume adult responsibility, Gorney nevertheless redeemed Schwartz through a description of the dream space he was able to provide as a teacher for his students, including the musical great Lou Reed and Jim Gorney himself.

Jim Gorney

Jim Gorney

Jim Gorney also provided Friday night’s talk, this one entitled, “The Psychosis of Everyday Life”, in which he once again demonstrated the importance of creating a transitional space of play in the analytic office, this time in the treatment of clients who are exhibiting what he characterized as “transitory psychosis.” Drawing from Levine, Reed and Scarfone’s Unrepresented States and the Construction of Meaning, Gorney described clinical work in which the patient’s capacity for narrative story telling has collapsed, leaving the analyst reliant on the use of spontaneous, counter-transference responses that may strengthen the presence of weak or potential representations and make them more legible. This, he stated, requires feeling or imagining what the patient may not yet feel or know. Citing object relations, he named this work as “creating an imaginative transitional space in order to put some play into the false certainties of emerging madness.” Gorney illustrated this principle through a case example in which Gorney’s own unpremeditated eruption into narrating the plot of a movie – made up on the spot – served to illustrate the chaotic emotional state which the patient had been unable to symbolize. Providing us with the same impassioned narration he made to the patient, Gorney’s demonstrated the power of immediacy and urgency, not only in clinical treatment but also in captivating an audience through writing.

Owen Lewis and Cynthia Ezell

Owen Lewis and Cynthia Ezell

Cynthia Ezell and Owen Lewis shared the stage for our first Saturday talk. They both took up the theme of voice in writing as related to finding some resonance with a feeling of authenticity in one’s life. Ezell, a graduate of the New Directions program and psychotherapist in Knoxville, described finding some of that sense of authenticity as having to do with “a sense of place as a somatic experience, sensation in the body, a deep kind of knowing,” which she described as “a kind of midwife to the writer.” Here is Ezell describing her writing practice as it resides in her 50 acre farm:

Doubtless drawing from the Southern writing traditions of Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and so many more, Ezell describes “mercy” as a part of her experience of writing, both exercising mercy toward herself and experiencing mercy through the act of writing:

I keep returning to writing like a woman returning to a lover, a lover to whom I can’t quite commit but neither can I give up. Each time I reengage my writing practice, there’s passion and purpose. I can’t believe I ever stopped. It feels so good and so gratifying. ‘This time,’ I tell myself, ‘I’m going to see the project through. I’m going to finish the book.’ And then those niggling bits of doubt and fear nudge themselves between me and the beloved and the writing waits. I abandon my writing practice for one main reason. It’s not that I don’t have time. I think we all have time to write if we really want to. It’s that I’m afraid. For starters I’m afraid of calling myself a writer, claiming the activity and the identity. …I’m afraid of criticism. …Do I write what I want to write? Do I tell the story I want to tell? Or do I play it safe? Should I be more cautious and guarded? Should I make an effort to impress? All of that feels too familiar. It felt too much like a regression into the straight jacket of fundamentalism. So I just keep on writing about things that I know, things that I experience in the small, rural community in which I live. Things like goat farming, field dressing wild turkeys, castrating lambs, burials, baptisms. In order to have a writing life I would have to live the life I wanted to live and write what I wanted to write.

Owen Lewis

Owen Lewis

Owen Lewis, professor in the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University, picked up on Jim Gorney’s Friday theme of the adolescent using potential space to imagine her/himself into adult responsibility to make a slightly different point. As a physician and psychoanalyst who wrote as a young adult but then gave it up as he moved into the responsibilities of adult life, Lewis began writing poetry again after a 25-year hiatus. In the wake of a difficult divorce, he described taking up poetry again as being something that could be his own, that he didn’t have to lose. In a musing that I imagine many of us could appreciate, Lewis said,

If we think about transition, like an adolescent, who thinks that time is going to go on forever, what would end time at this stage for me, having three kids who are well launched, career, lots of opportunities through my career…? The end game is of course dying, but since I, like most of us, am in denial that we’re actually ever going to die, I’m in this time that can go on forever, where I’m not encumbered by real life. Being a responsible person is easy once you’ve done it for a few years, so my daily hours at my desk are cultivating irresponsibility in a certain way.

Elizabeth Spires — poet, children’s author, and Professor of English at Goucher College, took up the challenge of defining voice prior to her analysis of voice in poetry. Here, she describes what she means by voice.

Spires suggested that when a poet or writer comes into her/his own voice, one of two things can happen. She provided examples of one path, in which poets developed voices that are immediately definable. She also argued, using Eudora Welty’s short story “Where is the Voice Coming From?”, that a writer can be inhabited or taken unawares by “a voice not our own,” a voice that can take us with no planning or conscious choice of our own.

Stevem Cramer

Stevem Cramer

Steven Cramer, poet and director of the MFA program in creative writing at Lesley University, also offered a perspective on multiple writer voices, stating,

Often when we use the word “voice”, we mean the writer’s signature style, that which allows us to distinguish one writer from another. But a writer’s style comes from constant trial and error. And we often recognize that style precisely from the unique way it orchestrates many different voices or tones. Inexperienced writers often strive for a consistent tone in their voice, which they confuse for authenticity or honesty, but all too often translates to a monotone, an absence of adventure in diction and syntax and finally, very little in the way of aesthetic discoveries that lead to psychological discovery. And when we think more deeply about it, consistency of tone on the page doesn’t make a very plausible claim for realism. The voices we employ in life constantly vary and sometimes conflict.

In his newest book of poetry, Clangings, Cramer provides a dramatic example of striving for a voice that is anything but monotone. He draws on the phenomenon of “clang association”, defined as speech that is composed of “mental connections made between dissociated ideas through rhymes, puns, neologisms and other non-linear speech”, which sometime occurs in the speech of psychotics. Cramer described the impact of his discovery of this speech on his poetry by saying, “The resourcefulness, energy and wit enacted in the examples acted as shots of adrenalin to my imagination which had been casting about for something new. At that point I should say ‘desperate for something new.’”

Cramer took on the persona of a person who manifested clanging in the writing of his latest book of poems, drawing from actual speech examples and his own free associations to allow the sounds and juxtapositions of language and flights of unexpected association to guide his writing:

I’ve never been so indifferent to what a poem might mean. I cared about what it did, what discoveries it would make on its own and how it sounded. …If the reader could believe in this persona, then he could say things that don’t make sense, but still cohere emotionally.

Cramer concluded by reading several poems to us, including this, the first poem in the collection:

 

Kate Wechsler

Kate Wechsler

What was it that made for such an energizing and inspiring weekend? Perhaps it was that every talk was beautifully crafted. Maybe it was the presence of so many poets and writers whose deep love of beautiful writing was on constant display. Perhaps most compelling for me was what Kate Wechsler made clear in the audience discussion with Jim Gorney – that the energy of the weekend had a great deal to do with what Jim invited us to the very first day: to use our time, space, and community as a transitional space, a playground in which we could project dreams and imagine desired potentials.

October 2014 – Therapeutic Passages: Midlife and Beyond

Linda and Sheila 2

Linda Sherby and Sheila Felberbaum

One of the many strengths of the New Directions program is the opportunities it provides to alumni not only to participate in on-going alumni groups, but to potentially participate in the program post-graduation as small group leaders or even weekend organizers. Such was the case with our October 24 – 26th weekend, organized by New Directions alumni Sheila Felberbaum and Linda Sherby.

The weekend, themed “Therapeutic Passages: Midlife and Beyond” offered an opportunity to consider how writers and analysts may be able to use mid- and late-life passages — children leaving home; later career opportunities and challenges; the arrival of grandchildren; facing health crises, caretaking and mortality with our parents, partners and other loved ones; and experiencing our own declining health and stamina — to advance our creativity and growth.

Ann Burack-Weiss

Ann Burack-Weiss

The weekend’s speakers included Ann Burack-Weiss, a clinical social worker with a private practice and a faculty member in the Masters program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. Dr. Burarck-Weiss is the author of four books, including The Caregiver’s Tale: Loss and Renewal in Memoirs of Family Life. She discussed this text, an examination of the narratives of caregivers, as an example of passionate research.

Joyce Edwards

Joyce Edwards

Joyce Edwards, a social worker and psychoanalyst with three co-edited books, spoke on the critical importance of friendship in one’s later years and provided a clinical example in which her relationship with a patient fostered the patient’s capacity to have friends.

Madelon Sprengnether

Madelon Sprengnether

Madelon Sprengnether, a poet, memoirist, and Regents Professor of English at the University of Minnesota, is also New Direction alumni as well as the organizer of the Spring 2008 weekend Writer/Analyst. In the prelude to her talk, Madelon said of her time at ND: “I was a member of this community for ten years. I couldn’t let go. I loved every minute of it and I’ve never found anything like it anywhere else or any group to replace it.” In her talk, she drew on her life-long love of the play A Trip to Bountiful to explore the function of memory across the lifespan – both her own life and in the late life of the play’s protagonist, Carrie Watts.

Finally, we had the pleasure of hearing from Linda and Sheila themselves. Linda began with the story of her affiliation to New Directions and of her growth in confidence as a writer, culminating with the 2013 Routledge publication of her book, Love and Loss in Life and Treatment. Drawing on both personal memoir and clinical case material, this book tells the story of Linda’s loss of her beloved husband, George, and illustrates how the life of the analyst necessarily affects both the patient and the treatment. Since the publication of the book, Linda has applied some of her passion for writing to a weekly blog, Inside/Outsidein which she illustrates and explores issues that arise in therapeutic treatment. Describing her passage into becoming a disciplined writer, Linda concluded her talk by telling us, “You can write. You have to hone your craft. You have to believe in yourself. You have to carry more than a hostile audience in your head and you have to know your time to write.”

Sheila, with her wry and wonderful sense of humor, took us on her journey from a 2008 New Directions weekend that featured playwrights Jessica Blank and Eric Jenson who helped Sheila begin to see her writing as spoken dialogue in her head. Inspired by their work and words, Sheila then enrolled in Mind the Gap, an intergenerational workshop taught by playwrights that brought high school students together with writers over the age of sixty. Each participant wrote a play based on interviews with her/his partner; the plays were then read on stage by professional actors. From this, Sheila’s play Trauma Ties emerged. The richness of intergenerational collaboration continued for Sheila as she later faced a group of mostly 20-year-old students in a course  on death and dying. Dealing with seven recent deaths of her own family members and friends, Sheila began the first night of class by reading a poem about her mother’s death. The poem, written when a student in New Directions, drew her students into their own deeply felt experiences of death and its losses, setting into motion a journey to be shared across the semester.

It was gratifying during this New Directions weekend to see people who began as students making their own passages within the program, taking the platform and delivering carefully and thoughtfully written papers. Sheila, Linda and Madelon are inspiring representatives of the kind of personal and professional growth that can occur in midlife and beyond, especially with the support and structure offered by the New Directions community.

Group shot 2

An Interview with Deirdre Callanan

Deirdre is an amazing cook

Deirdre is an amazing cook!

This past July saw the third summer retreat at the beautiful home of Deirdre Callanan and Jack Harrison in West Harwich on Cape Cod. (The photos below are all from Deirdre and Jack’s amazing yard, taken by Don Chiapinelli, Sheila Felberbaum and me.) Deirdre has taught many of us in New Directions across the years, as a Saturday group leader, a Sunday group leader, the leader of the Alumni Group and the leader of 2-pager groups. For the many of you who have had the great pleasure of working with Deirdre Callanan in one venue or another, I am happy to present as the latest New Directions blog this interview with Deirdre.


 

Deirdre's Cape Cod home

Deirdre’s Cape Cod home

Gail: How long have you been with ND and in what capacities?  How did you get involved?

Deirdre: I’ve been involved with New Directions since February 2007. My friend Tom Goldman chaired that weekend on Memory. He’d asked my input with the short paper prompts then invited me to co-facilitate a small discussion group with Rick Waugaman. I said, “Are you kidding me?” Not only had I never been to any sort of therapist, I’d never even taken a psychology course. How could I possibly say anything useful? Tom reminded me I am a writer and a writing teacher. He also assured me that Rick was the ideal co-facilitator for me. He was right. Rick was the first of many gifts I’ve received from New Directions. That initial weekend, I was so nervous. I wore suits, sat up straight, took notes in the talks, mostly so later back at the Goldmans I could ask Tom what the heck the speakers were talking about. My favorite speaker was Dan Schacter whose topic was The Seven Sins of Memory. I’ve been working on a poem based on his presentation for seven years now. The only thing remaining from my first drafts is the title.

The beautiful back patio

The beautiful backyard

I co-led my first Sunday group with Shelly Rockwell that fall. Shelly was another remarkable leader. What a listener! Anne Adelman was in that group. We were in the hotel downtown then, just east of Foggy Bottom. I searched M Street for the perfect ND journal. I bought a Travel Notebook whose cover depicts a hot air balloon gliding above a forested mountain. In its woven basket is a turtle with a telescope, a rabbit with an open book, and an elephant consulting a map. Now, if that isn’t a metaphor for the ND program, what is? I’ve been using that book to record ND sessions ever since. When Anne introduced herself that November 4 of 2007, she told us, “My parents owned a typewriter store in New York. At age 6, I got my first Remington. I sat on the porch and wrote fairy tales.”

During the blizzard in 2010, when we were either trapped in Pentagon City or never made it there, I covered the Saturday morning poetry workshop, and it occurred to me I might be able to offer something for Saturday mornings, so I’ve done three different workshops, each of which I’ve loved. Bob Winer’s organizational patterns are just like his shirts: so wild they seem air-lifted from a Hendrix riff, but then if you wander around in the experience long enough, you have a revelation, like an acid trip without the drug. Think about it: there are nearly as many segments to the program as there are combinations in a Rubric’s cube, but snapped together, it’s beautiful magic.

The marsh

The marsh

In 2008 & 2009, I facilitated small groups at the Stowe summer retreat. And lo, another fantastic teacher, Tessa Conlin, who led our full-group sessions on the Stowehof Inn’s patio with such verve and humor. Joanie Lieberman, another exceptional listener and respondent, and I have been co-leading an alumni group since October, 2010. That December, I also had the pleasure of working at the winter retreat at the Tabard Inn: once more, an intense experience in a gorgeous setting. Finally, my husband Jack and I have hosted the summer retreat on Cape Cod for the past three Julys. Getting to exchange five emails a day for three months of planning with Don Chiappinelli would be reward enough. The writers and fellow instructors are a supreme bonus.

Also, in April 2012, I chaired the weekend on Writing: Our Heroines & Heroes.

Late afternoon sun

Late afternoon sun

Gail: What do you like about working with New Directions writers?  What is similar to and different from other writers with whom you have worked?

Deirdre: Frankly, at first I used to write down comments from the writing response sessions to share with my long-term writing group at home. Frequently, the comments made at ND I had never heard in all my decades of workshop participation. Ever. Not once. Part of this relates to the ND focus. As the brochure states, it’s “writing and critical thinking from a psychoanalytic perspective.”

 

Examples:

“In a way, this is a story about an enactment– you’re drawn into another’s pathology.”

“A wonderful example of rupture and repair.”

“An attempt to represent the enigmatic.”

“That possible meaning would have transference meaning. It had the quality of her entering an ID-Ego state.”

Marsh grass

Speaking of states, eventually I was able to confess at New Directions that my journey there had introduced the term transference as something other than taking a bus from Boston to Chicago then transferring to the Omaha-bound bus.

What I like about working with ND writers is their range of topics and their ability to listen deeply to others. There is nothing superficial about this group. There is also nothing simplistic. Overall, the writers here seem more sensitive to responses. Therapists tend to receive, absorb; their job is to help others, yes? Here, they’re exposing themselves.

In other words: they’re similar in that they write in many genres and with varying levels of ability. Unlike others, they’re more sensitive and seasoned listeners.

Gail: Tell me about your writing. 

After a swim

After a swim

Deirdre: I’ve been writing since I was six. On days I don’t write, I feel disassociated and dreary. Many poems as well as some essays and short stories have appeared in literary journals such as Beloit Poetry Journal and Poet Lore. I’ve three poems in an anthology, World of Water, World of Sand. Chapters from my non-fiction manuscript, Beer, Bait, & Raggedy Hearts– A People’s History of the North Jetty Fish Camp, were serialized in a newspaper, The Venice Gondolier, over the past three years. A book I wrote as a result of my year as Christa McAuliffe fellow from Massachusetts, Windows & Mirrors: Writing’s Power for Illumination & Reflection, is housed at Fitchburg State’s library.

Gail: What is your professional background?

Deirdre at work

Deirdre at work

Deirdre: My BA in journalism is from Marquette University, my MA in Fiction is from Colorado State University. I’ve taken dozens of week-long poetry workshops from, among others, Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, Dorianne Lux, Nancy Willard, Kim Addonizio, Tony Hoagland, Nick Flynn, and Mark Doty. Journalism was my first passion, including photojournalism, and I still freelance. I became a high school English teacher quite by accident with no credentials or aspirations to teach. I loved teaching and taught several subjects at various levels for 30 years. The most memorable of my jobs, however, was the year I was a construction worker in Colorado. I still try to write and read a few hours each day, still attend workshops by writers I admire. I’m in two writing groups, one meets weekly, the other monthly. My sole teaching now occurs at New Directions, but that’s as rich and rewarding as anything

Summer 2014 Writing Retreat

Summer 2014 Retreat Participants

Summer 2014 Retreat Participants

The Summer 2014 New Directions writing retreat included features that are familiar and much loved — six days of writing workshops held in Deirdre and Jack’s beautiful home in West Harwich on Cape Cod, shared meals, and a day off for fun – as well as something new and exciting – the addition of Sara Taber as a writing instructor. Many New Directions participants know Sara from her eight years (so far) running a Sunday group and a Saturday workshop during the weekend retreats.  Because in the past I’ve described what happens at the summer retreat (Summer 2012 and Summer 2013), for this entry, I decided to focus on our two writing instructors, Sara and Deirdre.  As will be obvious in these portraits of Sara (here) and Deirdre (in an entry to follow), the heart of the New Directions program is the incredible quality of the writers with whom we have the privilege to work.

Sara hard at work

Sara hard at work

Sara brings unique qualifications to her work with us at New Directions.  As a former practicing therapist, she has insight into the kinds of concerns many participants bring to their writing.  As a cultural anthropologist and an accomplished writer, Sara has a keen ability to observe and describe the details of a given setting and the nuances of what is taking place and of the motivation of the characters.

Assumed Name

As detailed in her latest book, Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter , Sara grew up in Asia, Europe and the U.S.  She earned an M.S.W. from The University of Washington and worked at the Stanford Child Psychology Clinic as well as spending six years in private practice. Sara then did her Ph.D. at Harvard, where she studied cross-cultural human development and psychological anthropology.  In a thrilling moment of recognition for me, I learned that Sara’s Ph.D. advisor was Bob LeVine, who is best known for his pioneering work in psychoanalytic anthropology, doing cross-cultural studies in child rearing Dusk Campo 2practices.  The thrilling piece — for me —  is that Bob LeVine was also the advisor of my Ph.D. advisor, Joe Tobin, which makes Sara and I close academic relatives. Sara’s 1992 book, Dusk on the Campo: A Journey in Patagonia, came out of her dissertation research; it provides a beautiful example of her lyrical weaving together of portraits of a place, the daily lives and personalities of the inhabitants, and the kind of sociological detail that is needed to make sense of the larger picture.

Sara teaching the morning workshop

Morning workshop

After her graduation, Sara taught at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work for four years and then left academia to begin her career in creative non-fiction, where she has had considerable success and recognition. She was a fellow at the famous Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and has been a writer in residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Sara has been teaching at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda for twenty years. She has taught writing at Johns Hopkins and the Vermont College of Fine Arts; she teaches workshops at her home and does coaching and private editing. In addition to her books, Sara has published in national magazines and the Washington Post and has had work produced for NPR’s All Things Considered.

Bread of Three Rivers 2

Sara’s 2001 Bread of Three Rivers describes her year in pursuit of understanding the heart of French bread-making. Sara described to me that both this and Dusk on the Campo combine her love of other cultures with her very personal quest to understand issues of self in relation to others.  Pouring through Sara’s many publications, it is easy to see that whether she is writing creative non-fiction, memoir, travel, commentary, personal essay, or literary journalism, Sara pursues questions that are fundamental to thinking about the qualities of human lives and relationships.

Cape Cod 2014-1020851

Elise at work

During her week of teaching us in daily morning workshops this summer, Sara asked us to consider “What is the wisdom you are writing about?” Looking at examples of both traditional and non-formal structures for writing, we worked with Sara to deliver to our reader a particular moment, to evoke an emotion or capture a fleeting feeling. Sara spent time working with us on three key components of narrative writing: scene, summary, and musing. Sara helped us to think about summary as the long shot or establishing shot in a film, the shot that grounds us in a time and place. We then considered scene as the shot that moves into the particular things that are happening, the medium and close shots that establish, track and move the story but lose much of the larger detail.  Finally we considered musings, the occasional moments to pause and reflect on what is going on.

Sally reads an example text

Staying with the film metaphor, Sara suggested that moving among these elements is a matter of pacing, the shifting rhythms and speed of different shots that are so critical to keeping the audience immersed in the story.  Sara suggested that most people are more inclined to stay with one of these kinds of writings, and that we need to attend to all three.

Sara working with her small group

Sara working with her small group

When I later interviewed Sara, she suggested that as clinicians, many New Directions writers may be used to summarizing and formulating explanations in their writing but have less practice at depicting the close-up details of pivotal moments.  Sara described that New Directions’ writers are amazing to work with because they tend to go straight to the emotion in their writing.  Sara noted that she works to help New Directions writers to free themselves from the judgments of their families, peers, profession or abstract ideals in order to find and use their authentic voices.

Love and Hate in the Kitchen – April 4 – 6, 2014

Note from Gail:  I am thrilled to present this latest blog post by guest blogger, Liat Katz.

Liat offers this  marvelous summary written in her distinct voice — full of humor and insight.  Enjoy!

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“Good food and good eating are about risk.”
Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

“If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.”
Émile Zola

“You Have the Right to Say Big Things”
― David Groff, poet, writer, and independent editor; leader of New Directions optional  day-long workshop on “The Writer as Expert, Cultural Citizen and Author: Building a Publishing Presence and a Persona for your Writing.”

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The Washington Center for Psychoanalysis New Directions Weekend, Love and Hate in the Kitchen, was held April 4-6, 2014.  As a guest blogger and a brand new blogger, I will try to give you a taste (pun intended) of the experience.

Liat Katz

First, there is the arrival for the weekend….

kitchen 1 IMG_4360There is something about the smell of the Residence Inn, the familiar hotel staff, Paco and Deb, your nametags amongst old friends’ nametags, the undulating swirls on the carpet, and friends that all greet you like family when you return to New Directions.

Immediately I feel like I am home again.

And the weekend itself…

I should warn you, food puns and tasteless (oop, did it already) food metaphors abound.

I got two big takeaway nuggets from this weekend’s plenaries:

1) Food (and its connected sisters, eating and cooking) is about interconnectedness and relationships, which, of course, always involves the ambivalence of Love and Hate.  

2) Cracking the Webby electronic world of online publishing is necessary, but requires learning a daunting new language, putting yourself out there, and putting in a ridiculous amount of hard work.

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Navigation Links

The following links are provided the help you navigate in various ways through the blog.  You can skip the links and read straight through, or you can use to links to take you to the specific parts of the blog that most interest you:

David Groff’s Thursday workshop: The Writer as Expert, Cultural Citizen and Author: Building a Publishing Presence and a Persona for your Writing.”

Michaele Weissman’s Introduction to the Weekend

-Plenary 1: Michael Twitty’s,The Relationship Between Black and White Women in Southern Kitchens Before and After Slavery

Plenary 2: Chefs on the couch, a Conversation with Justin Frank and Ris Lacoste

Friday Night Scientific Meeting: Justin Frank on Love and Hate in the Kitchen

Plenary 3: Galit Atlas-Koch’s Sex and the Kitchen

Plenary 4: Michele Kayal’s Writing for Online Publication

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David Groff’s Thursday Workshop

David Groff, Poet, writer, and independent editor, does an optional day-long workshop on Thursday, April 3, 2014, entitled,The Writer as Expert, Cultural Citizen and Author: Building a Publishing Presence and a Persona for your Writing.”

When I was a young child, I ran and I ran and I ran to catch the sun as it was setting, and it was always just beyond my grasp. After about an hour in David Groff’s workshop, I sink deep in my chair, wide-eyed, and I realize that writing can be like that–there is no, I mean no, real point of heavenly arrival in the published world where you know you’ve actually made it. You just keep writing, writing, writing and never quite reach it, but working hard to make a presence in the social media world can get you read and heard and published a bit. (Ok, right about now, I bet the New Directions steering committee is doubting their decision to have such a cynic be their guest blogger. So I’ll just say thank you for this one opportunity now, while I move to the upper Northwest to do logging instead of blogging.)

Groff starts talking about maintaining a social media presence and being a cultural citizen so people will start coming to us. It is then that I realize that although there may not be a publishing point of Nirvana, in this day and age, we have more control over our own literary existence in the world of social media than we ever did before.Kitchen3.jpg

Groff notes that we need to Facebook, to tweet, and to blog (at least 3 X a week), and I am such a novice that I did not realize all of those were even verbs. He suggests that we need to then write small magazine pieces, to write and submit OP/ED pieces, all before submitting to more well-known magazines, and then, eventually, to an agent, and then on to a publisher.

Throughout this session, I continue to slowly get the notion that learning the web-based platforms of the world actually create a whole genre of opportunity to get your work seen by a variety of audiences. Web-based literacy is essential in reaching the reading audience of today.

And the world is moving fast–blogs, twitter, Facebook, self-publishing, tumblr– these are not the tools reserved just for young people, these are the tools for the folks that want to be heard. I learned that I have to tighten up my mission statement as a writer so I have something to say that people want to hear, and then make sure that I am heard.

“A lot of books I would respect in the morning, but I don’t need them,” he noted. He says that we need our readers to need us. (I’m not sure I’ve been that successful in getting people in life to need me, so this is going to be a hard one.)

Groff is overwhelmingly realistic about the marketing/publishing process.

He suggests we ask, “How do you know you’re worth caring about?” Which gives us the imperative to work harder and make ourselves indispensable to a reader.

“You need to be an egomaniacal crazy person” to be the protagonist in your story, he continues.

And he says,“You have the right to say big things.”  It is that point that I realize the scary and fun fact that to be an expert online, all you have to do is say that you’re an expert and try to write like you are one. It reminded me of an exposé I once saw years ago on women CEO’s. One of the women said that the key to her rising to the top was to sound like she knew what she was doing 100% of the time, even if she did not know what she was doing. Declaring expertise online to get followers seems similar. Sound like you know what you are talking about and the readers will follow.

So he tells us we need to build a brand before getting a book published. That writers typically have the default unrealistic notion that ‘I have got to write that book, and I’ll get plucked from the crowd’ for fame. But really, Groff says, the book comes last—people want to know who you are first. As you define yourself, you build a brand and the readers and publishers come to you.

And the publisher piece is complex too—He suggests for us to look at small presses, at university presses (they don’t pay well, but can be prestigious), professional-based presses, and, also, of course, at self-publishing, which is a whole other complex genre. He teaches us specifics about query letters and book proposals.

At some point toward the end, the room grows eerily quiet. Quiet, I think, because we as women, as analysts, very often just us as people—we are background people taking notes, not flag-planting people declaring who we are. Clearly, though, it is time to make our flag and plant it.

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Michaele Weissman’s Introduction to the Weekend

Kitchen 4.jpgMichaele Weissman, the organizer, introduces the weekend. She is a journalist, author (of God in a Cup  and co-author of History of Women in America), and she is a cook. Her husband runs a Latvian bread company—and she speaks about the deep levels of spiritual and cultural meaning of making bread.

“Among Other Things, Food is An Act of Love,” she states, and she spouts off a repeated theme for the weekend: that for her-food is fraught with meaning, relationships, love, and connectedness: “If you come to my house for dinner, ten years later I will remember that you don’t like Brussels sprouts,” she says and we believe her, and instantly want to be invited into her life and into her kitchen.

And when someone asks her about when she writes and her writing process, she notes, “I try to get up [in the morning to write] before my resistance.”  Don’t we all, I think. Don’t we all.

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Plenary 1

ND April 2014-1020521Michael Twitty, was the first speaker of the weekend. He is an African-American and Jewish self-taught Culinary Historian, and on his KosherSoul account on Twitter (https://twitter.com/KosherSoul ) he states that he is “re-creating historical dishes from ‪#Africa through slavery and their connection to contemporary ‪#food.”

So, at first, Michael Twitty speaking here seems a bit out-of-place, and we’re all looking around—he is not talking about writing nor is he speaking about psychoanalysis. But when exploring such a vast topic as food, it makes sense to start with food’s roots and history through his historical lens.

Without a speech in front of him, Michael delves into his passion for finding the roots of culture through food. He notes that it is important to look at food history in an interdisciplinary way—he uses archeologists, demographers, zoologists, ethnobotanists, botanists, and sociologists when examining the history of a culture through its food. (I had to look up the field of ethnobotany; I had never heard of such a thing. The fact that you could just look at a plant and know about a culture is such a magical concept to me)

In speaking about slavery and its intertwined history with different peoples and foods, he notes to his virtually all-white audience that everyone in our room has an ancestor that was enslaved.

ND April 2014-1020518He relays the fact that in the 18th century, men were mostly cooks and 19th century, women were mostly cooks, because they stayed in slavery to stay with their children. Enslaved people of different ethnic origins began working together in the US—and the meld in cultures made for combined food. White women writing cookbooks in the 1820’s, such as Mary Randolph were penning African-based recipes they were writing down to pass on to their daughters, including Gumbos and okra dishes.

Referring to the African slaves in the South, Twitty notes, “they were the only enslaved people who enslaved the palettes [of those] who owned them.”

Twitty also briefly speaks about his extensive use of social media, which is how, I believe, the folks at New Directions found him. He says that when he saw that twitter became the medium of the Arab Spring, he knew he wanted to become a part of it. He also notes that he uses crowd funding for his endeavors. And I find myself being glad that he stretched his studies from slavery to food to Twitter to New Directions so that we could benefit from his self-taught wealth of knowledge.

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Plenary 2
Kitchen 6.jpgOn Friday afternoon, Justin Frank, M.D, author, psychoanalyst, and former restaurateur, interviews Ris Lacoste, owner and chef of the restaurant, Ris in Washington, DC.

So this sort of casual conversation is a new format, a different one than any I have seen in my three years at New Directions. The format is relaxed and it is sometimes helpful and generative, sometimes slow, and sometimes awkward and seemingly voyeuristic.

We hear about Ris’ (AKA Doris’) life. She was the 5th of 7 children cared for by a loving but busy working class mother. “Food is love in our family,” Ris says, and relays funny stories about everyone loving to eat.

Not an analyst myself, I start to absorb the Neo-Freudian ear from my fellow audience members, and I sense a subtle flavor of defenses wafting up as Ris describes her quiet non-fighting perfect household in her family of origin. She is so pleasant and vulnerable up there, though, that I choose to hear her story as just that, a story of a chef’s family as she portrays it, warm and tasty and good.

Ris says that as restaurant chef, you need to wear so many hats to make a seductive menu: mother, disciplinarian, schmooze person, businessperson, etc. And for her, the restaurant has become her family as well. She feels, she tells us, that her responsibility as a mentor is to bring out the goodness and creativity in people who work for her.

And when she speaks about her restaurant family, her eyes light up. She talks about kissing the guy she buys peaches from. She wants to know who is growing all of her food and she wants a relationship with all of them. Sometimes she knows the name of the animal she is butchering for a meal. So many hidden relationships and goings on happen in the trenches of the kitchen, and she said sexual tensions make you work harder.

ND April 2014-1020537“[As a chef] I don’t see my home, I don’t have a life,” she lamented, but she acknowledges that she has created a home-like environment at the restaurant. She loves going to work everyday, and she has developed a space for herself and her eighty-five staff members in her restaurant that has re-created the warmth and has embraced all the security that she grew up knowing. She also keeps the important people alive in her life that have passed away by using their dishes that nourish her, she says, like her mother nourished her.

She is clearly confident in her role at the restaurant. In a slightly awkward moment, however, Justin asks Ris about when she is not confident. She speaks about her self-image, her weight, and her [lack of] relationships, and I feel a bit exploitive and voyeuristic. “It sucks to be fat,” she says and smiles, and with that, she seems to own some confidence in knowing herself. And I let a breath out, knowing it is okay to be watching this.

Ris is a fascinating character who clearly has had an interesting life. She proclaims that she still has Julia Child on speed dial—“She was a great student,” she notes.  “I dined with her many times.” Ris closed 1789 Restaurant to throw a 90th birthday party for Julia Child.

As a child, I remember being fascinated by my brother, a champion chess player, who could play chess with other strong players without a board. They would announce moves to each other and visualize the game in their heads. Ris describes something similar. She can make a menu and know how each new item looks, tastes, and smells, just based on the ingredients, spices, and cooking method without actually tasting it. She knows food so well, she can taste it cerebrally, and I sit in the audience in awe of the magic.

She speaks about food and her restaurant with so much love.

As she describes the food she makes and the restaurant that she has created, my mouth begins to water for the experience of eating at Ris. And, after our graduation on Saturday night, I dine at Ris with three New Directions friends. And the atmosphere and food is just as she describes. Warm, soulful, friendly, and with depth of flavor. We could taste the richness of her soul in every bite.

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Friday Night Scientific Meeting

Justin Frank, M.D, author (Bush on the Couch and Obama on the Couch ) psychoanalyst, and former restaurateur, gives the keynote speech: Love and Hate in the Kitchen.Kitchen 7.jpg

Ok, so first of all, it must be noted that Justin Frank has a presence. He has a handlebar moustache, brown cowboy boots, a purple tie, and a bit of a swagger. Not your typical psychoanalytic wardrobe. And he is clearly not your typical psychoanalyst. He appears to be warm, honest, and strongly, um, opinionated. His two passions, he explains, are psychoanalysis and cooking.

Throughout his speech, he compares psychoanalysis to cooking: He speaks of finding truths in the kitchen and in psychoanalysis.

He talks about the relative anonymity of being a chef and of being a psychoanalyst. Anonymity? Justin writes on popular topics, appears on television, and teaches. Oh, and did I mention the cowboy boots and handlebar moustache? Not much anonymity there.

He compares the chef making the dinner to an analyst making the interpretations. He notes that both chef and analyst deal with the interplay of fantasy and reality–taking raw ingredients and transforming them into something manageable. He speaks of the chef in terms of Kleinian statements of mothers milk/nursing breasts/identification with mother/ and resulting fantasies.

Justin Frank touches on the ambiguity of language in the analyst’s office and in the kitchen. “If a patient says, ‘I’m depressed,’ it could mean a variety of things. As such, if a restaurant customer says, ‘ I want my steak rare,’ it could also mean a variety of things,” he explains.  And, like the ambiguity of life in general, I find the truthfulness of both ambiguities unsettling. I want my chef and my analyst to know exactly what I mean even if they don’t.

Like Ris, Justin Frank notes that a chef functions as mommy, daddy, structure, care, safety, and leader who makes the “kids” feel safe. Structure in a family and in a restaurant, Justin tells us manages affect, and acts as container–clear structure makes families and kitchens run smoother.  He notes that as a chef, you can reclaim your history and repair your damage by repairing other people. “Kitchen life is about a life-affirming synthesis.”

Justin Frank acknowledges that being a chef is really hard. When he asked a cooking friend of his, “Don’t you want to be a chef?” his friend responded, “ No I like cooking too much.” After David Groff’s seminar and at this point in the weekend, I was beginning to feel like that was the same with writing—“Don’t you want to be well published?” someone could ask me now, and I’d respond, “No, I like writing too much.”

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Plenary 3

Kitchen 8.jpgOOn Saturday afternoon, Galit Atlas-Koch Ph.D, gives the plenary: Sex and the Kitchen. Atlas-Koch is a psychoanalyst, creative arts therapist, and clinical supervisor in private practice in Manhattan. Her writings focus on sexuality and on the relationship between attachment and sexuality.

Atlas-Koch is lively, warm, and inviting with a thick Israeli-accent, much like the kitchen of her youth that she describes.

She speaks of her Persian Jewish grandmother’s kitchen where the female members of Atlas’ extended family gathered to share their lives.

Kitchen 9.jpgFor the first time in the weekend, we hear the voice of real ambivalence. She describes her grandmother’s kitchen as attractive and disgusting. She realizes that she both idealizes and devalues the kitchen.

Women had a voice and shared secrets in her grandmother’s kitchen. Little girls like Atlas-Koch, though, could not have a voice in the kitchen until they were women.

“The kitchen is a space for the subjective mind, ” Koch-Atlas states, and I wonder if there is a room that is not.

The audience perked up when Koch-Atlas gave compelling case examples fraught with food-related meanings and longings.

Mired in food metaphors, she tells of clients’ relationships and their requests that Atlas-Koch feed them as an omnipotent mother. As I listen to Atlas-Koch, I am reminded that we all want to be fed by our mothers and our therapists. Our everyday metaphors may not be so blatant but for all of us, emptiness hungers for the comfort of a mothers’ kitchen.

Atlas-Koch describes a client’s dreams and how the client slowly develops insight even as she begins to know how to feed herself. And in the end, Atlas-Koch also describes the feminist kitchen where women have agency and power to feed ourselves. I realize that my kitchen at home is both messy and beautiful, and I find myself well-fed and nourished by her talk.

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Plenary 4

Food journalist Michele Kayal, co-founder of the online magazine, American Food Roots, conducts a workshop on online writing.Kitchen 10.jpg

Ok, once again, wow. Just wow. Kayal gives lots of useful nuggets on making an online presence, but for most of us this world continues to be a bit overwhelming.

She suggests that we use “first line grabbers” online.

She suggests we populate our writing with pics.

She indicates that we need over 500,000 viewers to get advertisers. I start to wonder if I have even will see or know that many people in my lifetime. Beads of sweat appear on my forehead.

Kitchen 11.jpgShe notes that we (ok, our blogs) may get sponsors who align with us if we have specific audiences. Unfortunately I think my audience at this point would be people who are overwhelmed by an online presence. And I’m not sure they would make much of an online presence.

She suggests we use WordPress to blog—it is free, intuitive, and easy to use.

Like Groff, Kayal notes that we need to think of a title and subtitle of a blog that reflects our mission statement.

And, by the end of the weekend, our heads are full of ideas on creating an online presence. Or absence. We are conjugating Twitter (I tweet, you tweet, we tweeted on Twitter, you twit.) I hear more than one ND participant say, “Oh sh*t, I forgot my Twitter password already.”  We think about blogging about blogging, and we are wondering what we are really about as we are coming up with mission statements for our own self-corporation.

We are asking people to “follow” us, to “friend” us, to “like” us, to “comment on” us and hopefully, hopefully, we remember how to continue to connect to each other in real ways.  And remember how fun it is to actually write.

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Winter 2014 Panel Discussion

Writing the Difficult Character 

IMG_2532The February 2014 weekend was organized by Hemda Arad and Anne AdelmanGuest speakers included Don Moss, author of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Man: Psychoanalysis and Masculinity and Hating in the First Person Plural, and professor of psychology, psychoanalyst and prolific psychoanalytic writer Joyce Slochower. MayKay Zuravleff read portions of her novel, Man Alive and playwright Ari Roth read selections to us from Goodnight Irene and other pieces of his plays. Author and psychoanalyst Lynn Zeavin joined the faculty in the role of hosting a panel discussion

screenshot_67Entitled “Writing the Difficult Character,” discussions across the weekend explored what could be learned from comparing the relationship between the writer and the audience, particularly in the writing of difficult characters, with tIMG_1842he relationship of the therapist to patient.  In what senses might the writer be said, through their ability to hold the difficult character with genuine respect and compassion, to likewise be holding the audience?

On Saturday afternoon, a panel discussion with MaryKay, Ari, Lynne, Anne and Hemda explored this question, paying attention to how it is that the writer achieves characters that are both difficult and alive for the audience.

Ari Roth

Click to watch Ari Roth defines “alive writing”.

Defining dead writing as writing that inures us in our reactions, that fails to elicit a kinetic response, Ari Roth explored the question of what defines alive writing.  Comparing it to the risky stories therapists are able to tell when they break outside the confines of professional writing, Roth describes alive writing as being liberating in our risk-taking in word choice and specificity, in going further than professional dictates propose.  “It’s being naked when you are usually clothed. It’s exposing when you are usually clothed.  It’s being inappropriate in shrewd ways to attract attention.” Going on to speak of the role of character likeability for keeping an audience, Roth commented, “You can like difficult people … because of the artistry involved in the portrait. But the author is generally in control of that portraiture.  They know how to love the difficult person.  …to be invested in the character; to have invested heart, sweat, intellect in trying to decode, understand, get to the marrow of the person – you can bet if you don’t have that investment, neither will your reader.”

screenshot_66Here, Lynne suggested an overlap between being a writer and being an analyst in a live analysis. Positing that holding characters in a way that is open to their difficulty means being open to the difficulties that character may arouse in the writer, she described the necessity of encountering and tolerating what is hateful in a patient as finding its necessary parallel as the analyst being able to sit with what is hateful in ourselves.  This, she stated, allows us if not to find what is lovable in that patient, to at least be willing to make sense of them and to appreciate their vulnerability.

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Click to see MaryKay Zuravleff and Ari Roth speak about characters in conflict

Another area of explored overlap arose around the question of neutrality, of being neutral toward the difficult characters or patients as a way to make mental space for being open to what the character or patient might bring and to be able to think about the character or patient apart from the impulse to jump to judgment.  This exploration became more complicated as Ari and MaryKay described the importance of raw conflict in their work.  For both writers and therapists, it can be a struggle to remain open when characters or patients are locked in intense struggles that expose their vulnerability or ugliness.  MaryKay, referring to the extreme pain that writer Andre Debuse III imposes on his characters, stated, “That’s the dramatic moment, that they must recover or not.  Trauma does many people in.  So putting yourself in that moment of peril and sitting with that character, not preaching, not pushing, but to sit with them.”

Ari’s response took the discussion to thoughts about the value of the risks that both writers and therapists take in posing these moments of peril: “Mary Kay’s vision and ..MaryKay’s gift to create characters who are infused with love and who evoke joy in the reader is such a gift and such the thing that I believe we are all striving for. And so for me to break people down and …you know, you enter into that sort of fierce cauldron is to emerge with a redemption on the other end.  That you go through the crucible and when all is said and done with it you come to a post-cathartic place where you can just sit with each other, where you can be, and that there is something joyful in the settling.”

screenshot_70“When I say ‘sit with them or get to some compassion or to some empathy,” MaryKay replied, “I’m not talking happy endings.”  Ari agreed. In many ways, this discussion echoed ideas explored throughout the weekend.  To sit with difficulty, whether as a writer or a therapist, does not mean happy endings.  It does mean recognition of a shared humanity, of the relational nature of that which is difficult, and it does seem to mean something about finding that which is joyful or hopeful or poignant in the shared settling.

From Surface to Depth, November 2013 Weekend, Part 1

Kerry.JPGThe November 2013 New Directions weekend entitled “Surface to Depth” was organized by Catherine Anderson and Kerry Malawista.  Our guest faculty — writers Howard Norman and Daniel Menaker and analysts Jane Hall and Elizabeth Fritsch* — focused on the use of memories, fantasies, stories, associations and dreams to reach deeper understandings of ourselves and thereby forge deeper connections with others. In her introduction to the weekend, Kerry suggested that both writers and therapists are required to engage in “a deep imagining of the world …through words, a shared language to create new meanings, to make sense of our lives, and to express or translate what we have learned along the way.”

Menaker 1.JPGDaniel Menaker had much to tell us about lessons he has learned along the way. Menaker is a former editor-in-chief of Random House Publishers and fiction editor at the New Yorker. He has published five books including two collections of short stories and has twice won the O. Henry prize. Menaker’s novel The Treatment was made into a film (available on Netflix). He teaches graduate courses on narrative non-fiction at Stony Brook. This is Menaker’s second appearance at New Directions.  His previous presentation was during a weekend organized by Michaele Weissman in 2010, “Imagining a Life.” (Michaele is also organizing the February 2014 weekend “Love and Hate in the Kitchen“.) That weekend was one of my favorites and I was eager to hear Menaker talk again. I was not disappointed.

My Mistake.gifMenaker read to us from his 2013 book, My Mistake. While this memoir includes topics as wide ranging as childhood, his work in the New York publishing world, marriage and parenting, and the loss of loved ones, in his talk with us he focused on parts of the book dealing with the diagnosis and treatment of his lung cancer. 

Today I watched the film I had shot of Menaker’s talk several times. My usual approach to writing these blogs is to go back to the film some weeks later and take copious notes. The problem I had today is that time and again, I would realize that somewhere along the way I had stopped typing. I kept losing myself in Menaker’s words and even more, his affect – the fear and relief, humor and gratitude, exhaustion and iron will — which came through so movingly in his descriptions of interactions with doctors and nurses, technicians, treatments, family and friends.

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(Click image to play video)

Part of the charm of Menaker’s talk was that he took obvious pleasure in his writing. But even more, to watch the film was to be swept up by that strange coupling of sadness and hope. It is a poignancy that I recognize as that which makes life wonderful and infuriating and indescribably strange.  It reminded me of Maurice Sendak, in his incredible Fresh Air interview, weeping and laughing as he told Terry Gross,

I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more. …There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.

(Click image to play video)

(Click image to play video)

Menaker laughed at himself as he described a wine-fueled YouTube search for songs to be played at his funeral. He moved so quickly from the outrageous image of regaling mourners with the Muppet’s rendition of Danny Boy to his reflections on “the tears of things, the tears of all things”, that it would have been easy to miss the catch in his voice as he considered the world moving on after he is gone, the mourners drawn out of their grief and back into life by “the world with its impossible variegation, the basic miracle of its existence”:

The young Irish dancers in Killarney dance, their arms as rigid as shovel handles.  Secret deals are done involving weapons or office space or crude oil or used cars or drugs.  New lovers, believing they will never have to get up, lie down together. The large Hadron Collider smashes….

“I don’t know why I’m so upset about the Higgs-Boson,” he laughed, as he collected himself to continue.  We laughed with him.

.. smashes the Higgs-Boson into view. Snow drapes its white stoles on the bare limbs of winter.  How can you resist?  The loss is only to the dying, and even they won’t feel it when the dying is done.

Menaker2.JPGWatching the film of Menaker’s talk alongside my husband, who likewise has a life-threatening illness, I understood the loneliness of that statement. My husband’s illness and its possible outcome feels like a thousand deaths to me, but it is impossible to escape the truth that we each die alone. At the same time, Menaker’s ability to move between the distance and relief provided by humor and the vulnerability of fear and grief, mean that he cannot help but evoke strong feelings of connection from his audience.

Charles Bukowski wrote, “We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.” I do not look forward to the many life-changing challenges of the coming years as my husband’s health becomes an ever more dominating part of our lives, but I take heart from Daniel Menaker’s testimony that laughter and love, gratitude and grief, can go hand-in-hand.

 

*Look for more blogs about this weekend’s guest faculty presentations in coming months.

Summer 2013 Writing Retreat

Deirdre's House.jpgThe Summer 2013 New Directions Writing Retreat was once again held at the beautiful home of Deirdre Callanan and Jack Harrison in West Harwich, Massachusetts. Fourteen participants and our writing instructors – Deirdre, Catherine, and Lauren Wolk – along with retreat organizer Don Chiappinelli gathered from Saturday evening July 13 through Friday evening July 19 for dailywhole group writing craft instruction followed by small group writing response and revision groups.

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Prior to the retreat, Don queried participants about desired topics of writing instruction for our whole group workshop time and based on the feedback received, Deirdre and Lauren worked with us on a number of writing topics, including:

  • structure
  • voice
  • point of view
  • sensory details
  • surprise
  • character development and arc
  • revision

Deirdre and Lauren.JPGFollowing much the same work format as the Summer 2012 retreat, daily whole group sessions began with texts that exemplified some aspect of the morning’s topic. Among the wonderful works we collaboratively analyzed were passages from Richard Ford’s Canada, I Captured the Castle by Dodie Smith, Red Sorghum by Mo Yan, and Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, as well as poems by Tony Hoagland, Mary Oliver, W.H. Auden, Margaret Atwood, Bob Kaufman, Joseph Fasano, and Seamus Heaney.

Elizabeth.JPGWe then tried our own hands at addressing the issue under discussion by writing in response to prompts, for example, describing a mood through the use of sensory details without ever naming the mood, or making a character understood through describing the contents of her purse. We rewrote passages to understand what would happen when we changed from first to second or third person, and attempted to create surprise by juxtaposing unexpected images.

Mary.JPG

This summer, some participants came to the Retreat with definite writing goals. Mary Cummins, for example, knew which writing she wanted to focus on when she arrived. On the usefulness of the retreat for working on this piece, Mary said, “One of the things I found most helpful was the suggestion to try to see my story from the point of view of a different character.  The exercise of re-imagining every scene from that different perspective opened up so many more emotional choices for me.” 

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Others came with no definite plans for their writing but with confidence that something worthwhile would emerge. Sharon Bisco commented “This year’s New Directions Summer Retreat provided me with an unexpected opportunity to reengage with an aspect of my writing that had been blocked for many years. I came to Cape Cod not knowing exactly what I wanted to work on and ended up revising a poem I’d written at New Directions in 2008. It was the combination of remarkable teaching and guidance by Deirdre and Lauren, plus the openness, encouragement and support of the members and other faculty, that allowed me to take what was, for me, an enormous leap in my growth as a writer.”

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Yet another group, the one that included me, arrived believing we would work on one project and ended up doing something quite different. My initial plan was to consult on a professional writing project, but ultimately found much more satisfaction in returning to a memoir piece I had begun the previous summer.  In what was a writing revelation to me, Deirdre worked with me to make the writing more spare, which contributed to creating the atmosphere of simultaneous cruelty and caring I was attempting to achieve.

Deirdre and Ona.JPG

Differences from last summers retreat were less about the writing aspects of the week and more about social aspects. This summer, rather than sharing housing, participants arranged their own housing, which inspired many more people to bring along family members or friends for part or all of the week. The participation of family and friends at social gatherings made for some wonderful and varied conversation. A highlight was our shared dinner at Sesuit Harbor Cafe in Dennis where we ate lobster, corn and clams on the half-shell, talking and laughing as the late afternoon sun sank into a gorgeous sunset and the local fisherman in their boats brought in the day’s catch.

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Billie and Jay.JPG

 

 

 

 

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Another change this summer was taking Wednesday as a day off, giving us an opportunity to rest or explore the Cape. Many took advantage of this for a day at the beach, exploring art galleries or going to the spa. Elise Blair, her husband and two friends ventured by ferry to Nantucket for the day. Elizabeth Trawick joined me in exploring the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port. As afan of Gorey, the only thing that was more exciting to me than the house itself was the discovery that Deirdre and Jack were friends with Gorey and that he designed their wedding invitations not long before his death.

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Perhaps the most anticipated aspect of me returning to the Cape was to join Don and Billie Pivnick in recreating the magic of last summer’s early morning swims across Sand Pond. This summer, the word got out about the remarkable pleasures of that morning indulgence and our group expanded to five when we were joined by Joanie Lieberman and Elise Blair. After posing for this photo, we happily dubbed ourselves the New Directions Swim Team.

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On our final day of writing together, Deirdre talked to us about the importance of a commitment to revision as one of the most important aspects of writing. Quoting John Irving, she said, “I don‘t have talent.  I have stamina.” It is not difficult to find stamina for writing as well as pleasure, humor, and hope when writing among the warm and thoughtful participants of the Summer New Directions Writing Retreat. I’m sure that I am not the only person looking forward to the 2014 retreat on the beautiful Cape.

New Directions Alumni Groups

In my most recent entry, I described what happens at an average New Directions weekend. There is one group that participates in the New Directions weekends that follows a different schedule. For the past fourteen years, New Directions has offered alumni groups for participants who have completed the program but desire to come back to work on on-going writing projects. Members of the Alumni Group meet four times over the weekend, when others are in the three two-pager meetings, and again on Sunday mornings. For the Saturday morning workshops, Alumni Group participants mix in with other New Directions participants.

Writing Group members.JPG

Members of the Alumni Group commit to attend at least two of the three weekends each year. The productivity of this consistency and commitment for working on long term projects can be seen in the accomplishment of the group that included Sheila Felberbaum, Linda Sherby, and Sylvia Flescher and was led by Sharon Alperowiz, Nan Heneson and Kathie Hepler. During the years they worked together (2009 – 2012) Sheila wrote an articled entitled, “Mourning and Creativity: Finding the Write Words” that is currently in press in the journal Psychoanalytic Social Work. She also completed the play “Trauma Ties”, which she has since performed in California, Florida and New York. Linda completed a book, Love and Loss in Life and in Treatment, published by Routledge in 2013, chronicling the emotional experiences of being an analyst while struggling with the loss of her husband. Linda continues to write on topics related related to the interaction between patient and therapist in her regular blog, Inside/Outside. Sylvia worked on memoir pieces and on an article entitled “Googling for Ghosts: A Meditation on Writer’s Block, Mourning and the Holocaust” that was published in Psychoanalytic Review in January, 2013. In this work, Sylvia describes her mother being 

Linda book signing.JPG

honored at Yad Vashem and how this ceremony helped unlock Sylvia’s writers block. Of their work together, Sheila reports that “Not only did we have the incredible support and intellectual stimulation of our talented co-leaders, but we also helped each other via email with revisions between meetings.” Sylvia adds, “We were committed to one another and invested in our mutual development as writers. We all grew so much.  I do miss our very special group!”

At the most recent weekend (Home, May 2013), I had the opportunity to sit in a meeting of the current Alumni Group. Joanie Lieberman, a psychoanalyst, and Deirdre Callanan, a writing teacher, run this group.  Members of the group include Mary Cummins, who is working on a collection about her parenting years and Elizabeth Trawick whose collection of pieces about life in southern Alabama captures both the peculiarities and dignity of her neighbors. Irene Landsman’s memoir is a reflection on moral development during her 1960s adolescence. Sharon Bisco’s fantasy novel is a philosophical consideration of personal growth, while Devra Adelman is working on several different projects that include a picture book and a number of professional pieces.  

What was clear watching the interactions of the group was that the comfort participants felt with one another and their ways of working together allowed for each to ask for the help she needed. When Sharon’s turn to discuss her piece came up, she asked for general reaction to the new section rather than line editing. This led to a discussion of the dreamlike rhythms in Sharon’s piece that gave it a poetic feel, which in turn gave rise to an examination of her description of a “sea of olive trees”.

“You’re not done with description here,” Deirdre told her. “You haven’t worn that out yet.” 

Deirdre’s comment was followed by a careful discussion of the continuity of form, style and word choice in a particular passage and the question of whether writing down the rules of the story world, what characters can and cannot do, when and for whom, would help Sharon to organize the complexities of the piece.

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At Irene’s turn, she read a new passage from her memoir, which prompted a discussion of varying the structure of the sentences. Irene raised the question of whether a particular character came across as a caricature, which prompted the suggestion that the character herself was self-caricaturing, not only of herself but of the era. Elizabeth then described how Irene’s way of writing vignettes without foregrounding concerns about structure helped her reconsider how to approach the vignettes that made up her own piece. Deirdre responded by commenting, “It’s the tentativeness of the truth that is gripping.  The search that will never be complete keeps it moving.”

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There are many reasons that a long-term writing group can be at the heart of success for writers. It was evident watching this group that their thoughtful and serious discussions offered a variety of possible supports that participants could make use of according to their own needs and predispositions. They offered frank and constructive feedback in an atmosphere of strong, positive support. They were clearly learning from one another and refining their own voices through explaining to one another what they were working to achieve in their writing of particular passages or uses of a given structure. And although they did not say it, I suspect that the respect each has for the opinion of the others is a strong motivation in what can be one of the hardest challenges of being a writer – showing up with new writing.

New Directions Weekend Conferences: A Glimpse at a New Directions Weekend

discussion.JPGThe new year of New Directions weekend conferences is rapidly approaching.  This year’s line-up gives us a lot to look forward to both as writers and as people interested in clinical issues. Upcoming weekends include:

  • Surface to Depth (Nov 8 – 10) – an exploration of searching within ourselves to connect more deeply to others
  • Writing the Difficult Character (Feb 7 – 9) – drawing on both the analyst’s and the writer’s craft to consider how to keep the reader engaged with emotionally difficult characters
  • Love and Hate in the Kitchen (Apr 4 – 6)- joining with cooking writers and foodies to consider how we think and write about cooking

For those who are joining New Directions for the first time this fall or who are considering the program, I thought it would make sense to provide an overview of an average New Directions weekend. I have an ulterior motive in doing this; I had planned to write this blog entry about the current New Directions Alumni Group. However, as I worked on that entry, it became obvious that the uniqueness of that group only makes sense when described against the background of the normal weekend. Look for the Alumni blog in the coming month.

IMG_2277New Directions weekends are organized around themes proposed to the program Co-chairs, typically by people with a history as faculty, co-chairs or New Directions participants.  The organizers – those who have successfully proposed a theme – then invite guest faculty, invite writers and analysts or therapists to serve as writing instructors, organize the weekend schedule, gather readings and create an overview and writing prompts for participants.

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(Click image to view video0

(Click image to view video0

During a New Directions weekend, an average conference day involves listening to two or three talks by the guest faculty.  The talks are kept deliberately short – about thirty minutes – in order to provide 40 minutes of audience discussion time. As this video of Faye Moskowitz interacting with the audience shows, these exchanges may involve questions of writing, clinical or personal insights, and are often quite lively.

Another key feature of a New Directions weekend is the small writing groups, which take on three different forms.  Prior to the weekend, participants have written a piece that is no more than 750 words – called two-pagers – although they are not necessarily two pages. These can be responses to the weekend prompts or anything else the participant decides to write. The two-pager writing groups meet three times during the weekend.  Members and leaders of these groups are the same across a given weekend, but change from weekend to weekend, giving participants the opportunity to work with many different people across the three years of the program. Leaders for these groups are usually a professional writer and an analyst or therapist. The two-pager groups workshop the pieces, providing support and feedback and sharing writing tips.

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The second form of writing group occurs on Saturday mornings, when participants work with a leader in a focused workshop.  With titles such as “Form, Craft, and the Personal Essay”, “Book Writers’ Workshop”, “Creative Process,” and “Free Write: Discovering What We Know”, these are groups that participants select each fall and stay with for the duration of the year in order to concentrate on particular aspects of their writing that are important to their own work.

IMG_2257Additionally, participants all work in Sunday morning groups. These are groups that do not change across the three years of the participant’s program.  In these groups, participants can work on longer-term projects with peers who come to know their work well. Often, strong bonds of friendship and collegiality form in these groups. Across my three years at New Directions, my Sunday group was the most important audience for my writing. I could give them lengthier pieces of writing and because they understood my project, they could provide knowledgable, pointed and in-depth response.  I published more professional articles during my three years in New Directions than in any other period of my career; I believe it was in part because I always wanted to bring to my Sunday group work that was worth their time.

(Click image to view video)

(Click image to view video)

The final thing that is worth describing about a New Directions weekend is the way it functions as a social and emotional home for many participants.  In presenting one’s writing to others, we make ourselves vulnerable. It is often the case at New Directions that the writing presented by participants is highly personal, which adds another layer of exposure. But even when that isn’t the case, even with writing that is not obviously about the writer, writing is nevertheless ultimately about connection.  The question of how our writing will be received is whether we will feel recognized, understood and supported or will feel the shame and anger of rejection or misrecognition. Assuming that even the most distanced or scientific writing expresses something a writer cares about, we always run the risk that there may not be an audience to receive what we present. New Directions offers an audience for our writing and for the vulnerable person behind the writing.  This comes out not only in the small groups but also in all the in-between times of the weekend when we can, if we elect, gather to eat and drink, talk, commiserate and laugh.Hall talk.JPGIMG_2273

Hall talk.JPG

May 2013 New Directions Weekend — Home, part 2

moskowitz with audience.jpgThe opportunity to listen to Faye Moskowitz not just once but twice was one of the great pleasures of the May 2013 New Directions weekend, Home.  Ms. Moskowitz is a professor English and Creative Writing at George Washington University. The winner of numerous literary awards, she is the editor of Her Face in the Mirror: Jewish Women on Mothers and Daughters (1994); the author of A Leak in the Heart (1985), Whoever Finds This: I Love You (1988), And the Bridge is Love (1991), and Peace in the House (2002); and has written numerous poems and essays for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, the Jerusalem Post, and numerous other publications.

In her Friday evening talk, a joint session with the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis, Ms. Moskowitz treated us to a reading of an original memoir essay, “The Things We Carry When We Come From Somewhere Else.” She began this beautiful meditation by confiding that at 83-years-old, she worries about who will have to clean up after her when she is gone.  Sorting through her belongings becomes the leitmotif that allows her to sort through her life, moving – as memories do – freely among her childhood in the Detroit suburbs, her early married life, her children growing up, and her own professional life into the present.

Early in the essay, Ms. Moskowitz tells us about going to the estate sale of a neighbor and buying a reptile bag that still smells of the woman, imagining the last time she would have carried the bag:

She seemed so alive to me at that moment and I feel so alive today, just a bit out of sorts at the intimations of mortality that this focus on divesting brings. “The world is certainly a sudden place,” says Frankie, in Member of the Wedding. More and more I know what that means.  The results of one blood test can turn that world around. One misstep on the stairs, and the nursing home looms. Not to sound overly dramatic but actuarial tables don’t lie. Numbers brook no arguments. I am determined to get a handle on all this while I still have the energy to do it. I set out gamely one morning, green trash bag in hand.  This is my mantra: one bag at a time.  I can do that, anyone can do that.  But its only 9:30 am and already I’m in trouble.  Here is a portfolio of crumbling kindergarten drawings. …A name in block letters stumbles across the bottom of each: Shoshana, Frank, Seth, Elizabeth.  …What to do?  Only a total stranger could trash them.

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Ms. Moskowitz extends her memories, moving from the things she carried with her in her 1962 move to Washington D.C. with her husband Jack and their “four children, an ailing mother in law, and emotionally dicey 18-year-old brother, and 2 Siamese cats,” to recalling her parents and grandparents, Orthodox Jews who moved from the shtetl to America during the Depression. She tells us that what they carried with them was elemental, soon discarded as obsolete. This takes us to memories of family Seders, and her mother’s red apples dishes. The apples send us to California and the 1960 Democratic convention, at which she was one of the only women delegates, meeting Eleanor Roosevelt and collecting a convention lapel pin – an Adlai Stevenson shoe. And so it goes, this rummage through her life, green trash bag still sitting empty.  “Let a stranger do it,” she says.

(Click to play video)

(Click to play video)

Now Ms. Moskowitz tells us the story of her son Seth, waking her in the middle of the night to retrieve a drafting table from an alley. It is clear that the power of the memory is not just the beauty of the table, discarded in someone else’s trash, but also this nocturnal mother-son conspiracy, a moment of shared recognition that endures long after the table is lost.

Her essay closes, just as she later tells us essays should finish, with an ending “that seems formed only for the purpose of being there”: 

An old Yiddish saying teaches that when a man or woman dies, a library is lost. As I go about my sifting, sorting, deciding, discarding, I remember Grace Paley’s wisdom. “Its always about the story,” she says.  When people move on, they make choices about the things they carry and what must be left behind, as my parents did when they came to America.  Fortunately, they carried their libraries in their hearts — no baggage limits — books of their faith in God, and in the Promised Land, books of family love.  I have inherited my family’s libraries.  All along, I realize, I have been passing those books to my children, just as they came to me. And I have been accumulating my own library, stories of red apple dishes and Stevenson shoes.  The tale of the drafting table is a volume in my library and my son has a copy.  The good news is that these books take up no visible space, they are all first editions, they are easily transported and their value increases each time they change hands.

On Saturday, filled with admiration for the grace of Ms. Moskowitz’s prose, I was eager to listen to her talk about writing entitled “Writing about Home, a User’s Manual.”  This talk was a reflection of how home is a resource in writing. We listened to Ms. Moskowitz read this poem by Joseph Rolnik:  (ca 1914).

“The First Cigarette”
My first Sabbath cigarette between my lips
one frosty Friday night
didn’t taste awfully good.
I snorted and coughed
but had to give it a drag.
This I took to be my first transgression.
So too Shloime Raskoser’s son
got up from his mother’s Sabbath table
to eat pig at the Gentile’s place.
But that sensitive young kid
couldn’t stomach stale pork–
he gagged and felt sick.
And all our young generation
we were loud with foul talk
behind girls’ backs and women’s dresses.
We troubled the sleep of the pious,
knocking store signs over,
and did lots of things we didn’t like,
and all because we wanted to arouse God’s wrath–
being pricked on by our sixteen years
the way ripe oats will prick a horse.
And God who watched over us all,
God against whom we talked with such impudence,
sat there on his throne in heaven
and laughed into his deep white beard.

(translated from Yiddish by Irving Feldman)

Moskowitz, audience 2.jpg

This poem, Ms, Moskewitz told us, was responsible for three essays and many pieces of essays.  Who can’t recall her first transgression?  “Home,” she said “is where we told our first lies, committed our first transgressions, suffered our first shame.  Home is where we learned that other people had sorrows, learned the taste of death.”  Home is a treasure trove of material for writing. Describing her father’s stories, alternating between longing and bitter descriptions of “der heim,” of the home they left to come to America, Moskowitz recalled,

I grew up with these stories of alternating love and loss and when the time came for my own exile from home, home was all I could think about.  And so, as I fell into the urge to write, it was only natural that I would try to be a life preserver, documenting early days so they could be caught between covers and thus redeem what I had lost.  Significantly enough, once I had my stories on paper, I gave my loss away. Sweet or bittersweet as the memories had been, they ceased to haunt me.

 

Finally, Ms. Moskowitz turned to discussing the essay she read to us Friday night, “The Things We Carry When We Come From Somewhere Else.” She described herself as long reluctant to chronicle her memories of her life in Washington, D.C., because of her sense that to do so would be to sully the purity of her earlier memories, acknowledging what she had lost in the move from Michigan, and validating that the first home exists in memory, at best. “In my 80s, I finally realized that though I would not move back home to Michigan again …I did not need to make that search for home any longer.  Transformed by the vagaries of memory, translated into printed word, home was permanent and unassailable.”

(Click image to play video)

(Click image to play video)

How did she evoke this home, so strong in her own memories, for her audience?  “Writing,” she told us, “is coming to your senses.”  Ms. Moskowitz took us on a tour of how she used her memories of the senses – the scent of Chanel in a soft alligator bag; the sound of a trash can rumbling to the the street; the taste of fresh sweet corn on the cob; the tentative touch of a bundle of her mother’s hair – to create for all of us a powerful, visceral connection. 

For me as for so many others, the pleasure of good writing is only partly the story told.  It is also the emotional and even physical pleasures of the rhythm, the alliteration, the choice of surprising, evocative words.  It is a real treat to be in the presence of such a gifted writer, someone with such a powerful understanding of how to use language to affect the reader or listener.  And still yet, the pleasures of our time with Ms. Moskowitz went well beyond her carefully prepared remarks.  In the question and answer period, listening to her straight-forward advice provided not only the benefit of her many years of teaching writing, but also gave us a glimpse of how lively, funny, sharp and opinionated — in the best way — Ms. Moskowitz can be. In very short order, I found myself leaning forward, grinning in anticipation of the next thing she might say. On Friday evening, I had another pleasurable surprise upon learning that Ms. Moskowitz is Sharon Alperovitz’s cousin.  As they shared stories of their relationship and their obvious affection for one another, we got yet another glimpse of home.

May 2013 New Directions Weekend — Home, part 1

 New Directions May 2013 Weekend – “Home”

P1020083.jpgOn Friday morning, May 3, I gathered with returning and first-time New Direction participants at the Pentagon City Residence Inn for the Spring 2013 weekend. Organizers Sharon Alperovitz and Evelyn Schreiber joined three guest faculty – Nancy McWilliams, Faye Moskowitz, and Deborah Luepnitz – to explore the theme “Home“. Over the course of the weekend, we considered the creation of writing homes; the work of activists and therapists to create material and psychic homes for the homeless; the homes in which we are raised and raise our families; the homes we carry with us; and the role of memory and the body as a home that defends against and repairs trauma and provides for the building of connections and a secure self.

Because each of these ways of thinking about home is too interesting to be reduced to a few lines in a single blog entry, I’ve decided to report on the May weekend in four separate entries. I plan to release a new blog entry every few weeks, which will keep me busy until the Summer Cape Cod retreat. In the first three entries, I will write about the presentations of the guest faculty; the final entry will highlight some of the other events of the weekend – the four participant readings, Linda Sherby’s reading from her new book, and the graduation.  I will also describe how the weekend writing groups are structured for participants, to give those blog readers who have never attended New Directions a sense of what happens. 

P1020076.jpgNancy McWilliams offered us the first presentation of the weekend, a talk titled “On Writing, With Nods to Virginia Wolf and D.W. Winnicott.” McWilliams is the author of numerous books and articles, including Psychoanalytic Diagnosis: Understanding Personality Structure in the Clinical Process and Psychoanalytic Case Formation, and teaches at the Graduate School of Applied & Professional Psychology at Rutgers. McWilliams, who is well-regarded for her ability to make complicated psychoanalytic concepts and techniques accessible without dumbing them down, described her development as a writer through reference to psychoanalytic conceptualizations of how a therapeutic home is created for analysands.

McWilliams began by describing her transferences to her internal and external audiences.  She suggested that her pleasure in writing is based in deep identifications with her parents, who valued her writing, and two of her high school teachers, who provided her with an inner sense that she had something to say. These teachers taught her “to find the fresh phrase, the surprising metaphor, a useful figure of speech, simplicity, and directness” and they had, she said, “an allergy to overwriting.” 

McWilliams next described the working alliance with a colleague that helped her redefine the task of writing in a way that allowed her to write her first book.  She moved to a consideration of the facilitating environment – the particular physical and temporal spaces needed for the writing endeavor. 

(Click image to play video)

(Click image to play video)

I particularly enjoyed the narration of her resistance to actually sitting down to write. (To view a three-minute video of this part of McWilliams’ talk, just double-click on the image to the left.) What she described was so familiar to me, capturing my own strategies for the painful beginnings of any writing project:

  “Whenever I have a writing project with a looming deadline, I go through what has become a familiar dance. I procrastinate. I think of a gazillion other things I have to clear off my plate before I can start. I keep trying to get my email inbox down to nothing… I do an inordinate amount of housecleaning, something that under other circumstances is hardly ever my first choice activity. As I pursue all these distractions, I have an image of myself as involved in a kind of circling behavior, like the kind one sees in an old dog when she is deciding exactly where and in what position to lie down, knowing that while it will feel lovely to rest, the act of lying down will be a painful strain on her joints.” Overcoming her resistance to creative expression, McWilliams told us, “tends to be the stark phenomenon that I can no longer tolerate the shame of not following through with the writing task that I had either agreed to do or had announced that I intended to do.”

Finally having a rough draft allows her to move to working through, which conjures for her a self-state of being in a zone in which she becomes preoccupied with the project, in which everything that happens to her becomes part of the experience of writing.  She revises in this state, reading with her ears, finding the right word, the perfect rhythm. 

P1020078.jpgMcWilliams concluded by reflecting on home. To write, she told us, she needs to be alone, but it is an aloneness that is ultimately relational and is always tied to the feeling of being at home.  It is to be “alone in the presence of the mother,” of a real and an internalized audience of those we trust, those who believe we have something to say and who respond, as McWilliams described her high school teachers as doing, with direct criticism, honest praise, tact, and always with a willingness to be our best supporters by being our best critics.

This may be a feeling that resonates for many in the New Directions Program, which was, after all, conceived as a home for psychoanalysts and therapists, writers and academics who share a desire to explore the movements between clinical insights and practices and writing. In her introduction to the weekend, Sharon commented, “It seems amazing that it has taken so long in New Directions to do a weekend on home, because …from the beginning, we were very certain that what we were hoping to give to you was a place that would feel safe and warm and enclosing, to be able to bring out your wonderful intellect and skills as writers, and I think by and large we have been able to do that.” I came to New Directions, not as a clinician but as an academic from a largely unrelated field with an already well-established record of publication. I already knew how to talk aIMG_2296.JPGbout my writing with others, how to revise and polish. I have barely begun to understand what it is about finding a home among the people at New Directions, in spite of my professional foreignness, that has contributed to making the past five years the most productive of my professional writing career.  While I’m not yet able to say much about it, I think it very much has something to do with the quote Deborah Luepnitz used in the title of her talk (which I will write about next):  “I felt it shelter to speak to you.”

More Perspectives on the Summer 2012 Retreat

With the May New Directions writing weekend, Home, fast approaching, I’ve been thinking again about last summer’s Cape Cod retreat. Not long after the retreat, I had written to retreat participants to ask questions:

  •      What were some of the more memorable writing exercises or events for you?
  •      What were some of the more memorable extracurricular outing or activities for you?
  •      What has happened with the writing you were working on since the retreat?
  •      Would you be interested in having some of your summer writing attached to the blog? 

I received responses from five participants — Mary Davis, Ona Lindquist, Sheila Felberbaum, Irene Landsman, and Annette Leavy – and thought I would include their responses to provide more perspectives on the weeklong summer writing retreat.

What were some of the more memorable writing exercises or events for you?

Deirdre and Sheila.JPGSo many momentous events at Cape Cod. I loved the poem “Woman Enough” by Erica Jong. She fed our souls, our hearts, our minds and our stomachs with home made breads and goodies. I loved the generous handouts given to us each day. Prose, poetry, and craft as well as the creative way in which our free writes were offered. We were able to write in the style of wonderful literary giants or to pick from a cornucopia of offerings spread like jewels on a table to jog our memories and imagination. I chose a bracelet made of mahjong tiles and the prose poem “Ma’s Tiles” just spilled right out. I later worked on the poem in my memoir class (during  a weekend ND conference) with Jeanne Lemkau further tweaking and tightening. (Sheila Felberbaum)

 The exercises that required us to use arbitrary rules (words with no e, words with only four letters, etc) were the most interesting and helpful — they gave me a new way of thinking about how we choose the words we choose, which usually (for me) is intuitive rather than truly thought out. (Mary Davis)

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     Deirdre and Jack are the two best hosts I’ve ever known and their generosity infused our week not just as recipients of their hospitality but as writers and seminar participants. There was a tone that somehow mingled with the beauty of the setting to create a unique experience. Deirdre is both vigorous and generous, a remarkable combination in a workshop leader. The writing highlight of the week for me was my participation in her small group workshop. I was very fortunate to be in a group of good writers and thoughtful respondents. The writing exercises are always a more mixed bag for me. However, I valued the opportunity to listen to other people’s writing, both the writers Deirdre and Lauren shared and ND writers. (Annette Leavy)

 I’ve been working on a memoir with a psychological/political slant since my second year in New Directions. I had written about a dozen vignette/chapters and workshopped many of them at New Directions, but I hadn’t found a way to begin the book.  The introductory chapter I drafted for the retreat was something I worked on all week — it was invaluable to spend so much time with it  — getting feedback, working and reworking it and making it substantially better.  From our morning workshops:

  • I loved working on poetry even though my project is prose.
  • I loved being read to — like the best part of a good day in first grade. 

Over the course of the week with Deirdre and Lauren and all my fellow writers, I heard so many little snippets of wisdom:

Ona.jpg

  • “I know I have a story when I have two stories.” (Grace Paley)
  • “Good writing is hard writing”  (Nathaniel Hawthorne)
  • “Every object, rightly seen, unlocks a new faculty of the soul.”  (Emerson)
  • “When you are tempted to use an adverb; find a better verb.”  

Deirdre read to us from picture books and we used both the imagery and the content to inspire our own writing in surprising ways. 

We got serious about grammar and usage and how, for example, simile, metaphor, extended metaphor, and personification are similar and different and what’s useful for what. 

There were a series of writing exercises that were mind-boggling and mind-bending like these:

Deirdre and Anne.jpg

  • “Describe a color without invoking the sense of sight”
  • “Pick a four letter word, list other four letter words that relate to that word, then write a poem using all of those words and other four letter words.”
  • “Write a passage using only words with a single vowel each”
  • “Write a piece of poetry or prose in which the first line begins with A and each subsequent line begins with  the next letter of the alphabet.” (Irene Landsman)

What were some of the more memorable extracurricular outing or activities for you?

·   marsh colors.JPGWe visited the Edward Gorey house and found out why it’s called “Elaphant House”.  Both my kids were big Gorey fans and it was fun to see how deeply weird he really was. I could have looked at the view of the marsh from Deirdre and Jack’s house all day long, through all its changing light and color.  But then I’d have to become a painter and give up this writing business. (Irene Landsman)

·   I loved the walk to swimming in the pond and the bay, the view out my window, sharing a house with Andrea, Lynne and Elizabeth and being happy there… (Annette Leavy)

I didn’t do much extracurricular — my own tendency at things like that is to retreat into my work and be a little bit of a hermit. I was working on my book — the last bits of it — and sent it in to the editor that week. (Mary Davis)

Annette and Mary.jpgI felt energized each morning by the beautiful walks near Deirdre’s warm and magical home. (Sheila Felberbaum)

What has happened with the writing you were working on since the retreat?

·  Annette and Mary.jpg I gave the paper “Mourning and Creativity” that I worked on at the Cape in North Carolina. It was well received so worth the 11 rewrites! (Sheila Felberbaum)

Annette and Mary.jpg

I began working on a story, which I shared with my small writing group.  I have continued to make steady progress on it, although it is not yet finished. I also received useful feedback on the other story I shared, and the feedback has helped me to improve on it and give it finishing touches. (Annette Leavy)

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       My book has come out. (Mary Davis) 

Here’s a link to Mary’s book – Language and Connection in Psychotherapy: Word Matters

 

The retreat inspired me to set a goal of having my book in a complete first draft by summer of 2014. I don’t know if I’ll quite get there but I’ve written a dozen more vignette/chapters since August, and blocked out more. Our ND Alumni Group began checking in on a weekly basis, and I’m also in a local memoir-writing group that meets monthly. Those things have given me the support and encouragement to keep the nose to the grindstone (or at least the fingers on the keyboard). I’ve also been continuing to write and learn about poetry — it helps my prose and gives me much-needed respite from sometimes painful and always difficult memoir work. Having struggled through Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, I decided I needed more basic knowledge, and now I’m taking an online course on poetry through the University of Wisconsin-Madison Continuing Studies program. I’m at the stage where at least I know much, much more specifically how much I don’t know. I compressed my clinical schedule to make a free day for writing. I think I’m in this writing life so far I couldn’t get out if I wanted to … good thing I don’t want to. (Irene Landsman)

Would you be interested in having some of your summer writing included the blog?

 

The Aviary

A Sensual Construction

Ona Lindquist

 The grapple bucket

connected to the end

of the strong arm

curls in slow jerks inward

toward the fat wrapped

rubber wheels

spread wide

and is tucked between them

for the night    a cat

in a ball    the haul

of a long day

behind it.

 

Next the arm detaches             

from the tucked bucket

in a quick change 

with a facile thumb

lurching outward

to grab the rugged

auger with telescoping

extensions.

 

And the long arm

of the CAT

curls back again

in slow jerks

dropping the auger

between the wide

spread wheels to nest

in the grapple bucket

and the dark

vertical

silence

the blackbirds

inhabit.

 

The Fall of Fallow 

Ona Lindquist

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I fell out of a closet today  thought

I was dead.

The mice gnawed a hole

in my back

the length of my torso

where they stored acorns

corn flakes and kibble

the hole scarred over  a smooth

thick purple.

 

I shook myself off the cache spilling

like pay dirt from the mouth

of a slot machine. Betcha’

I was dreaming

of a beast of burden

and my perverse affection

for scars  the once living

gripping

the live.

 

The Writing Prompt

Irene Landsman

Lauren and Deirdre have been giving us challenging and stimulating writing exercises all week.  We should return their generosity, and I have a few suggestions:

for MONDAY:

Use your non-dominant hand, and your neighbor’s notebook, to compose a reflection on your writing process in the form of a Villanelle.  Only use words with a consonant-to-vowel ratio of at least 5 to 1.

for TUESDAY:

This is a copy of  Canterbury Tales.  Please read a stanza and pass it to the person next to you until we have finished it. 

Think about a journey you have been on in your life.

Write about that journey, in Middle English, using only words with exactly three syllables.

for WEDNESDAY:

This morning we will consider some selections having to do with water — imagery, symbolism, metaphor and so forth.

First, please read Moby Dick.  You will have 5 minutes.

When you have completed the reading,  go down to the dock, put on the scuba gear you will find there, submerge yourself completely and compose a sonnet in grease pencil on waterproof board.

For THURSDAY:

We all know Tolstoy said happy families are all alike (and boring), and that in his view Anna and Vronsky were the ideal couple.

Enough of that. 

Just pretend you had a happy childhood.  Re-write your life story with yourself as Anna Karenina, and with an upbeat ending.

For FRIDAY: 

Beneath your chair, you will find a bottle of scotch, a razor blade, and a dishpan.  Drink the scotch, cut out your heart, place it in the dishpan, and stomp on it.  By now, you will find this quite easy.

 

Ma’s Tiles

Sheila Felberbaum

Crack, Bam…

Tiles are thrown and discarded on the oval kitchen table

in our Long Island ranch on North Green Avenue

Dragons,Flowers and Wind able to blow in all directions

North, South, East and West.

It’s Monday, it’s Mahjong day and Phyllis, Harriet and Rose

Have come over to play.

Coffee that’s perked, milk that’s whole and Entenmann’s cake

freshly warmed from the oven join in on the yellow formica counter.

My mother cackles with laughter as the taciturn tiles are swept up

in wondrous waves of ivory.

My bedroom…(I no longer Brooklyn-Share- one -room with at first three then

two of my siblings)… is just outside the kitchen.

In a role reversal 13 year old me yells out…”I have to sleep… you’re too loud!”

“Tough” they yell back, laughing even louder.

Seven years later, now married, I join a Mahjong group

comprised of women living in my apartment house in Queens.

My Pharmacist husband works the swing shift which ends at 11P.M.

I flee the game to feed him, flee what feels like a sadistic, sequential suicide.

I can’t keep up with these women, shouting commands, changing directions,

enthusiastically enthralled in the game.

I feel as if I’m a hybrid of Lucy Arnaz working the chocolate conveyor belt and the

sorcerer’s apprentice with tiles multiplying like buckets in Disney’s Fantasia.

Pass the tiles…is that to the left or to the right? What’s right? How do I meld?

Whose next?

Crack, Bam…

 I have problems ordering things in my mind, negotiating navigation and direction

demands. Mahjong’s a metaphor for my life.

 Fast forward 40 years and my mother dies of cancer.

Yet even death has respites of relief.

I find some surprises cleaning out Mom’s Florida condo as loss empties my emotional

world. There’s

 No cash rolled up in socks No diamond rings, Limoges China

or Persian rugs of woven multicolored threads

No stocks or bonds, cashmere or fancy cars.

 My mom’s treasures are stuffed in kitchen cabinets commemorating events like years

of take -home Chinese food…Thirty- eight compartmented white plastic covered dishes

that once proudly housed egg -foo -yung, vegetable lo- mien, egg rolls and fried rice.

 One day, I too will leave behind a trove of memory- tinged ephemera. Included will be

shopping bags from the mundane Macy’s Christmas motif to the magnificent Asian

Department store Takashimaya’s Origami extravaganza.

 Waiting for me, behind the KitchenAide mix-master is a rectangular, rust- colored

velvet box.I pop the hood and eye -caress the ancient multi-symboled yellowed ivory

tiles. They feel warm, like Mom’s skin. They feel alive.

 Crack, Bam…

 I will play with my mother’s Mahjong tiles in my own way…

I will fashion bracelets and necklaces for myself my daughter,

my daughter-in laws and my granddaughters.

 I will hear my mother’s unforgettable ….uninhibited …irreplaceable laugh.

 Note: Photos by Sheila Felberbaum, Don Chiappianelli and Gail Boldt 

Summer 2013 Writing Retreat

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Wonderful news!
Deirdre Callanan and Lauren Wolk have agreed to once again host the New Directions Summer Writing Retreat on beautiful Cape Cod.
Dates: July 13 – 19
Where: Deirdre and Jack’s house, West Harwich MA
If you are interested in participating, contact Don Chiapinelli at dchiap@dclcsw.com
FYI:  July is high season on the Cape and accommodations get booked early, so if you are considering attending, you’ll want to make reservations for your housing now. 

Summer 2012 Cape Cod Writing Retreat

cape.jpgIt didn’t take long for most of us to realize how smart we had been in having responded to Deirdre Callanan, Don Chiapinelli, and Lauren Wolk’s offer that we might come to Cape Cod for the summer writing retreat. And by “smart”, I mean “incredibly lucky.” Those of us who had the chance to hear Lauren, Don or Deirdre speak at the April weekend, Inspiration in our writing: Who are our heroes? already knew that we would be working with extraordinary teachers of writing. What we didn’t know beforehand was how beautiful our setting would be, how hard Don had worked all summer to prepare all of the details of our time on the Cape, or how generous and gracious Deirdre and Jack Harrison would be in welcoming us to their home.

The retreat started on Saturday evening with a reception on Deirdre and Jack’s back deck, a nice opportunity to reconnect with friends from pervious New Directions events and to meet those new to us, including partners who had also made the trip.

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The writing began Sunday morning, as we gathered in Deirdre’s dining room around her expansive table – actually a reclaimed worktable from a local high school library.  Each morning, Deirdre or Lauren began by reading a poem or an excerpt from a novel or short story, a work of non-fiction or even, to my delight, a picture book.  They led us in discussions of particular features of the writing, followed by exercises that alternated between devious and delightful, that produced groans and laughs and surprising writing. 

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Take Lauren’s requirement that we write using only four letter words. I suspect that I am not the only one who came to the secret conclusion that surely she did not count “the” or “and”: 

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Day’s work done
Wild boys trod the hard path, tall corn left and right.
July heat.
Cows look over, chew sour oats, sigh, move away.
Pants, socks, tees rank, cast off.
Boys dash then, hurl from dank pond bank,
soar, arms and legs skew.
Fast, cold pain,
Yelp, gasp.
Swim into life.

 

Lauren pushed us to think: Is this the right word or the easy word? 

Sleek and elegant in its Upper East Side certainty, the computer refused to notice the pencil.

How does everything in the scene tell the story?

Hunkered down in the most comfortable chair, which wasn’t saying much, her concentration all on that new phone, sending and reading texts, stifling chuckles. Glancing up only occasionally, sliding her eyes across the scene then back down.  Her brother leaning into the door frame, decidedly not in the room.  Her sister at the side of the bed, quiet then loud.  The scorned second wife, assigned to a corner, ignored.  It was late, and the coroner was slow to come.

But it was Deirdre’s questions that took me by surprise:

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What were your childhood’s buried treasures?
What were your childhood gems?
What was precious to you?
What were your rules and what rules did you break?
What fights, play or real, do you remember?
What from your childhood would you never forget?
What did you keep in your first important place?

 

I had come certain I knew what I wanted to write about, until Deirdre asked, “What did you build, create or imagine as a child?” and something completely unexpected took flight in me. 

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Wheeling and swooping, three flocks of cousins glide in from different parts of the old farmhouse and somehow, inexplicably, converge in the kitchen, heading for the front door. 
 
Earthbound, their grandmother bellows out to them as they pass, voice thick with irritation:
 
“You kids stay out of that barn!  You wreck those hay bales.  That hay is for cows, not for kids!”
 
To the flock, her words are no more than distant cries.  They pause, hover for a moment, puzzled by the sound, then answering a different call, they pivot in midair and plunge through the porch and out into the freedom of the yard.  Soaring across the wide gravel driveway and around the tractor not yet cleaned and stored for the night, bounding over the metal fence that separates people territory from cow yard, they flit across the mud and manure, still deep and thick from the morning’s rain, and land in the hardpack dirt of the barn floor.
 
IMG_0578.jpgLater each morning, we broke into four smaller writing groups.  Besides working with Deirdre and Lauren, we now had the chance to work with Don and with Catherine.  In these groups, we began the work on the pieces we had each brought to the retreat as our primary focus for the week, although some participants worked on new pieces created at the retreat in these groups.

Cape Cod_0688.jpgI was assigned to Catherine’s group, which was put together for those of us who wanted support for professional writing. This gave me the chance to work closely with Anne Adelman, Billie Pivnick, Sheila Felberbaum, and Mary Davis, who provided an outstanding audience for a book chapter I was revising.  These groups met for four of the six days, and on the other two days we were split up and had the opportunity to work with other teachers and participants.

Cape Cod_0595.jpgIn the afternoons and evenings, we had the option of writing or of enjoying the many tourism opportunities the Cape has to offer. For me, this meant trips to the beach, to Provincetown and to art galleries, and a nearly constant consumption of seafood.  If lobster could somehow be incorporated into a dish, I’m sure I ate it.  Early mornings likewise offered opportunities to enjoy the Cape. Several participants gathered regularly for morning walks through the Harwich Conservation Trust. For Billie, Don and I, early mornings meant unforgettably beautiful swims across Sand Pond.    

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Our final night was spent as it should have been – celebrating with photos and toasts and with a wonderful potluck, followed by a reading in which each of us had the opportunity to present a portion of what we had been working on during the week. I think Deirdre and Lauren must have been asked more than a few times whether we could come back to the Cape for the Summer 2013 New Directions Retreat. 
 
Photos by Don Chiapinelli and Gail Boldt

Welcome to New Directions: Writing With a Psychoanalytic Edge

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It seems right that this New Directions: Writing With A Psychoanalytic Edge blog was conceived during the 2012 Summer Writing Retreat. It is the third day of the retreat and I am standing in the kitchen of Deirdre Callanan and Jack Harrison’s Cape Cod home.  I’m talking with Jack about using social media to get out the word about the New Directions writing program, while trying to help wash the dishes from the morning’s writers’ workshop.  Deftly countering my efforts to worm in beside him at the sink, Jack proposes, “What brought people to this retreat?  What keeps people coming back to the writing weekends?  That’s the news that you need to get out about New Directions.”

There is so much to be said about the New Directions Program.  The most basic point is that New Directions is a three-year, post-graduate program that brings together practicing psychoanalysts, psychotherapists, academics and writers who want to develop their professional and/or personal writing skills.  These skills are developed through small group writers’ workshops led by experienced writing faculty and through whole-group presentations and discussions of weekend themes.

This description, while accurate, doesn’t answer Jack’s questions.  What happens at New Directions that draws people in and keeps them coming back?  That’s what I hope to capture here.

Through this blog, I hope to engage you in the powerful writing community that is New Directions. I am writing this for past and current New Directions participants, as a forum to help keep us connected.  I am also writing for those who might be interested in the program and want to understand the experience better.

I plan to add about nine new posts per year.  I will write some of these, and some will be written by guest bloggers who are New Directions participants.  I anticipate four categories for the blog posts:

  •   reporting on the New Directions writing weekends and week-long retreats;
  •  highlighting the writing accomplishments of New Directions participants;
  •  profiling the writing instructors that are working with ND; and
  •   discussing writing with a psychoanalytic edge.   

I’m glad you found this blog.  To follow the blog, email me and I’ll put you on the subscription list. I hope through your comments and suggestions that it will become an extension of the New Directions community, in miniature.  

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