Archives for March 2014

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.


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.

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