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

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.

Faye Moskowitz2.jpg

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.

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 three or four 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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