Psychotherapy and writing are both the same and polar opposites.
In psychotherapy, the object is to resolve conflict, to help a patient understand why he’s in the predicament he’s in and why he’s experiencing so much anguish.
In fiction, a writer’s task is to create conflict, to place his character in an impossible predicament, and then to find a way for him to resolve it.
Both therapy and writing have conflicts that need resolution. Often, the conflict resides in the past, in a place that is not readily accessible to the patient or to the fictional character. Both need to track the course of their lives backwards, to chase an elusive past that has come back to haunt them.
Chasing Backwards is not an easy task. The mind has defenses that tries to protect it from unpleasant feelings. Defenses like denial, projection, turning against the self, identification with the aggressor and repression (to name just a few), are roadblocks to remembering. Often, to remember is to experience pain, and who wants to suffer? The more traumatic the memory, the more powerful the defenses.
One example is losing a parent or loved one at an early age. A common remnant of this experience is the anniversary reaction. Often the adult who has experienced such a loss does not remember the loss, but instead experiences a sense of sadness, melancholy or anger on or near the time of year the loss occurred. He has repressed the memory, but it emerges as a symptom that seems to come from nowhere. Only after chasing the past, and tracking down the real cause of the symptom, does it become clear what is really going on.
Whether it’s resolving a conflict in psychotherapy or creating a conflict in a novel, understanding the nature of the human defense system is the key ingredient to doing it successfully.
Art Smukler MD is the author of Chasing Backwards, a psychological murder mystery.