Wednesday, September 06, 2006


By Tory Butterworth

So, Nancy has set the stage for this blog: mystery writers and day jobs, right?

I've just switched day jobs. Three years ago, while working on starting my private practice as a counselor, I realized it was time to bite the bullet and get licensed. For this I needed 1000 "practice" hours doing therapy under a licensed therapist's supervision. So I got a job as a therapist in a community mental health center.

That job could best be described as laboring "in the trenches." Very, very ill patients. Massive poverty. I was confronted with one horror story after another of people struggling just to get by.

I learned a lot in my three years there. I became adept at psychological triage: sorting groups of patients into those who needed to be hospitalized and those who could wait for three weeks for a therapist. I learned to identify the criminal personalities, which we sent off to the forensic unit. I decided, once I was licensed, to leave the life of poverty so well modeled by my patients there.

Now I have a job lined up in research. I'll be helping families talk to their loved ones about end-of-life decisions and collecting data on the results. It's a big relief to be back in research after doing my time in treatment. I was afraid, as a former (research) boss commented, "I'm not as interested in (that) project, not enough angst!" I've had enough angst, thank you very much.

In yoga class last week the teacher said, "If this (posture) doesn't give you enough yoga drama, if you still want to go home and kick the dog or have a fight with your husband, you can . . . (instructions on how to make the posture more excruciating)." Then it hit me: it's all about managing the drama in your life.

So, this is where I go from the, "writer talking about her day job," to the, "counselor talking about writing." We all need drama in our life. Some of us get it through an addiction or adopting ten high-needs kids, but others of us get it through fiction. I'm all for stepping back and looking at drama as a dispassionate observer (as you do in research) rather than having to act it out at home. I'd rather feel the angst vicariously through the characters in a novel than go through the angst myself.

I once spent a week at a luxury hotel in Hawaii, the sort of place where I couldn't imagine anyone being unhappy. (My God, there were penguins standing around in the lobby!) I was impressed by how much drama guests could create over meals not perfectly done or rooms not perfectly clean. Now I know what to tell them. "Go read a novel!" Or, if you want real drama, try to write one.


Meryl Neiman said...

That's a great point, Tory. I have a few friends who spend their lives staggering from one dramatic moment to the next. Some of the drama is unavoidable, but I have to believe that the endless cycle can't be entirely coincidental. I think we all crave drama, but we do so to different degrees. What I hadn't thought about before is fiction as a way of channelling our innate need for drama.

Do fiction writers need more drama in their lives than the average person? Is that why we write?

Do you use writing as a therapeutic device? In other words, do you ever suggest to a patient living on the edge that he/she start writing the drama instead of living it?

Anonymous said...

Great post, Tory! Gives a whole new perspective on the Drama Queen. (Have you ever spend much time around theater people??) I look forward to more insights from you!

Libby Hellmann said...

What a fun concept! I knew there was a reason I liked Pittsburgh. Good luck, all.

Tory Butterworth said...

>Do you use writing as a >therapeutic device? In other >words, do you ever suggest to a >patient living on the edge that >he/she start writing the drama >instead of living it?

Good question, Meryl! I'm not sure there's an easy answer to it. Certainly I encourage many of my clients to journal. But journals are usually written for the writer only, and so may not make good reading. Trying to communicate to others, that's a whole different ballgame!

I think writing is ONE WAY to channel drama, but certainly not the only one. Which one you pick may depend on your temperment (as Nancy alluded to, regarding theatre people.) When I was younger I did it through folk dancing. I needed something more active, then. Now writing is more appealing.

Joyce said...

Nice post, Tory!

I do think writing can be therapeutic. When everything in my life is going smoothly, I tend to put off writing. The more I have going on and the more stress I have, the better I write. It's easier for me to get the emotion on the page that way. Does anyone else find that to be true for themselves?

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, Tory! I'm pondering over the questions raised about writers and drama. I'm not sure if writers have more drama in their lives than average people, but I do think we are trained to be more aware of it.

Meryl Neiman said...

And do crime writers crave drama more than literary writers? Do we kill people off as a way to channel our need for conflict?

Debra Lee said...

Wonderful post, Tory! Wow, Joyce sounds like me. When life is treating me good, I have trouble putting conflict on the page. Give me major stressors and it shows in my writing.

Working Stiffs said...

Wow, this is getting to a whole other level! Do we put into our writing what we need in our life?

e.g. romance, justice, eroticism, revenge, excitement

I'm throwing the question out there, but I'm not sure of the answer.

Right now, I need a good landscaper, but I'm pretty sure writing about one isn't going to create it. :-)

Anonymous said...

Sorry, that last post was from me. I haven't perfected my blog posting skills yet, I see!

-Tory Butterworth

Joyce said...

Meryl asked: Do we kill people off as a way to channel our need for conflict?

Great question!

I tend to avoid conflict, so the opposite might be true for me. I don't like it in real life, so I live vicariously through my characters?

I don't know.

But it is fun to kill off a character you really don't like, especially when they're based on a real person! :-)

Annette said...

Oh, yes. I love to base a character on someone who has...well, let's keep this PG rated...messed with me and then kill them off. Even if that person read the book and didn't recognize themself, I would know. Heh heh heh.

I also enjoy the "escape" of writing drama when my life is in turmoil. I can take out a lot of frustration by torturing my characters and knowing that the good guys are going to win out in the end.