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Therapists Wired to Write

by Sarah Kershaw

THE six psychotherapists who meet on Friday mornings on the West Side of Manhattan in an office with a couch — of course — a box of tissues and a bouquet of peonies and red tulips, make up what may be the most nurturing and deeply connected creative writing group to arrive on the literary scene.


​These women, some with specialties in children, trauma, Zen Buddhism and the intersection of religion and therapy, have taken inspiration from their practices to write screenplays, short stories, novels and nonfiction books. They have also used the group as a safe cocoon to vet and write unpublished prose, a dissertation, writings on traumatized Iraqi war veterans and now a book on running a writing group for psychoanalysts.

The stuff of therapy is not only a lot stranger than fiction but also contains the ever-unfolding narrative of life, with its pain and pathos, feats and failures.

That is some rich material for a writer.

“Everybody comes in with their own stories, and they can be so staggeringly original,” said Bonnie Zindel, the psychoanalyst who started the writing group seven years ago. “We all need stories to make sense of our lives, we’re all wired to tell stories, and nature gave us that. For us, we wonder, ‘What is the story that our patients are telling?’ There are mother stories, father stories, ghost stories and the eternal universal story of a child trying to separate from its mother.”

Some of the therapists had writer’s block when they joined the group, where they free associate on paper about different topics like family, their childhood rooms, what their daughters think of them and “when is money not money?”

“Mothers are a big topic in here,” Ms. Zindel said.

Lisa Cataldo, who worked for three years in the group on her dissertation — an inquiry into why Christianity does not have an image of God as a mother — said her work with patients helped inspire her academic writing, but she struggles with creative prose. “I have fiction envy,” said Dr. Cataldo, an assistant professor of pastoral counseling at Fordham University, who said the therapists did use many “shrinky terms” in discussing their writing.

“Writing in the presence of another is so wonderful,” Ms. Zindel said. “It feels that because it’s in relationship with others, it’s writing about yourself at the deepest level.”

Therapists are bound by professional ethical codes to obtain consent from their patients if they write about them, whether in fiction or academic papers, or they are required to disguise them so thoroughly that they would not recognize themselves. The therapists say that even if they disguise their patients, they still ask for consent.

Ms. Zindel, who had published three novels and written two produced plays before she started the group in 2002, has since published a short story and written a screenplay, and she is a founding editor and creative literary editor of the journal Psychoanalytic Perspectives, the first academic publication in that field to devote a section to fiction, she said. She is working on a one-woman show about Simone de Beauvoir, as well as the book on running a therapists’ writing group.

The idea of walking into a small room full of therapists sitting in a circle and holding pens and paper can be quite daunting, and it was so initially even for these women. But the self-described “good mothers,” — the role the therapists, who practice what is known as relational psychoanalysis, hope to play for their patients — said they were able to use the group support to tackle their fear and ambivalence about writing.

Editing and constructive criticism are not what they seek from one another. What they get for 90 minutes a week is a big departure from the editing process most writers face, or even the feedback from writing groups and classes. When Ms. Zindel writes group e-mail messages to them, she starts with “Hello, beautiful writers!”

“It’s risky to write, first of all,” Dr. Cataldo said. “There was some degree of anxiety or fear about putting our words out there for other people to read, so much fear of judgment. Looking at that fear head on and dealing with our fear, that’s a lot of what we did.

Shelle Goldstein, a psychotherapist in Nanuet, N.Y., said she used the “sounding board” of the group to work through her conflicted feelings about Judaism: while she wanted to connect with her religion, she felt it was too rooted in patriarchal concepts.

She is working on her own version of the Haggadah, the religious text used in Passover Seders, and since joining the group, she had a bat mitzvah at the age of 67. (The whole writing group attended).

In Ms. Zindel’s office on West 57th Street, at the National Institute for the Psychotherapies Training Institute, the members typically start out updating one another on current projects. Then Ms. Zindel gives them an assignment.


On a recent Friday, the assignment was “revisiting bliss,” bliss having been the first topic the group wrote about. After Ms. Zindel assigns a topic, the therapists spend five minutes writing in silence and then read their prose aloud.


Ms. Zindel had also asked the group to bring in an object they love or would take if they had to leave their homes in a rush, as something to write about. She brought three thick leather-bound journals detailing her therapy sessions with her analyst, who has since died, over nine years.

“Your heart was in it, ” Linda Marks Katz, a child therapist, said to Ms. Zindel. “To honor that journey is wonderful.”

“It’s very powerful to hold those years,” Ms. Zindel said.

As much as the psychoanalysts cannot get away from who they are, they said the group is decidedly not therapy for therapists. “We are not here to deal with pathology,” said Jane Moffett, a Manhattan therapist who is on the staff of the Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute in New York. “We’re really here to work the growing edge of our lives. It’s our time.”


They debated whether to write first about bliss or to share their thoughts on their chosen objects, but quickly and gently came to a group consensus that bliss would come first.

“It was the first thing we ever wrote together here that brought us together as a creative writing group and bonded us so well,” Ms. Zindel said. “So let’s see where we are now with it.”

Ms. Goldstein wrote: “It’s bliss to feel that I don’t have to prove myself. It’s bliss to feel I am O.K. writing about bliss.”

This week’s topic: How would you start your autobiography?

Creativity, Psychoanalysis and a Book Review

by Mindy Utay


Creativity and originality are the mysterious processes of imagination. Artists, poets, musicians, writers, painters, actors and dancers engage in creative life work. Psychoanalysts also engage in creative work. They utilize established theories, personal intuition and the unique analytic relationship to bring patients’ stories to life, and then revise that biography until it resonates as a truer version of the patient’s life story. Artists use specific tools to bring something new to life. The analyst’s tool is the patient’s life story. We listen closely to stories our patients tell us, and we create an inner image of the patient in our minds. Our canvas is our theories and training, but each patient’s story is unique and requires special attention and interest. Insight is derived from the shared space of creative minds working together for the goal of our patient’s wellbeing and personal growth. Combined with the dynamics of transference, an analytic relationship is built, and through trust and an environment of safety, the patient tell us who he or she really is inside. Over time, we find common language, using symbols and metaphors, and various other modes of communication, to bring the patient’s story to life, examine it from various angles, unleash its inner wishes, hopes and dreams, and wait for something new to emerge.

As with all artistic work, psychoanalysis infuses creativity into the familiar and allows patients to rediscover themselves in a new form with words and feelings that open up new possibilities for self-expression in various ways. So I was delighted when my friend and fellow analyst Bonnie Zindel published her recent book “Writing on the Moon, Stories and Poetry from the Creative Unconscious by Psychoanalysts and Others” which contains poetry, essays and short stories written by psychoanalysts and patients in therapy, on familiar themes such as love, loss, dreams, motherhood, and taps into the same creative energy as the psychoanalytic method. It reminds us that we all embody creative energy, but we need to feel safe and quiet the inner critical voices that deny us the courage to express ourselves. There is a universal need to make sense of our lives through stories. Bonnie created space for this, and her book is a treasure. It connects us with each other in meaningful and life-affirming ways and gives us all permission to express ourselves creatively.

Bonnie, a writer and analyst herself, invited psychotherapists and analytic patients to access their “creative unconscious” as a portal to inner wisdom and intelligence and to unleash their unique voices through art, narratives and creative writings about all aspects of the human experience. “Writing on the Moon” has pieces on themes as diverse as Love Calls, Dreams as Poetry, Mothers of the Milky Way, Poetry by People in Analysis, Strong Women’s Voices, and Capturing Moments. This extraordinary compilation reveals that each of us has a “creative unconscious”, the creative energy and inner wisdom which holds our personal experiences, dreams and beliefs. Encouraged to unleash them, we find universal understanding and common humanity in each other and our lives become like a work of art.

“Writing on the Moon”, like a good analysis, is born of courage and the need to express ourselves truly and honestly, to find creativity in the mundane and uniqueness in the universal. Reading it will leave you with the urge to create as a way to understand yourself better and connect with others and feel more deeply understood and less alone. In this beautiful book, you are invited to go within yourself to find your unique voice in the voices of others. In this shared chorus, one finds that beauty and life-affirming energy reside in all of us.

“Writing on the Moon, Stories and Poetry from the Creative Unconscious by Psychoanalysts and Others” by Bonnie Zindel is available on Amazon and Karnac Books.



A Reflection

by Bonnie Zindel

Writing on the Moon is fifteen years in the making and it is about imagination and originality—two crucial elements in our creative life—and the ability to magically rearrange memories and emotions that have been stored away in some deep and ‘unworded’ place. Young children have direct access to their creative unconscious and touch of wonderment. But many of us lose some of that ability as we get older and become more constrained and concrete— and perhaps frightened of that playful part of ourselves.

When I was a young girl I would spend hours in my large walk-in closet, playing with my imagination. I would put on my glasses and my wooly cape, and I would make up stories of traveling across the desert to live in a small Bedouin town, selling exotic perfumes. Or turning jewels into meteor showers. I would consult elders about secret watering holes, which led to narrow trails and berry patches. The elders scratched a map in the dirt and showed me where quicksand hid and monsters lurked. When I returned to my room and put on my wide-awake hat, hours had passed. And in that slip of time, I had entered the timeless place of creativity. I did not know it then but I was in a sacred place—my creative unconscious—where things rattle deep inside; a place of plaster and clay, of warm pools of humanity, all beyond my conscious knowing.

Another important step came in my junior year in high school when Mrs. Lave took me out of Miss Nehren’s geometry class, where I couldn’t tell the difference between a hypotenuse and a trapezoid, and put me in
a new class she was forming on mythology. There I had no trouble remembering which goddess turned into a flower, and the names of all the gods and demi-gods on Mt Olympus. These days, I like to remember
that the gods are far from perfect. If I put Zeus on the couch, I would learn about his unusual traumatic birth, springing from the head of Crones, his difficult childhood filled with danger, a stormy and jealous union with his wife, Hera—when angry, he would hurl thunderbolts.

After college where I majored in psychology, I started writing plays, screenplays and novels. I would ask my creative unconscious for help, but it refused to be cajoled or yield to demand. Then when I would least expect
it, a new idea would appear in all its glory, and I would stop what I was doing and listen. To make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe, said Carl Sagan, an astrophysicist. Each time you are creative, you must start from scratch.


After my years as a writer, having published three novels and written three produced plays, I wanted a job that wasn’t so lonely and where me just being present was crucial. In the early 1990s, I was with my family in the Caribbean for Easter vacation. I happened to pass a woman on the beach
and we began talking. In the five minutes we conversed, she told me about a graduate program she had attended to become a psychotherapist. Upon returning to New York, I applied to graduate school at Columbia University, and my life changed. Eventually I become a psychoanalyst, and I
never even learned her name. During the four-year program, I felt that I
could not serve two masters. So, while my literary writing was put on hold, my analyst, Mannie Ghent, and I did share a creative play-space. As part of my training analysis, it was a prerequisite to be in therapy. I would bring in fragments of creative work to Mannie, and he would close his eyes and
listen as if he was listening to a dream.

Following each session, I would go to a café and write scribbled notes on the session. He seemed to open the buried parts of me. The ritual: always writing. I am a writer, and it seems like I have no choice but to write. In 2001, I was part of a group at my institute planning to start a new scholarly
journal. It was important to me to create a permanent space for creative expression. This was an unorthodox idea. It had never been done before. While psychoanalysis had long been interested in creativity, no journal
had previously made space for it. I am enormously grateful that the editors were open to taking this leap with me. The Creative Literary Section made its debut in the first issue of Psychoanalytic Perspectives in 2003 and has continued to be part of the Journal for each of its 29 issues to date.


As Creative Literary Editor, I started the first issue with only three poems. The second issue consisted of a poem by Thomas Ogden, whom I had gotten to know through our mutual interest in creative writing. Alongside his poem was a poem by his niece, Emily.

For the third issue, I was puzzled. I needed to cast a wider net. I wanted people in the field and beyond to know there was now a space for poetry and creative non-fiction in the journal. Our institute had a list-serve, and so did many other institutes across the country. Why not send out a Call for
submissions that would reach thousands of potential contributors both here and abroad? I put out a Call for submissions of “Poetry by People in Analysis.” The response was overwhelming. Hundreds of poems poured in
from as far away as Australia, South Africa. England, France, Scotland, Israel, Canada, New Zealand and across the United States.


Suddenly, I was faced with a dilemma: how to select the eight or ten poems that I had space to publish. What criteria would I use? I am not a literary scholar. I have no training in critical theory. I am a psychoanalyst and a writer. How did my psychoanalytic sensitivity effect what I responded to? And my thirty years of writing? And so, I decided to trust my
creative intuition and analytic training. Did I respond emotionally to the poem? Was I moved? Did it feel original? Did I want to read it again? Did the poet allow me into their being? The feedback on this issue was very encouraging. Psychotherapists told me how meaningful it was to have this place to bring another part of themselves. And readers told me how much they enjoyed the themes and selections. I realized I was on to something, and in the years ahead, I put out many other Calls that stimulated the
imagination: Dreams as Poetry, Love Calls, A Call For Love, Strong Women’s Voices. In the Call for Mothers of the Milky Way I said, “Mother’s come in complex ways. Surprise us.” You will see the fruits of these Calls
throughout the book.

The ideas for the Calls came from my creative unconscious and leapt into the redhot embers that animated the creative unconscious of many others. The Notes From the Creative Literary Editor that I began to write for each issue are also unconscious collaborations. This is what Shakespeare called “epiphenomenology,” where one person’s idea sparks another and another— like shooting stars. When these sparks happen, the ideas are combustible. The outpouring of submissions and the quality of the work have been extraordinary. I am thrilled to preserve some of the best of
these shooting stars in Writing on the Moon.

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