In writing about her recent novel, Rules for Visiting, author Jessica Francis Kane asks, "Is it a good idea to invite someone into your home whose occupation it is to observe everything?" As a writer, and a trained psychotherapist, I need only ponder my time spent as a houseguest to apprehend the full meaning of Kane's insights. For my hosts, I just might be the houseguest from hell.
Kane goes on to cite many disastrous historical instances of writers overstaying their welcome. From writers, Kane notes, have come many poignant observations about houseguests.
It was a delightful visit — perfect in being much too short (Jane Austen)
Fish and visitors stink in three days (Benjamin Franklin)
Superior people never make long visits (Marianne Moore)
It's not that I'm verbally offensive or abusive. I hope I'm not. It's that as a writer and psychotherapist, I'm always observing, and questioning to myself at least, the interactions, intentions, and behaviors of those around me. This is not just observation at a distance. I'm fully cognizant that my presence influences how people interact with, and behave, toward me and toward each other.
I find all of this quite interesting and sometimes very amusing. I'm often composing small vignettes of people interacting with me, and with each other, that I hope someday will find their way into my books.
In psychotherapy school we learn to ask penetrating questions. Often called "interventions," these questions can never be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." They are always open-ended. "What was that like?" as opposed to "Did you like that?" For some, such open-ended questions unleash and reveal a torrent of information, while for others such questions totally shut them down for fear of revealing too much. For a writer, and psychotherapist, it's all grist for the mill.
I'm often creating open-ended interventions in my head, then waiting for the right time to ask them of my hosts. In part, being an observer in this way is a defensive mechanism. I wish that other people were more interested in engaging and communicating with me in a deep and meaningful way that allows us to reveal who we are to each other. But, sadly, most people neither have the skills, nor the interest, in communicating in this way.
Surprisingly, being a writer-observer is also a very introspective process. When psychotherapists wish to determine what might be taking place for a client, we are often asked to examine what is taking place for ourselves. One of my teachers called this developing a "truth meter." You listen to what a client is saying, all the while being aware of what thoughts, feelings, and emotions are emerging within you. The needle on my internal truth-meter swings into the "green zone" when my interaction with someone feels authentic, and shoots into the "red zone" when that interaction feels inauthentic and untrue.
Over the years, I've come to trust my truth-meter, which is fundamentally connected to my unconscious mind and my intuition. It has very rarely been wrong, though at times I have, to my detriment, failed to heed it. For example, when a normal voice suddenly becomes affected—dramatic swings in pronunciation, volume, or inflection—my truth-meter fluctuates toward red. When I sense a person speaking from their heart through phrases such as "What I feel" as opposed to "What I think," my truth-meter hovers green.
All of these tools, which I learned as a student of psychotherapy and writing, could be part of how most people communicate. They are not. But they are wonderful aids in creating authentic scenes between characters, or revealing important aspects of a memoir as I have done recently in THINK BLACK, my book about my father.
Learning these observational and communication skills is akin to ringing a bell: The bell cannot be "un-rung." Nor would I wish it to be. I actually like the fact that my training as a writer and a psychotherapist helps me identify people with whom I can engage in a meaningful way, and those with whom I cannot.
Next time, just be sure to ask yourself: do you really want me as a houseguest?