Sunday, July 15, 2007

Saturday Evening in DUMBO: Susan O'Doherty' & "Getting Unstuck Without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity"

This report by Richard Grayson first appeared on Jeff Bryant's blog Syntax of Things (go there for the original links) on Monday, July 23, 2007:

A week or so ago I attended an event at Brooklyn's P.S. Bookshop, an elegant addition to Dumbo's Front Street that opened last fall. Susan O'Doherty, known to many as "Dr. Sue" for her Friday "The Doctor Is In" advice columns from M.J. Rose's blog Buzz, Balls & Hype, was celebrating the publication of her new book, Getting Unstuck Without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity. Although I know Sue first and foremost as an excellent fiction writer -- our first stories were published in the same rather obscure little magazines back in the mid-1970s -- she's also a psychologist whose Brooklyn Heights private practice has specialized in the treatment of working with clients -- writers, artists, composers and others -- struggling with creative blocks.

As her book explains and this recent Brooklyn Daily Eagle article notes, Sue is an expert on the external and internal factors that prohibit artists — especially women — from pursuing the work that they love -- and not just from her professional life but personally as well. Getting Unstuck's introduction, "Why I Wrote This Book," and its first chapter, "What We Learned at Home," chronicle Sue's own longterm fight to overcome the subtle and not-so-subtle messages conveyed by her parents and grandparents -- and the experiences of her case histories (fictional composites of clients from varied social and ethnic backgrounds) with their own families' messages that girls' artistic, literary and musical efforts may be "nice frills" but they are not what a young woman should aim for in life.

Now, it's no surprise to hear that an 84-year-old novelist like Elizabeth, who has never taken her own books seriously, feeling they were more frivolous and silly than the literary works she really desired to write, got this message:
Elizabeth had learned from her blue-collar, no-nonsense family that life consists of hard, grinding work, and that, in her words, "a woman's place was in the home, serving her husband and raising the children. Any striving for beauty or accomplishment was squelched as 'silly' or, worse, 'putting on airs.'"

But I'm disappointed that these same messages are given to girls like Janna when she submitted an angry poem (dealing with feelings about her mother after Janna's years-long sexual abuse by a stepfather) to her high school literary magazine in 1996:
The poem was rejected by the journal, and Janna was encouraged to submit one of her "nice" poems. She refused. With her mother's support, she started submitting this poem, and others like it, to small literary journals, and within a year, two of her poems were published.

Janna moves to New York and becomes a painter, but she finds that her work's violent and often disturbing images find resistance as well as much support. When a parents' group tries to remove one of her paintings from an exhibit, Janna triumphs but the experience shakes her:
"It was like high school all over again. There were people calling me names and saying my work isn't art . . . I should be used to this by now, to being hated for expressing what I see as the truth. It was a nightmare, though, and I realized there was a lot I hadn't dealt with."

At that point Janna consults the author. Despite being a fairly successful artist -- like Elizabeth, whose novels "have a small but loyal and literate following -- Janna has never been able to take her work completely seriously.

Each of the chapters in Getting Unstuck concludes with an exercise for the reader designed to help apply the chapter's main ideas to your own life and goals. At the P.S. Bookshop event, after reading excerpts from the book and talking about her own experiences, Sue had us all -- female and male, young and old -- engage in a similar exercise, a creative visualization imagining our ideal day. It was an enlightening experience for many of the participants -- although some of the exercises in the book may raise more discomfort for readers as they are forced (okay, not forced, as the author says to skip any exercise that makes one too uncomfortable) to confront their inner critics and "shadow selves."

Having been prevented by sacroiliac joint dysfunction in the past day and a half from attending literary events much further than my own backyard, I spent several happy (if not quite pain-free) hours there the past two afternoons reading Getting Unstuck Without Coming Unglued, and I have to agree with my old friend Michelle Herman, who said, "This is the best -- the smartest and most lucid -- book about creative blocks I have ever read."

And I'm a guy. Yeah, I think that as a boy and a man, I didn't have to deal with the kind of "young-ladies-should-be-nice" or "this-isn't-for-girls" message that the women artists profiled in Sue's book have dealt with. Despite growing up in a family and neighborhood that contained few role models for writers or artists -- I was the first person in my family to graduate from college -- I never really doubted that I could be a writer if I wanted to. That's very unlike the experience of some women profiled here, whether they are growing up in an affluent African-American suburb of professional strivers or a rural Appalachian village where most girls aspire to no more than an early pregnancy and a job at the Family Dollar store.

Yet even after umteen years of therapy with seven different psychotherapists (none of them Susan O'Doherty), I still find it hard to express some of my less-than-"nice" thoughts and feelings -- the ones often necessary for truly important artistic works. Because I've never really made much money from my books and other writings, I have often discussed my literary work not so much as a career as a hobby -- unlike my paid work as a law school administrator, college professor, attorney, computer education consultant and newspaper columnist.

I'm not all that different from Sue in that respect, and like her, for years at a time, despite previous publications and successes, I've just stopped writing. Like her, I've always gone back to it.

For those writers, male or female, published or unpublished, and for any other kind of creative artists who are searching for a way to become unblocked, I can't recommend Susan O'Doherty's Getting Unstuck Without Becoming Unglued highly enough.

And check out Sue's fiction and creative nonfiction too. Her memoir in the anthology About What Was Lost: Twenty Writers on Miscarriage, Healing, and Hope was for me the highlight of a series of wonderful essays by other terrific women writers at a reading for that book, edited by Jessica Berger Gross, at McNally Robinson last month.

Sue's website has links to recent stories, proving that she's one doctor who takes her own advice -- and has profited from it. So have her readers.

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