writing


“I like the brevity of the blog. You can make it quite short. You can just go on as long as you want to go and then just stop. It’s sort of like making a paper airplane…. I used to love to make paper airplanes. I made great paper airplanes.  You throw it out the window, it goes a little ways, turns and curves beautifully and then it’s gone forever. It’s like a blog.”

Roger Angell, at 95, on The New Yorker Radio Hour

Ah, yes, it’s so easy to write a blog post. To the extent that writing anything meaningful is easy, writing a blog post is easy. It’s as low stakes as public writing gets, especially on a small-time blog like mine. Nothing for sale, no sponsors, few readers.

And yet I haven’t been writing, despite all the inspiration and satisfaction I’ve gotten from it over the years. My list of ideas for blog posts has more words in it than I’ve actually posted in the last 10 months. It makes me sad to think about. I miss the way writing clarifies my thinking. I miss the way writing makes some contact with the friends and family members who don’t live next door to me. I’m out of touch with so many of you. And I’ve had too many interesting ideas swim in and back out of my head, unchecked by writing.

I’ve also been noticing how not writing makes my internet presence stagnate. I’ve been listening to a ton of podcasts and audio books on my commute, often in intense imaginary conversations in my head with the authors/podcasters. I’d like to be getting in touch with them on Twitter or something, at least to say thanks. When I remember that my last blog post is about the common ants of Joshua Tree, though, I refrain. I love that post, but it’s a funny way to represent myself, especially as the only public observation I’ve made in ten months.

The thing is, I’m working like crazy on getting my license for marriage and family therapy. I talk to clients and write case notes all day, which is not inspiring writing and results in too much time looking at a computer screen. If I have energy after work, I can’t be sitting down writing. I need to go the gym or scramble on some rocks. Or play piano, or rest, or spend time with my wife and family, or get ready for work or bed. It’s a good life, just no blogging for now. I’ll be back.

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You might argue that the amount of time community mental health therapists spend writing paperwork is unethical, and you would be right in at least two ways: (1) It is an unethical use of tax payer money, paper, and storage space, as much of it is redundant, and (2) it squanders a valuable resource, attention from therapists, on writing, which we are not particularly good or efficient at.

But the worst part for me is that I consider myself a writer of sorts and really care about the quality of my writing, but now spend a large part of my full time week practicing how to write badly. I groan inwardly each time I write something like, “Clinician used psychoeducation about anchoring and adjustment and introduced perspective taking exercises. Client showed understanding of psychoeducation and participated in perspective taking exercises.” And there is no time or economic incentive to make it better.

At least, I tell myself, I did not “utilize” psychoeducation like many of my dear colleagues, but that is small comfort.

It reminds me of why I got out of the small-time freelance record production business. There I was, a songwriter, and the grist for my creative mill was whatever songs someone who could afford my hourly rate brought to me. And those over, and over, and over. Don’t get me wrong–I loved the work and most of what my client’s brought me was good, I just needed to curate what went into my ears more carefully.

The analogy is not perfect, but close. Therapist paperwork writing is not only bad, but emphasizes the least important parts of therapy. A good document of therapy would be more like one of Irvin Yalom’s novels, narrative, interesting, a document of confusion, exploration, courage, inspiration, a document of the development of a mutually beneficial relationship. But this is not what gets you paid. “Clinician challenged cognitive distortions” gets you paid.

And the writing of notes does intrude into therapy occasionally. Occasionally, in session, I have the thought, “How am I going to write this up?” Not a therapeutic thought. Brush it aside, suppress shudder, return attention to client.

One of my supervisors likes to say, “You need to own your charts, you need to love your charts. Your documentation is the only record of what you do.” In an economic and bureaucratic sense, she is exactly right. And I am committed to this career, so I know what I need to do: Fully master the paperwork. Spend as much time as necessary now so that the future me will have perfect case notes, perfect assessments, perfect charts, with no more than the minimal time, stress, and effort spent.  And hope that the bad writing I am practicing makes the minimal impression on my creative brain.

It has been four years of sitting in hundreds of hours of lectures, reading thousands of pages of theory and research, writing hundreds of pages, and seeing clients for hundreds of hours. It has been long weeks, late nights, steep learning curves, and lots and lots of thinking. It is amazing how much learning you can do in four years of 60-80 hour weeks!  In 2009 I finished a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology, with a research assistant position in Sara Hodges’ social cognition lab, a practicum position at a residential treatment facility for teenage sex offenders, an honors thesis entitled “Differentiating the Effects of Social and Personal Power,” and a GPA of 4.23. Yesterday I graduated with a Master of Education degree, Couples and Family Therapy specialization, 455 client-contact hours at the Center for Family Therapy and Looking Glass Counseling Services, one term as a counselor for the University of Oregon Crisis Line, four terms volunteering for the UO Men’s Center, a GPA of 4.19, and a “Pass With Distinction” on my final Formal Client Presentation. It has been a wonderful, exhilarating, exhausting four years.

It has also taken a bit of a toll on my health, but the major loss was in community. If you do not live in Eugene and we have not made a point of a regular visit, I probably have not spoken or even written to you much, if anything, since 2007. For that I sincerely apologize. It is not how I prefer to live but I could not seem to do this any other way. Know that I miss you. Let’s reconnect. Call me up, write, send me your unfinished song, your idea for a book, something to read and talk about. Let’s go for a walk, go swimming, have lunch, see a show. I am looking forward to it.

Couples & Family Therapy 2011 Cohort

Me & My Dad, June 14, 2011

The first time I worked for money outside of my parents’ home I was 12 years old.  The Morongo Basin Ambulance Association hired me and my best friend John to move a pile of gravel from one spot to another with shovels.  I think we got paid a dollar an hour.  It was summer in Joshua Tree, and so around 100 F (maybe 45 C for Canadians), and the pile of gravel was huge.  After a couple hours I still could not see that we had made a dent in the pile and I complained that we would never finish this job.

John was bigger and stronger than me and remained more in touch with his logical faculties.  He said, “It doesn’t matter if we can’t see a dent.  As long as we keep shoveling gravel, we know that we are making progress, and that we will eventually be done.”

It is hard to argue against that, so I am thinking of John while I am working on my Formal Client Presentation, which is the Master’s thesis of my Couples and Family Therapy program: a monster paper incorporating all of the theory and practice that we have learned in two years, plus a presentation of video of me using all of that during therapy sessions.  It is going so slowly that each time I come back to it, I feel as if I had made no progress. But I know as long as I am typing new words each time I must be making progress, and that means eventually I will be done.

Thanks John!

I just finished the biggest project so far for my couples and family therapy masters program. It’s a paper about depression in couples and how it might be treated by a metaframeworks-oriented therapist. Most of it is probably of limited interest to non-therapists, but I wrote a very brief summary of  what we know and think about depression as an introduction that might interest anyone psychologically-minded. If you are interested in the research about depression in couples, my references section might be quite helpful. It would have been for me…

If you’re interested, I posted it here.

In spare moments I’m listening to Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing. I like this quote, from about 1:08:00. He is responding to “purists” who, apparently, believe that interesting writing has no place in academia; the information can be interesting, but not its presentation:

“For purists, I would point out that most academic writing is counter-educational, because it’s dullness insulates its information from nearly everybody.”

Our check-out at the end of group supervision last night was naming our “guilty pleasures.” My cohort-mates mostly talked about TV shows they were watching, plus some fiction reading. When it was my turn, they shot down every single extracurricular activity I offered. Not one qualified as a guilty pleasure. Here’s the list:

Reading Ken Wilber’s Integral Psychology

Watching Ken Burns’ documentary Jazz

Listening to Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing on audiobook

Listening to This American Life, Radiolab, and a couple other podcasts

Recording Reanna a cover of “Got To Get You Into My Life”

Dancing every week

I think they might have given me dancing if I hadn’t tried their patience with the other stuff first. I didn’t think to say writing for my blog, which is probably the pleasure I feel the guiltiest about, but they probably wouldn’t have given me that either.

It doesn’t seem like I have time to watch TV. I don’t even have a TV, come to think of it, and I haven’t figured out how to get TV shows on the internet. I’m watching a little of the jazz doc each night as I brush my teeth, but it’s hard to imagine watching multiple seasons of TV shows, like my cohort-mates are. It would take a major shift in lifestyle. I did listen to Murakami’s (excellent) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle last spring, but only while I was driving, so it took 15 weeks to finish.

I feel conflicted about my lack of guilty pleasures. I’d like to have that kind of laid-back lifestyle. I want to be more relaxed. This summer–this next four weeks of this summer–is my only even partly unstructured time before I graduate next June. And who knows after that? I’ll have loans to pay off.

On the other hand, it doesn’t sound relaxing to add something to my schedule! Plus, I like the stuff that I’m doing, and I’m working on wrapping my head around something with infinite depth. When I finished my two-year record-production program in the 1990s, my teacher Josh Hecht said, “This is a deep subject that you have scratched the surface of, but you now know what you need to be able to do. The next step is figuring out a way to do it for 14 hours a day, every day. In 20 years or so, you’ll be very good at it.” That was his lifestyle, and it made him an excellent record producer. He worked all day, had no time for non-audio entertainment, read only the two very best trade magazines, participated in only the two very best trade organizations. He slept five hours a night.

This is a path of mastery like Erickson’s 10,000 hour rule; to get good at any complex endeavor, you have to put in about 10,000 hours. Being a therapist certainly qualifies as a complex endeavor! The catch is, weeks after Josh told us how to become a good record producer, he got very ill and was forced to take a long vacation–his first vacation in decades, I believe. I think that was the point my supervisor was making about guilty pleasures; this is a demanding career in many ways. How do I master it while maintaining my health, motivation, and clarity?

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