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Bibliotherapy: Who Knew?

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A book enters the life of an individual, a deep relation is formed, and the person changes in some significant way as a result of this engagement.  Bibliotherapy deals with how and why this happens, and how this process can be put to use in ways which improve our lives as individuals and as social beings.—from What is Bibliotherapy?




The intentional use of reading as a therapeutic method has been around since the 1930’s, perhaps even earlier: the ancient Greeks considered literature psychologically and spiritually powerful and their library doors held signs proclaiming it “a healing place for the soul”.Its basic concept is that reading, like other forms of therapy, can help people resolve complex problems in their lives. After World War II bibliotherapy was used in both general practice and medical care for soldiers with time to fill while recuperating. Bibliotherapeutic groups were also used in psychiatric institutions.

I have to wonder, if it’s so widespread, how come I, a seasoned therapy patient who’s undergone, at various times in my life, talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, bioenergetics, re-evaluation counseling, gestalt, and dance and movement therapy, never even heard the word bibliotherapy? And when I Googled it I found only a few books on the topic. book piles

One book I skimmed, The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You, by Ellen Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, suggests specific books for particular ailments—but I found it superficial and even, in some places, silly. I was stunned that they recommend The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe to help cure agoraphobia. Dunes is the story of a Japanese village whose residents live in houses buried beneath piles of sand that they constantly must sweep their way out of, only to be buried again the next day. It’s an allegory of the futility of life; at least that was my interpretation when I read it as a teenager. I was so disturbed by Dunes that to this day I remember the way I felt reading it some 50 years ago—and the memory still makes me shudder. A cure for agoraphobia? Maybe—but it had a negative effect on me and my growing claustrophobia.

The Guardian UK calls the authors of The Novel Cure “Bibliotherapy’s founders”, according to Robert McCrum, who went to them for his own therapy via literature. Says the Guardian, “Bibliotherapy is the new service offering solace to jaded souls – by revitalising your reading list. We sent six of our writers to find out if it works.” Each writer presented a brief description of a session with one of the practitioners at the “Delightfully Offbeat School of Life” in London, where the service is offered, along with his or her prescribed reading list. The descriptions were amusing, the prescriptions interesting, and I’m sure I’d thoroughly enjoy one of these sessions. Does that make bibliotherapy a valid method of analysis and/or improvement? I have my doubts—and yet, as I said in a guest post for Tolstoy Therapy, I’ve been unwittingly practicing bibliotherapy myself for most of my life, though I didn’t name it.

ladybugheart2I suspect that one reason bibliotherapy isn’t more widely known is that, despite a great deal of anecdotal evidence, very little research has been conducted to prove or disprove its effectiveness. It also seems to be more popular in the UK than in the States. From my interactions on Goodreads with the British, I’m learning this happens a lot: a trend that goes viral in the US might leave the Brits cold, or they go crazy for something new that we’ve barely even looked at.

I’m  following Tolstoy Therapy, the most interesting blog I’ve yet to find on the subject. You don’t have to commit to heavy self-analysis to enjoy reading about PTSD and literature, book reviews and recommendations, theories on why we enjoy reading fiction, and dozens of other relevant subjects. Check it out.













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Bibliotherapy (Photo credit: puptoes74)

Hey Everybody! You can read my Guest Post titled Spending Time in the Four-Gated City on Therapy Through Tolstoy, a charming blog devoted to the subject of bibliotherapy. If you don’t know what bibliotherapy is, visit and all shall be revealed. I just recently stumbled on the term myself, and when I checked it out I was inspired to write the post.

Hope you like it.

Doris Lessing in Space

The following isn’t a review; it’s more of a critique addressing Doris Lessing‘s two distinct styles of writing. It may contain spoilers.

Recently I re-read The Reason For It, one of four novellas in The Grandmothers, a collection by Doris Lessing.

Reason is the only one of the four written in the style Lessing began experimenting with later in life, dubbed “space fiction” by her, though most people, of course, call it science fiction. Her first foray into this genre was the five-volume Canopus in Argos series, by which time she’d published dozens of realistic novels and short stories, and was highly respected, admired, and reviewed by critics and fans alike. They went ballistic.

Although Shikastathe full title takes up half a page—drew the wrath of critics, it attracted a new following: sci-fi aficionadoes, many of them younger than her loyal readers, a majority of whom are feminist, literate liberals like myself. These remain divided about Lessing’s space fiction.

I loved Shikasta from the very first page. Part of why I adapted to Lessing’s space fiction is that by the time she started writing it I was so tuned in to her work, I hooked right into her wavelength.  (This was not always so: Doris Lessing can be tough going.) That first page of Shikasta contains an incredible sentence that exemplifies the complexity of her writing; it’s one of the most elegant and concise sentences to ever be constructed:

This is a catastrophic universe, always; and subject to sudden reversals, upheavals, changes, cataclysms, with joy never anything but the song of substance under pressure forced into new forms and shapes.”

One member of The Doris Lessing Society wrote a book of criticism cleverly titled Substance Under Pressure. I wrote a college paper for English Lit comparing Lessing’s realistic writing to her space fiction, showing that in her adopted genre she was still saying the same things she’d always said about the human condiiton, but in another language. A few years later I sent an excerpt of it to The Doris Lessing Newsletter: it was probably the first and only time this academic journal published something by someone who wasn’t a college professor. (Yes, I am bragging!) I was tickled.

In The Reason For It Lessing does it again: she presents insights about the human condition on a deeper level than most other writers ever visit, no matter what the genre.  In it, a government representative who’s the equivalent of our senators, realizes, as he nears death, that he and his colleagues made a grave error in appointing DeRod, their president, many years ago. They had taken his amiability for kindness, but he’s come to see that DeRod is what he calls “feeble minded.” As he describes the President he finally sees clearly, the reader recognizes he could easily be one of our representatives who supported Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, and regrets it. He and his colleagues were drawn to DeRod because of his boyish charm, his good looks, his affability. In fact, the man they chose as ruler is an incompetent idiot who has never understood the senators’ complaints, and was surrounded by a coterie of people who covered up for his stupidity–and ran the show. During DeRod’s reign the infrastructure has fallen into utter disrepair, schools stopped teaching anything meaningful, resulting in a shortage of labor, the army has become bloated…and so on and so forth. It’s our world, people!

I adore this story, though the style is more emotionally detached than Lessing’s realistic fiction.  Now that I’m getting on, I can see why a brilliant author might turn, in her later years, to a more detached form of story-telling, a “just the facts, ma’am” delivery: Much of Lessing’s work centers on planetary apocalypse, and she may have adopted space fiction out of desparation to get through to readers. Perhaps she thought, ironically, that by removing all literary flourish from her prose, the message would stand out in stark reality, more than it does in realistic fiction.

The Reason For It is brilliant. As for the other three novellas in the book, they’re all beautiful reading, and the title story, The Grandmothers, stands alone as a unique piece of modern day literature. In it, this ninety-something author explores the relationships between two best friends who each form a sexual relationship with the other’s teenage son. It’s realistic indeed—and some of the most radical erotica you’re ever likely to read.

For all Writers and Wanna-Be’s

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Susie Bright in Tiara, 2007. Cropped and enhan...

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I don’t think I’ve ever done this before, but Susie Bright has written two make-believe letters that all writers will love and all wanna-be writers should learn from. Read them.

Some Thoughts on Writing and The Writing Life

A Random Compilation of Old and New Musings


The Mother as Writer…and Character

Every time I create a fictional character who’s a mother, I run into the same problem: even when the kids have nothing to do with the story, editors and agents insist I create more story time for them. Thus, I’m forced to develop more characters and wrestle with a geometric increase in relationship dynamics.  If I don’t develop the children, I’ve been told, readers will “lose sympathy” for the main character.  On the surface, the solution seems simple: just don’t make the main character a mother. In some cases, however, I’ve felt it essential for a female character to have had the experience of birthing and raising a child, for motherhood to be an integral part of who she is, whether the kids are part of the story or not.

For instance, I wrote a novel about an older woman who falls in love with a man who has AIDS.   By making the protagonist a mother, I gave her specific caretaker experience. Otherwise there was no place in this tragic love story for children. They were fully grown and appeared only peripherally, via phone calls. An agent who wanted to represent the book told me it was jarring for the kids to be largely absent, that it made the character less likeable. I suppose this mother seemed like a dilettante for living a full adult life without her kids on top of her.

I should have known: the same issue arose more than thirty years ago, with one of my earliest attempts at a novel. The main character was a mother, but the plot revolved around her life as a political activist.  The fact of motherhood influenced her commitment to social justice, but otherwise the kids weren’t essential to the plot.  I purposely set the time frame as one entire summer, shipping the kids off to camp – nothing wrong with that; parents do it all the time. My agent, after getting feedback from several publishers, informed me that editors detested this woman for being absent from her kids and that I had to incorporate them into the book.

I’m not sure what this says about literature in our culture, but it says a helluva lot about how we regard motherhood. The central focus of a mother’s life is supposed to be her children, no matter how old they are and no matter what else a woman might be doing.  If she’s presented as an autonomous being with interests and activities other than her kids, she is immediately suspect.

Imagine an editor saying the same thing to a male writer.  I’m certain that no agent or editor has ever told Phillip Roth his main character is unlikable because his kids don’t make an appearance (though critics tend to dislike Roth’s characters for other assinine reasons). Do readers like Raymond Carver more than Roth because so many of his stories are child-centered? I don’t—though I do appreciate Carver’s perspective as a father. I suppose it’s unfair to blame critics; there’s no denying that, unlike fatherhood, motherhood exerts such a powerful influence on a woman’s psyche that by simply stating a character is one, I perform a hefty chunk of instant character development.

Aha! Maybe it’s my own fault for relying on what a woman is, rather than developing her character independent of maternal status. Maybe I’m simply being lazy (not to mention sexist!); maybe my critics have a point: they’re perceiving a legitimate weakness in my writing.

I think I’ll try removing the status of motherhood from one of these characters and see what happens. This is exactly why I love to write: putting down these words brought me to a new understanding of a conundrum I’ve been wrestling with for forty years.

Another reason I love to write:

Journal Entry circa October 1988

Today it happened. After days and days of writing drudgery, moving people around the page, setting them up, getting them from one place to another, from one meal to the next; after all that tedious “housekeeping,” I wrote a scene, one paragraph in particular, that’s a jewel. All the surrounding words merely hold the jewel in place—small, fake rhinestones that exist only to support the diamonds.

The scene is a blend of fiction and something that really happened.  It seethes with love and passion without being sentimental.

This is what I live for. This is why I write, even when it’s tedious. It’s the reason I live as I do—solitary, broke/poor, eccentric – all for moments like this. I wish I could hang onto this moment, but…now it’s written, tomorrow it probably won’t even seem so brilliant, and it’ll be another long lonely stretch before I produce another diamond.

But I will…and that’s what matters.

The Failed Novelist

Novel-writing is the one and only occupation I’ve ever heard described by the adjective “failed.” What makes a writer a failure? Lack of publication? Given that so many people write several novels before one gets published (Steven King is a living example), at what point has a novelist failed? I suppose the phrase is accurate if we’re talking about a novelist who hasn’t yet produced even part of a novel – but how can anyone have failed if her work is in process? Is an inventor whose inventions haven’t been produced a failed inventor? What about a musician who hasn’t recorded, or one that a very few people have heard? Is he a failed musician? No  failed painters exist – and behind many closed doors every wall is crowded with the resident’s paintings! The posthumous painter is legendary: Van Gogh, for starters. Yet we don’t call anyone a failed painter.

It must be part of the insane stigma against writing as a profession. I could probably speculate for hours on why this is so, but it would be a waste of time and energy. I only point it out because it’s something that’s bugged me for years. At this point, I cringe at the phrase failed writer as much as I do at homophobic, sexist, or racial slurs.

As they say in academia, Publish or Perish!

Speaking of Academia…

As a committed writer, I’ve worked the oddest of odd jobs to earn my keep. When I sold popcorn at a small independent movie theater, we put on a French Film
Festival which several artistic Parisian types attended. During intermission, one Frenchman got flirty with me, but when he found out I was the theater’s popcorn lady, he actually turned his back on me.

I had a nearly identical experience when I attended a Modern Language Association conference, where I’d been invited to read an essay I’d written for the Doris Lessing Newsletter. At the opening reception, a college professor – that’s who goes to MLA meetings — asked me where I taught. When I admitted I wasn’t a college professor but an independent writer, he walked away. Just up and walked away, cocktail in hand.

I remain unruffled by the snobbery of the intelligentsia; I find it amusing. It’s one of the few instances of human stupidity that I don’t get sucked into.. Au contraire: it makes me feel, in comparison to such people, enlightened, eclectic, and iconoclastic. I was a popcorn vender who wrote regularly for the town newspaper; a sex writer who published academic papers on a Nobel prize-winning author; a phone “fantasy-maker” who was also consultant to a major American chocolate company; a grandmother editing anthologies of women’s erotica.

Obviously I can’t be pigeonholed, and I can’t be bought. Oh, I’ll sell myself all right – but it won’t make me a Francophile, an academic snob, or a business consultant. I hope those smug morons who turned their backs on me feel better about themselves from our encounter; such hubris should not be a complete waste.

Another Plug for The Jewish News Pages

In case my readers haven’t yet checked out TNJP, now would be a good time to do so: my op-ed on Islam, sexism, and religion is generating a bit of controversial conversation. My favorite comment accuses me of “distaste for children” because I favor contraception. No lie. Here’s a fantastic subversive picture I posted with it:

Burqa Chorus Line