I have no psychoanalytic credentials whatsoever.
Even so, my clients often joke that I’m their therapist, our coaching sessions their therapy. Apart from giving writing advice (which, okay, Anne Lamott conflates with life advice), I don’t counsel. But since so many people I coach write memoir, our work does periodically veer into therapy territory.
Here are some similarities:
We excavate. Good personal writing must dig deep. In early drafts, we often are unsure of our protagonist’s (i.e. our) motivations. A coach can draw attention to this unexplained material, and this is often the first time a writer has considered the question. Why did I do that? Speaking from the writer’s perspective, I can’t count the number of times outsiders’ feedback has prompted me to wonder what my psyche knew that my ego didn’t.
Writing coaches and therapists listen; we attend closely. We may offer personal anecdotes if we think they will help illustrate a point, but mostly we listen with the pure intention of understanding. The same way it might be therapeutic to chat with a work buddy or your hairdresser—both people who know you a bit but aren’t friend friends—it can feel healing or clarifying to hash stuff out with a neutral party.
We meet regularly. There’s something powerful about having a block of time on your calendar—weekly, biweekly—dedicated to the pursuit of one aim, whether it’s personal fitness, psychological growth, or improving craft and meaning in writing.
But make no mistake, a writing coach is not a therapist (unless she is … some actually are).
In therapy, the subject is you. In memoir coaching, it’s the protagonist and narrator. Also you, yes, but with huge differences, the biggest of which might be distance. Even though you know and your coach knows that the character in the book is the person on the Zoom call, the fact of the page creates a bit of space. This is why we use the third person to speak about this character. A book is a rendering of an aspect of a life. A person is much bigger, more complex, and layered than that. Even so, figuring out memoir is in large part figuring out that character’s motivations, which the writer might or might not actually understand.
In therapy, all conversation is very obviously about the client, even if it’s a younger, past version of the client, as when dealing with childhood events. In memoir coaching, the conversation is ostensibly about the protagonist, which might permit the client to understand something about themselves indirectly. Sideways.
Why does it matter that coaches and therapists are similar but different? It’s important to get clear about what kind of help you want with your writing. If it’s technical—structure, sentence-level craft, audience, voice—a coach or editor can do the job. If it’s mostly technical and a little bit of deeper stuff—examining one’s motivations, teasing out meaning from events—a coach is your person. If it’s mostly inner work, you might want a therapist.
Coaches and editors have helped me with various writing projects, but about a year ago, when I struggled to determine the point of the Appalachian Trail journey my memoir describes, I decided to reach out to a different kind of professional. I hired a Jungian analyst.
Though he has read none of my writing, our work together has helped me understand the deeper forces driving the actions my protagonist (hi! it me!) takes in my memoir. It makes really good sense for a storyteller to work with a Jungian because Carl Jung trafficked in stories—ancient myths and archetypes. The work of writing one’s memoir is almost exactly parallel to the work of Jungian analysis.
Although I don’t exclusively discuss my book with my analyst, a lot of the material in the book is worth excavating in order to free myself from “complexes.” In other words, unpacking the clump of feels driving my unexplained, puzzling AF behavior. Behavior like, um … quitting my job to walk through the woods for two and a half months.
Readers of my early drafts repeatedly asked me the same question: Why did you do this? And the question puzzled me—not because I didn’t know the answer (I didn’t) but because I couldn’t see why it mattered. Couldn’t see that in fact it was the only thing that mattered, the only reason anyone would read yet another hiker memoir.
My therapist offered no practical solutions to the technical problems of structure or framing for what he did help me uncover. For that, I need a writing coach or developmental editor.
We may think we have Specific Story A to tell, but in the course of writing, if we pay attention and see our actions as readers may see them and ask ourselves what we really, really mean to say, we may discover Story B, or Story C. Your coach can point you toward those questions, but a coach may not be qualified to sit with a client as she discovers their answers. Those can evoke bottomless loss, they can trigger the beginning of a journey through our psyches and encounters with our shadows.
So, writing coach or therapist … why not both?
Mathina Calliope is a writing coach, teacher, editor, and writer whose coaching is informed by more than twenty years’ experience teaching students ages 9 to 89. Her years in the classroom, plus an MFA in creative nonfiction writing and an M.Ed. in teaching, have given her powerful pedagogical tools to use with her clients. Her words can be found in Creative Nonfiction, Longreads, The Rumpus, The Wall Street Journal, Outside, and elsewhere. Her memoir and personal essay classes at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, DC, regularly sell out.