In March 2003 I attended an event on novelists in conversation with psychologists for trainees and supervisors from the Leicester University DClinPSy training course in which the writers AS Byatt, Nick Hornby and Pat Barker were interviewed by psychologists Steven Frosch, Simon Thomas and Caroline Garland about their work. I was keen to attend, not only as a reader, but because I had just reduced my working hours as a clinical psychologist to four days a week in order to make time for the writing that had been an interest since childhood. With four degree theses/dissertations under my belt, and a clutch of papers in academic journals, I knew how to write for publication and thought it wouldn’t be long before I too could call myself a novelist. As it turned out, although I did manage to publish several short stories in the meantime, it was another twelve years or so before the launch of my first novel.
So what went wrong? Well, nothing really, except that it takes an exceedingly long time to learn to write fiction, even for those experienced in other types of writing. I’d like to share my reflections on the similarities and differences between clinical/academic writing and fiction, some of which will also apply to creative non-fiction.
The classical structure of the experimental report works extremely well for all kinds of academic writing, but is of little help when it comes to writing a novel. While quest novels follow the eight-point arc familiar to us from fairy tales, the writer of literary fiction as to create a fresh structure for each project. This was the area I found most difficult in writing my novel, partly because the story has a secret at its heart. I eventually found my structure for Sugar and Snails, by starting at a crisis point and moving and forth in time with the secret revealed around midway.
Although, with the increasing recognition of qualitative research methods, this is changing, academic writing has traditionally favoured an objective stance. Clinical report writing is a little more subjective, yet still concealing the individual behind the professional stance. With creative writing mostly about character, subjectivity is of prime importance. Yet, as with structure, the writer needs to play around with different possibilities . Which character is best placed to tell the story? Do we need one or several points of view? How close to zoom in on how that character thinks and feels?
Readers are often curious about how much of the writer’s own personality and experience has gone into their characters. I’m also fascinated by the question of what makes some writers turn to fiction and others to memoir. But I don’t think clinicians and academics are immune from putting themselves into their work. The motivation may be unconscious, but I think we’re drawn to fields that reflect something about our inner worlds.
Whenever anyone asks me about the research I undertook for my novel, my mind flips first to the randomised controlled trial to which I was first introduced as an undergraduate. But, of course, that’s not what they mean. What passes for research in the creative writing world is the fact-finding that would constitute the literature review for the scientist, although novelists can be just as scrupulous as academics in reading around their subject.
Sometimes, that subject is the research endeavour itself, exploring the experience and ethics of the academic life. Although it wasn’t my original intention, the narrator of my novel is an academic psychologist who revisits her PhD research twenty years on.
While clinicians are guided by both evidence and professional standards, novelists are free to make things up as they go along. Yet, although unlikely to construe it as evidence, fiction writers need nevertheless to demonstrate the events and emotions that constitute their story. It’s not sufficient to write “this happened and then that happened” or “she felt this and then she felt that”, but the skilled writer must show these events and emotions through dialogue, description, metaphor etc that enables readers to experience the story as if it were unfolding before their eyes.
Economy and precision
I once submitted a 7000 word paper to a journal that had a 5000 word limit on articles, and was a little put out that they asked me to cut and resubmit! Now I write 99-stories and was delighted that, in conjunction with my editor, I was able to cut 10,000 words from my novel before sending it out into the world.
Similarly, although I used to pride myself on the standard of my writing, my knowledge of grammar and punctuation has definitely improved since I turned to fiction. When writing is your main job, there’s an extra expectation to do it well. We are the people who obsess about the placement of commas and are offended by the aisles in the supermarket for “ten items or less”. (Of course, I’ve left myself wide open to criticism if you come across errors in this post.)
Publication and peer review
To be published in an academic journal, a paper is subjected to peer review. The parallel within creative writing occurs at different points in the process, with the actual editing undertaken in-house by a small number of editors. Long before this stage, most writers will have received feedback on previous drafts from a small group of trusted readers. Post-publication reviews are crucial, with book bloggers becoming increasingly influential in spreading the word.
Like mental health workers, writers of literary fiction need to be highly emotionally literate as it’s through this depth of emotion that the story unfolds. Alongside my background in clinical psychology, I’ve found my psychoanalytic studies extremely useful preparation for drawing my own emotional experience on my writing. A degree of vulnerability, that can be awkward at times as a mental health practitioner, can be a source of strength when it comes to composing engage in fiction.
Standing on each other’s shoulders
Like academics, fiction writers do not develop their ideas in a vacuum, but draw on the work of others. Because this occurs in a diffuse manner, it can be more difficult to map this debt in creative writing than in academia, although the acknowledgements page is one way in which novelists attempt to do so. However, plagiarism is frowned upon as much in the world of fiction as it is in academia.
What similarities and differences have you observed between clinical/academic and creative writing?
Anne Goodwin is a former clinical psychologist at Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust. She will be discussing and reading from her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, which explores issues of mental health and self-esteem, at Five Leaves Bookshop on 17 February 2016.