At age 45, I was embarking on a brand-new career as a psychotherapist, but I hadn't fully escaped my undergraduate dreams.
I imagined I would escape my own problems by becoming a therapist. Instead they tended to walk through the clinic’s front door to greet me.
Seven years ago, I was an intern therapist practicing in Minneapolis. One of my first clients, let’s call her “Writer Gal,” was in her mid-20s. She had sculpted cheekbones and long dark hair. She wore jeans and a peasant blouse. During our first session she described the pain she felt being a writer.
“I wish no one would have ever complimented me on my writing or told me I was a good writer,” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because then I would not have gone down this miserable path of being a writer,” she said. She put her head in her hands and cried.
As I gathered more of Writer Gal’s history, I learned she was told in high school that she was a talented writer. So she went to college and earned her BA in English.
After college she was getting some freelance writing gigs, but they were not generating enough cash to pay the bills. At the time of our first session, she was crashing on a friend’s couch.
As a new therapist, I often found it difficult to observe others’ pain. With Writer Gal, I had even more difficulty easing her despair because, quite frankly, I identified with her problems.
At age 45, I was embarking on a brand-new career as a psychotherapist. But if you peeled away the layers of my past, you would quickly discover another disillusioned English major.
In 1990, I graduated from the University of Minnesota with my own bachelor’s in English. My first post-college job was at a convenience store, where I spent my days ringing up Ho Hos, cigarettes and Mountain Dew.
I asked everyone — friends, classmates, professors — what to do with my degree. Their ideas included technical writing, teaching, advertising, editing and working in a bookstore.
Turns out, the path for English majors (and liberal arts majors more generally) is a lot rockier than for those with degrees in business, engineering, computers or medicine.
‘I need to find an out’
My sessions with Writer Gal were often intense. For reasons I did not fully appreciate at the time, I often found myself arguing with her positions. This wasn’t my usual stance — with other clients I was more supportive or even neutral. Maybe I wanted to convince her the situation wasn’t so bad. Or perhaps I was trying to protect myself, trying to avoid my own history of pain.
“Joan,” she said one day, after months of therapy, “I can’t take it anymore. I need to find an out. I don’t think I want to be a writer anymore.”
“OK,” I said in my therapist way. “What else could you do?”
“I’m not trained to do anything else. The bloody path of the writer, it keeps you from being qualified for other things. I would have to go back to school.”
And then, after about a month, I decided to fess up: “Well, I have a BA in English, and I went back to school for a master’s in counseling to work as a therapist.”
Writer Gal’s eyes lit up, “Really?” she asked. “Wow, I’m impressed you found a way out.” She made the life of a writer sound like a hostage situation in an underground bunker.
It took me 15 years after earning my BA in English to “find a way out,” as Writer Gal put it. After my convenience store job, I worked as an essay reader, then a bookstore employee. I returned to Hamline University to earn my MFA in writing and taught at the Loft Literary Center.
To some it appeared I had “made it” in the writing world. I certainly plunged forward with the writing career path.
Yet trying to survive as an adjunct teacher and writer eventually burned me out. The low pay, the high stress of teaching, the unpredictability of getting my work published — it wore on me. I had my own breakdown, crying and praying to find an out.
In my work as a therapist, I often encounter one of two types: The first is a writer, artist, musician or actor trying to focus on art, but like Writer Gal he or she is struggling financially, emotionally, psychologically. The second has a well-paid but boring or soul-deadening job. This person wishes there were more time to be creative and pursue an interest in art, writing or music. Each camp envies the other: the artist dreams of more money and stability, the worker dreams of time for creativity.
Writer Gal continued scheduling sessions for two more years. The last time I saw her, she was thinking about pursuing a second degree in the medical field. She was done with therapy by that point and stopped scheduling sessions. Yet I continued to spot her freelance articles for several years and knew she was still writing.
I love my work as a therapist and find it fulfilling. Yet I, too, continue to write and teach creativity workshops.
My therapy practice attracts creative types: artists, writers, musicians and actors arrive weekly to my office. I don’t have easy answers for them (or for myself) on how to balance the worlds of creativity and stability. But I do have empathy.
Editor’s note: Writer Gal is a nickname used to protect the patient’s privacy. This essay was written with her permission.
Joan Hause is a licensed psychotherapist practicing in St. Paul. She also teaches creativity workshops. She is currently working on a collection of essays about being a therapist.