Monday, 11 January 2021

Becoming Myself



I picked this up  in a sale, knowing nothing about Irvin D. Yalom, and found it very enjoyable:

Bestselling writer and psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom puts himself on the couch in a lapidary memoir

Irvin D. Yalom has made a career of investigating the lives of others. In this profound memoir, he turns his writing and his therapeutic eye on himself. He opens his story with a nightmare: He is twelve, and is riding his bike past the home of an acne-scarred girl. Like every morning, he calls out, hoping to befriend her, "Hello Measles!" But in his dream, the girl's father makes Yalom understand that his daily greeting had hurt her. For Yalom, this was the birth of empathy; he would not forget the lesson. As Becoming Myself unfolds, we see the birth of the insightful thinker whose books have been a beacon to so many. This is not simply a man's life story, Yalom's reflections on his life and development are an invitation for us to reflect on the origins of our own selves and the meanings of our lives. 

As well as being an eminent psychiatrist, he's also an ardent bibliophile, and much of the autobiography is about books and the writing process.

I think I had decided upon psychiatry before even entering medical school: it flowed from my passion for literature and from a belief that psychiatry offered me proximity to all the great writers I loved. My deepest pleasure was to lose myself in the world of a novel, and over and over again I told myself that the very best thing a person could do in life was to write a fine novel. I’ve always had a hunger for stories, and since I first read Treasure Island as a young adolescent I have dived deeply into the narratives that great writers offer us. Even as I write these words at the age of eighty-five, I can hardly wait to return tonight to Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March. I ration it and fight the urge to devour it all at once. 


Even as I find myself immersed in the present, I sense the specter of decay watching and waiting—a decay that will ultimately vanquish lived experience and yet, by its very inexorability, bestows a poignancy and beauty. The desire to relate my experience with Ginny is a very compelling one; I am intrigued by the opportunity to stave off decay, to prolong the span of our brief life together. How much better to know that it will exist in the mind of the reader rather than in the abandoned warehouse of unread clinical notes and unheard electromagnetic tapes.


I have always read myself to sleep, and for the past two weeks I have been reading a book called Our Better Angels by Steven Pinker. Tonight... I had read a chapter on the rise of empathy during the Enlightenment and how the rise of the novel, particularly British epistolary novels like Clarissa and Pamela, may have played a role in decreasing violence and cruelty by helping us to experience the world from another's viewpoint.

There was a lot in there that I found relatable. He talked about Gide's aphorism, that 'history is fiction that might have happened,' and wanting characters and events to have that ring of authenticity that makes them believable. I've always felt the same about my historical works, such as Rosy Hours and Angorichina. The best fiction didn't happen - but it might have done.

I felt for him when he wrote about giving up on a novel because of the amount of research involved:

For months I researched the details of daily life in Greece in that era, the clothing, the type of breakfast, the customs of daily life. I studied ancient and current historical and philosophical texts, read novels set in ancient Greece (by Mary Renault and others), and eventually arrived at the sad realization that the research required to write this and the chapters in the other time periods would consume the rest of my life. With great regret I abandoned the project. It’s the only book I’ve ever started and did not finish.

I've felt this a few times with the historical research for Rosy Hours (1850s Iran), The Children of Lir (Iron Age Ireland) and now with Akkad (Sumerian and Akkadian Empires). But the trick with historical fiction is to remember that you're not writing a textbook. I think it was Bernard Cornwell who pointed out that if a reader wanted a history lesson, they would have bought a history book. They picked up a novel because they wanted to be entertained. You don't have to be a hundred percent accurate in fiction, no one ever is. The important thing is to find the little nuggets of information that fascinate you as a writer, and include those. It's the narrative that's important, facts just add a bit of colour. They should support your story, not constrain it.

I always immerse myself in books, documentaries, music and art of the period for a good couple of months, but then I start writing. Anything I don't know, I can find out along the way as the need arises. You could spend a lifetime becoming a historical expert on a specific period and never need 90% of everything you learned for your novel. Start the story - let that guide your research. 

That's my approach, anyway. But I can see how easily research could overwhelm a writer and how, especially for those with an academic bent, the need to be factually accurate and gather information might derail the creative process. I also grind to a halt when I'm researching, which is why you have to stop at some point and shift to the other foot.

Beyond writing, there was a particularly interesting part about how therapy is changing today, and how some people prefer to undergo treatment using text messages and Skype. 

During the COVID lockdown, I was working with a couple of genocide survivors' organisations. Face-to-face counselling sessions were closed down for health reasons and we opened a national helpline instead. Although many clients preferred face-to-face sessions, others preferred telephone counselling and we gained many new clients who were phoning in to speak to somebody for the first time. They found it easier to speak honestly and anonymously over the phone, and divulged experiences and information that they would not have felt comfortable disclosing in person. There was a sense of safety for many in being able to speak on the phone without making eye contact or being observed. We were left with a sense that remote counselling certainly has a role to play.

The final chapter was particularly poignant: A Novice at Growing Old. Here, he spoke of this being his last book. At eighty-five, he felt he had written all the works he was going to. This is a particularly tough chapter to read as a writer. The older we grow, the more aware of time we become and the fewer ideas we're willing to take a risk on. It takes around nine months to a year to write a book, usually another year for it to go through editing and publication. You start to count time in terms of how many books you have left. I could imagine a time, one day, where you realise there are only a couple more to go.

On a happier note, I also really liked the publisher's copyright notice at the end. I always thought Ghostwoods had the best one, but this came very close. It ended by explaining how people could contact the publisher to request permission to use material. I wish every book was so open about this. I think, if it was made easier for people to request copyright permission, more would do so. I've spent hours of my life tracking down permission to use work, both literary and musical, in the past. Assuming that the point of owning rights is to collect royalties, then the process of identifying and paying those owners should be much simpler. This was really useful.

Anyway, a pleasant and gentle read.

No comments:

Post a Comment