As a psychotherapist, Jacqueline Sheehan, PhD, found that she first had to learn some key facts about new clients before she could help them: "Who are they? What hurdles have they come up against that led them to my office? What's their baseline [emotional state] on a good day?"
As a novelist, Sheehan asks those same questions — about her characters. "I get at the same thing differently now," she says.
For Sheehan and the other three writers below — Keith Oatley, PhD, Maryka Biaggio, PhD, and Shira Nayman, PsyD — a keen interest in people led to their dual careers as novelists and psychologists. Below, they talk about the process of writing, their work, and why delving into a character's emotional life is not so different from working with a patient in therapy.
Healing through literature
Sheehan first learned about the healing power of literature at age 9, when her father died. At the time, she says, people didn't know how to help children process grief. Left to her own devices, she discovered the stories of Edgar Allen Poe.
"[Poe] understood grief, he just completely got it," says Sheehan. "So that made this early imprint on me, that writing and literature can help you process emotions and feelings. That really stayed with me."
The threads of psychology and writing have wound their way through her life ever since. In her 20s, Sheehan worked as a freelance journalist, but after she had a child, she decided to try a more stable field. She earned a doctorate in psychology at New Mexico State University and worked at counseling centers at California State University, Chico, and Westfield University in Westfield, Mass.
She loved the work. "I felt like I had found my tribe" among psychologists, she says. But the writing bug never left her. In 2003, she published a novel based on the life of Sojourner Truth, the African-American woman born into slavery in the 18th century who became an abolitionist and women's rights activist. The book, "The Comet's Tale: A Novel about Sojourner Truth," was a critical but not a commercial success.
When her second novel, "Lost & Found," was published in 2007, it made The New York Times best-seller list. Her success has allowed Sheehan to write full time, after many years of balancing writing with counseling center jobs and then with a part-time private psychotherapy practice.
But she hasn't left psychology behind entirely.
In "Lost & Found" and its sequel, Sheehan draws directly on her psychology training. The main character is a psychologist named Rocky who leaves her job at a college counseling center and moves to small-town Maine after her husband's death. Another character is a teen girl who battles anorexia. "Almost everything I learned about that I learned from the patients sitting in front of me," Sheehan says.
Insights into human behaviors
In his laboratory at the University of Toronto, professor emeritus of cognitive psychology Keith Oatley, PhD, has found that reading fiction can be more than just a frivolous pleasure — it may actually affect readers' personalities, increasing their empathy and social skills. In one 2006 study, for example, he and colleagues found that people who read more fiction are better able than non-readers to accurately guess another person's emotional state from a photo, and are also better able to grasp what's going on in a 15-second video clip of a social interaction.
Such findings make sense, Oatley says, since fiction is really about "selves in the social world." Just as reading non-fiction books on genetics or astronomy teaches a person about those subjects, reading fiction gives readers insights into why people act the way they do, by delving into characters' emotions and motivations in all sorts of situations.
Oatley's interest in fiction is more than academic. In addition to his scholarly work, he's published three novels. The first, "The Case of Emily V.," imagines what would have happened if Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes had both worked on a case in which a young woman's psychoanalysis and a real-life murder intersect. The novel won the 1994 Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first novel. A second novel, "A Natural History," is set in the mid-19th century and follows a physician trying to solve the mystery of cholera. His most recent novel, "Therefore Choose," published in 2010, is about a love triangle among three friends in Germany and England on the eve of World War II.
Until his retirement a few years ago, Oatley mainly worked on his novels during summer breaks. "I've found that the bits of my mind that were involved in teaching turned out to be the same ones involved in writing, so I just got into a muddle. I've only been able to do these things in lumps."
Now officially retired, he continues to work on both his research and his novel writing. He also runs an online magazine on the psychology of fiction called OnFiction. His favorite metaphor, he says, is to think of novels as a kind of "flight simulator."
"Ninety-nine percent of the time, if you're flying a real plane, nothing extraordinary happens. So if you're learning to fly, you'll probably spend some time in a flight simulator [to practice and learn about situations that haven't happened to you in the real world]. Fiction is the mind's flight simulator."
Making time for her passion
Maryka Biaggio, PhD, works on her novels every Monday through Friday morning — and some weekends, too. She devotes the rest of her workweek to her consulting business, helping shepherd psychology doctoral and internship programs through the accreditation process.
Her disciplined schedule has paid off. Last year, Biaggio published her first novel, "Parlor Games," a work of historical fiction based on the real life of a turn-of-the-century con artist and extortionist named May Dugas.
Success came after more than a decade. "It turned out that writing a novel was much harder than I thought it would be," she says. "‘Parlor Games' is the fourth one I've written. It took three for me to learn how to do it."
Biaggio spent nearly three decades as a clinical psychology professor and academic administrator at the University of Idaho, Indiana State University and Pacific University in Oregon. She left academia in 2004 to start her consulting business. The move also gave her time to focus on writing — a passion since her undergraduate literature studies.
Her novels draw on her psychological training, she says, particularly because she works in historical fiction and bases her characters on real people.
"‘Parlor Games' is told in the first person," she says. "So I had to work to get under the skin of this person. It's really the ultimate in empathy."
Now, she's working on a new novel based on the life of Barbara Follett, a child prodigy born in 1914 who published two novels by age 14. But Follett's life unraveled after her parents divorced and she was unable to publish any work during the Depression years. She disappeared at age 25, after a fight with her husband, and was never seen again.
Writing historical fiction raises unique concerns, Biaggio says. Writers cannot be sued for writing about deceased historical figures, but at the same time, she says, "you don't want to offend their families by misinterpretation or exploitation." Biaggio makes a point to seek out and talk to descendants of her characters, and she says that May Dugas's granddaughter — who didn't know Dugas herself — has read "Parlor Games" and found it amusing, viewing it as Biaggio's interpretation of the people and events involved.
For now, Biaggio plans to continue both her novel writing and consulting. "I really enjoy both, and I foresee doing both for some time to come."
Revealing ‘the essence'
From the outside, Shira Nayman, PsyD, says that her career looks like it's taken a meandering path. After earning a doctorate in psychology from Rutgers University, she spent several years doing postdoctoral work at a New York mental health facility. Then she earned a master's degree in literature at Columbia University. Knowing she "had to make a living," Nayman found her way to a career in brand management, where for 20 years she has used her psychology background to help politicians and Fortune 500 companies shape their messages.
Along the way, she also became a successful novelist. Since 2006, she's published two novels and a collection of short stories, and has earned praise in publications including The New York Times and Library Journal.
But to Nayman, her career "feels coherent because it's all coming from within me," she says. "Being a writer and a psychologist comes from the same place — I'm interested in the human experience."
Nayman's first book, a collection of short stories called "Awake in the Dark," was published in 2006. It focuses on the experiences of the children of Holocaust survivors. The inspiration was personal: Nayman grew up in the 1960s in a tightly knit Jewish community in Melbourne, Australia. "Everyone I knew, their parents had numbers tattooed on their arms," she says. "I think in general many people who are drawn to psychology are in touch with human suffering, as is true with artists and writers."
Her second book, "The Listener," published in 2010, focuses on the relationship between a psychiatrist and his patient, a World War II veteran, at a New York asylum in the years following the war. A third, "A Mind of Winter," a psychological thriller set in New York, Shanghai and London also in the years after World War II, was published in 2012.
Her different careers require different skills, Nayman says.
"When I'm doing the marketing stuff, it's all very cognitive and analytic. But when I'm writing, my analytic side is shut down. The story feels like it's coming at me, I'm not writing it so much as getting it down."
But the essence of her work, she says, remains the same. "What it boils down to, in psychology and marketing and writing, is that you don't want to lose the important detail. You have to wrap your arms around the richness that presents itself to you, and then you have to find what's salient, and then reveal the essence."
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