I’m a clinical psychologist. I’m also a novelist. Having a background in psychology is like the peanut butter in the chocolate of writing fiction: you don’t have to eat them together, sure, but they create something richer when you do. My two professional roles intersect with a basic fascination with people. Understanding people and all their foibles and frailties is a huge advantage when writing fiction.I’ve been a psychologist for about ten years, with most of the time spent in private practice. Much of my work is devoted to psychological assessment, that business of peeking into someone’s life for a few hours and extracting as much meaning as possible. After hundreds of detailed clinical interviews, I found I had a slew of material to work with when I decided to write novels. After all, the best fiction focuses on characters—who they are, what they want, what stands in their way, and ultimately what choices they make to overcome those obstacles (or not.) Writing a novel outline isn’t so different from writing a treatment plan for a client. Only as a novelist, I get to decide the ending and control whether or not my characters follow the plan!
Contrary to the old adage, novelists can’t always write what they know. They might get away with it for a book or two, but eventually they will have to write about characters unlike themselves doing things they might never do. As a psychologist, I’ve had opportunities to get to know people who are different from me; people who might make choices I wouldn’t make and live lives I will never live. I was trained to try to understand and respect the diversity of humans. This is invaluable as a fiction writer. A big part of the job is to create unique characters that feel real and place them in worlds and situations that may not even exist. What will they think and feel? How will they react? I suspect psychologists have a better shot than most at answering those questions with authenticity.
But novels aren’t made up only of characters. They aren’t even made up of plots. They are made up of stories. Think of plot as the skeleton of a novel and story as the flesh that hangs on it. The plot gives a novel structure; the story gives it life. Similarly, we psychologists can think of our clients as a collection of biological features and psychological traits put through a series of experiences that mold them into who they are at the point in time in which we meet them. But that’s not their story, is it? There’s so much more to it, and as psychologists we often learn to appreciate the full picture—the good, the bad, and the ugly—of people's lives. Helping a client shape their story is the business of clinical psychology. Helping a character shape their story is the business of fiction.
I began my private practice armed with my degree and license, a desire to use my training to help people, and a willingness to learn. Years later, I began my writing career with a laptop, a premise for a novel, and a willingness to learn. Both took hard work and perseverance to build, and neither was without disappointments and failures. Now that I’ve published two novels and a novella, there’s another important way that being a psychologist has helped prepare me: comfort with criticism. I’ve always tried to be open to hearing both positive and negative feedback from my clients. As an author, that experience has been very useful. No matter how well received my work is, there are always readers who don’t appreciate it. Listening to criticism, no matter how scathing, and taking what I can from it to improve my craft, is a skill I give full credit to my experience as a psychologist for honing.
I feel so fortunate to have not just one but two careers that I love. Both psychology and writing fiction have brought joy and import to my story. Of course I could eat just peanut butter, or I could eat just chocolate, but if I can eat them together, then why not?