Friday + Dr.S O'D = Writer's Therapy
I occasionally give workshops and seminars in my Brooklyn Heights
office on topics of interest to writers. If you would like to be
notified about upcoming events, email me at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot
Dear Dr. Sue:
Like a lot of writers, I have created a website to promote my works and interact with readers. Mostly it’s a breezy back and forth, and many questions have to do with the craft of writing and the business side. I understand that some readers feel like they know me well through my writing, which, in turn, has led some to share very personal and occasionally troubling issues from their own lives. I'm no counselor, but I do want to respond and refer them to credible resources that can provide sound information on issues like depression, chemical dependency, and family violence.
How should I respond?
Midlister with Website
When we are confused and in pain, it is natural to want to reach out to others who seem to understand what we are going through. Novelists who portray important human problems in a convincing and compassionate way often have to field letters from readers who share their own troubling stories and ask for help. (See, for example, <a href=" http://mjroseblog.typepad.com/buzz_balls_hype/2006/04/the_doctor_is_i.html#comments">this letter from a thriller writer</a>who hears from survivors of violent crimes.)
It seems, though, that the Internet intensifies readers’ feelings of intimacy with writers. Writers often post highly personal information on Web sites and blogs. Even when the content is focused solely on readings and promotion, the tone tends to be informal and chatty, reinforcing the illusion of “real life” give-and-take and even friendship. And the availability of a link through which to email the author makes contact much easier and less intimidating for many than putting pen to paper, or printing and mailing a formal letter, would be.
All of this can be helpful in creating a community of loyal readers. Readers’ freedom in contacting you can help you keep abreast of the issues that are important them, and your accessibility can inspire readers to attend readings and other events to meet you face to face. But this illusion of intimacy can also spur readers to depend on you for guidance and support that you aren’t prepared to give. This can be particularly troubling if the writer is a young person or otherwise in a vulnerable position.
You may wish to consider posting the Web addresses of organizations that deal with the issues your readers write you about most frequently. For example, in the case of domestic violence, the Feminist Majority Foundation site is a good place to start. (If you would like to email me again, with more specifics about the types of letters you get, I’d be glad to help you locate other relevant organizations.) I would suggest posting a disclaimer, as well, stating that although you care about your readers’ issues, you don’t feel qualified to give advice or recommendations.
Resist the urge to give any sort of advice about any issue of critical importance to the reader. Even an experienced counselor can’t read between the lines of letters from strangers, ferreting out the information the writer omitted inadvertently, or because he or she can’t see the whole picture, or because it was too embarrassing to relate even to you. If you do find yourself sucked into offering this kind of help, you are likely to awaken at 3 am realizing that your well-intentioned advice may have put the reader, who trusted you, into even more danger or misery. Direct the reader to the appropriate organization, and express your sympathy and concern. Most readers will appreciate your caring response, as well as your restraint.
Susan O’Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.