Monday, October 25, 2010

Borderlands, Present and Past

I recently wrote this piece for Rutgers Today about dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), known to be the most effective treatment for borderline personality disorder (BPD). I was groomed to see the world (and myself) through a Freudian lens, so when I embarked on my MA in Counseling Psychology the realm of acronym diagnoses was new to me. Like many beginning therapists, I found working with BPD clients disorienting; the connection I felt would move in and out of focus. (On one unnerving occasion that I write about in the book, I was so thrown off I actually had a panic attack.)

Writing about BPD reminded me of one inspiration for the novel I’m working on. (A novel is so grueling I believe multiple lines of inspiration are needed in order to write the thing.) In grad school I read that borderline personality disorder was regarded as a “modern” phenomenon; the sense of “emptiness” that dominated someone’s inner experience was seen as the consequence of an individualistic culture in which people expect to be “filled” with consumer goods and seek wellbeing in a social/spiritual/identity marketplace. This is in contrast to Freud’s prototype, the late Victorian “hysteric”, whose maladies evolved in a sexually repressed, socially constricted culture. Here's an article from back then. Can’t believe I remembered it so clearly after all this time!

So this is how it all connects: A few years ago I was reading about my grandmother’s psychoanalyst, Fritz Wittels, and grew fascinated with a love triangle that proved pivotal in his life. Fritz and his buddy Karl Kraus (see last post) claimed to have found the “ideal woman”, since she was free with her body and lacked the usual neuroses about sexuality. The young woman in question, a would-be actress named Irma, seemed to me a very modern figure, and from the way she moved through the world—impulsively, erratically, with alternating swagger and dread—put me in mind of someone with BPD. I posed the question: what would happen to a BPD character stranded in Freud’s Vienna with a bunch of neurotics? That’s one thread woven into the novel.Tony has been photographing doors in Old Jaffa. He pointed me to a quote from the artist/creator of this door, Ran Morin: “I am dealing with earth and olive trees and actual places where there are borders. A Palestinian once told me, ‘Okay we don’t have to fight over the land; we can grow the trees in the sky’.”

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Psychoanalysis: Quotes and Critics

Of all the comments I get about The Therapist’s New Clothes, no one has mentioned the quotes that appear before the text:

“We may have thought there was bad stuff in there, but we didn’t know how bad. But since it was in the name of healing, we accept it.” D.H. Lawrence

“Psychoanalysis is that mental illness of which it believes itself to be the cure.” Karl Kraus

I thought those were such nifty quotes! And how many people know that D.H. Lawrence wrote two books on psychoanalysis? Though I do remember that Sons and Lovers was required reading in a college course called “Psychoanalysis and Literature”. What a great class that was – I remember writing a paper in which I applied concepts from The Interpretation of Dreams (displacement, condensation, portmanteau words) to Alice in Wonderland. Those were the days...

I’ve seen variations of the Kraus quote around (though I don’t remember seeing it during my heyday as an analysand/training therapist, when I could have used a clever jolt like that.) Beyond that, Kraus is a character I’ve come to know quite well as he is one corner of the love triangle that drives the novel I’m working on. Such a brilliant, brittle character, a master of the aphorism and the aphoristic insult, arguably the first critic of the mass media. His magazine, Die Fackel (The Torch), was written in the spirit of today’s best political blogs. He nailed the hypocrisy of public figures. He loved pointing out errors in The Neue Freie Presse, which was 1900 Vienna’s equivalent of The New York Times. And he took every opportunity to diss psychoanalysis, to the extent that he has been called the “anti-Freud”. For example: “Psychoanalysts pick our dreams as if they were our pockets”; “Psychology is the last resort of incompetence”; and "Psychology is as useful as are directions for how to take poison." You get the idea.

A few years ago I went to Vienna with my brother, Fred, who is an art historian and German scholar—based in London and Scotland, so I rarely get to see him. It was an amazing trip, just the two of us moving through this spectacular city, steeping ourselves in its present and past. Between his knowledge of language, art and architecture and my knowledge of psychoanalytic history and cafe culture, the place was an intellectual playground for us--but one with really good food and wine. In one used bookstore (District 8, Josefstadt, it would have been) we found several copies of Die Fackel. Fred bought an issue, I’m not sure which one.Die Fackel was known for its modest size and its bright red cover. Resemble any book you know?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Humor Me (Family Cameo Version)

A few years back we spent the academic year in Iowa City, while Tony taught at the renowned Writers Workshop. It was an amazing year for all of us, on many levels. Our son, Brendan, loved being in a neighborhood (as opposed to living on a mountain) and made something of a name for himself as a musician. After just a few weeks in town, he took the stage at Peacefest Iowa and performed two original songs, including the unforgettable "Bush S*cks". Here's the Daily Iowan's report on the event. (I love the lede: "Brendan Eprile may be only eleven years old, but...") This led to his being asked to appear on university radio and, eventually, to his forming a band (The Keepers of Peace) which placed second in the Emma Rocks! Battle of the Bands fundraiser for the Emma Goldman Women's Health Clinic. It was quite a ride. As for me I enjoyed hobnobbing with the literati, but was also reminded of how rewarding it is to create a life for oneself in a new place, a kind of risk-free self-invention.

In his spare time Tony was most drawn to U of Iowa's International Writing Program, and loved the chance to engage with writers from all over the world. At the end of the year he joined a group of writers on a trip through the Middle East, meeting students and leaders in Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Greece, Israel, and East Jerusalem. He was recently asked to contribute to the IWP's 100 Word Project, a series of brief stories on the topic of war and peace. See what Tony is able to do with 100 words.

Here is a sneak preview for Tony's soon-to-be website. It's an image he drew based on South African folk art. He calls this one "Dancing Man".

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Therapy, Meditation, and Medication

Having written such a personal book as The Therapist’s New Clothes, I'm always fascinated to hear the different perspectives readers bring to it—and thus what they take from it. One who contacted me read the book from the standpoint of a mother, and related deeply to the struggle to keep my depression “separate” from my relationship with my young son. A friend who’s a painter said it gave him insight about perception and reality, and that he’s sharing this with his students. Such comments often help me expand my understanding of the story I tell. So I was thrilled to have a chat with fellow writer Stephanie Golden, who has written about psychology, including her fabulous book about women and self-sacrifice, Slaying the Mermaid, and is a practitioner of Buddhist insight meditation. She also has a blog, Writing Craft and Practice. I recommend a visit!

Many years ago, she says, she underwent Jungian analysis. We talked about how meditation and therapy interact and intersect:

“For me analysis only went so far. Once I learned all the stuff about myself through analysis I still had to learn how to let go of it so it wasn't any longer affecting how I lived. That's what insight meditation did for me—or I should say, is still doing. The key is that the meditation practice is not intellectual, it's experiential. The insights are intuitive, not conceptual. It takes time and effort to develop the skills to have these experiential insights.

“One basic difference is that in insight practice you learn not to identify with thoughts or emotions (as in, "I'm such an anxious person") so that they don't define you. The conceptual structure behind this--which has to do with the question of what is the self or ego--is too complicated to go into here, but I do feel that one problematic effect of therapy is that when people learn they have some specific issue, they identify with it and turn it into who they are.

“Another point is that the goal of meditation isn't the same as the goal of therapy. It's not to get rid of psychological problems, although that's often a side benefit. It's to clear away the veils in the mind that prevent you from perceiving a more ultimate, transcendent, or absolute level of reality. Though I know people who got into it because they were looking for calming, stress reduction and so on, but then got hooked and stayed. And meditators also turn to therapy to develop more understanding of themselves. So bottom line, Buddhism and western psychology attach different meanings to the concept of 'self' but meditation and therapy can be complementary. Depends on what each person is drawn to.”

At different points when I was, shall we say, less than well, I tried meditation; I was game for anything that promised inner peace. It never worked. I either got horribly restless or felt my discomfort magnified a zillion times. I recently came across a quote from Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist who has explored the nexus of Buddhism and therapy, in an article in Tricycle:

“When depressed people try to meditate, a major part of their meditative energy is going into fighting depression. Instead of letting it take them forward, they are using their meditation as an attempt to self-medicate. The bulk of their energy may go into obsessive ruminations or attempts to process emotional pain that feels stuck. They are facing a gradient that is too steep.”

This so precisely articulated exactly what it was like. In the Buddhist spirit, I can retrospectively feel compassion for that pain-wracked soul who could sit (if barely) but never be still. Maybe I’ll give it another go sometime. But right now I don’t feel the pull.If you look carefully at this photo, you'll see not just our Thai peppers, but also a walking stick.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Busy with summer reading (and writing). Be back soon...

Monday, July 19, 2010

The "Free" Model: Concord Free Press

I learned of the Concord Free Press when my husband, Tony Eprile, placed a story in their latest book IOU: New Writing on Money. (Tony's story, Entrepreneurs, tells a tale of money, work and witchcraft in an emerging South Africa.) The press's "business" model is giving books away. In lieu of buying a book, the reader gives to charity. So far they've steered more than $140,000 to good causes. I thought, hey, I write about new ways of looking at money and new ways of looking at publishing -- I need to talk to these guys! So I caught up with Founder/Editor-in-Chief, Stona Fitch, author of several books, most recently Give + Take.

JDS: Given your publishing model, doing “IOU”, an anthology about money, seems, well, almost inevitable. Were you hoping to spark more discussion about the role of money in our lives? How have people responded?

SF: Yes, IOU is a great fit with our renegade approach to publishing, which makes readers reconsider the value and core purpose of books. Instead of just charging $12.95 for a trade paperback like everyone else, we ask that they give away money to a cause they care about or someone in need. The reader is empowered to figure out the value of the project, book, and overall experience of being part of our experiment in reading and giving. Similarly, the writers in IOU are all rethinking money and its role, and coming up with new insights in their poems, stories, and essays—some dark, some hilarious.

We’ve had an overwhelming reaction to the book—thousands of requests and ongoing donations from all over the world. I think people tend to savor IOU slowly. The editor of IOU, poet/critic Ron Slate, rounded up a remarkably diverse collection. But IOU definitely gets people thinking about money—good, bad, and beyond.


JDS: To what extent is your publishing model a critique of the current publishing industry?

SF: Good question. It’s important to point out that we’re a band of writers, not publishers. The Concord Free Press is about writers taking control and creating a new way to engage with readers. Our writers see their work triggering generosity throughout the world. And they find that extremely rewarding. Plus, our books can (and do) go on to second, commercial lives that make money.

We’re reminding the industry that books have incredible power beyond their ability to generate profits, which most books fail to do anyway. We’re pointing out how a radical rethinking of publishing can work (just a look at our home page confirms that). And we’re sending a positive message about books in a time of doom, gloom, and hand-wringing.


JDS: Do you think some good can come out of the turmoil in the publishing business — the concern that there’s no longer enough money in it? If so, what might that look like?

SF: Publishing has this desperate end-time quality to it now, like fishing with dynamite. I’m hopeful that the turmoil and change will leave the industry stronger, though smaller. There will probably be fewer books, but better published. They’ll be available via multiple channels, in different formats, and at varying price points. Publishers will be leaner, taking advantage of every efficiency-enhancing breakthrough available. And they’ll have to use social networking and other great online resources for establishing real connections with readers vs. simply generating hype. Making money on shorter press runs is a big challenge. But smart publishers can do it.

That said, more and more writers are going to leave the mothership of traditional publishing entirely and simply create and distribute their own books directly to readers. There will be online communities that aggregate fiction writers linked by genre, style, and other common traits. If these writers can continue to provide compelling, original work that attracts fans—without the infrastructure of traditional publishing—they’ll thrive. A fair number of name-brand non-fiction writers are already leading the charge. Fiction writers will follow.

No matter how a book is published, it all comes down to one question—is the work compelling, original, and necessary? Ideally, by asking that question vs. “Can I move 20,000 units at WalMart?” books can become more culturally relevant and important again. 

JDS: From scrolling around your website, I get the sense you’re having fun with this. Do you think having fun is important to the creation of good books?

SF: Publishing is fun, from collaborating with writers to designing and packaging the book to sending it out into the world. But making money at publishing is hard. At the Concord Free Press, we’re thankful to be free of the burden of profitability. We don’t envy the editors and publishers who have to struggle with this challenge every day, every book. So yes, we have a lot more fun. And a certain punk-inflected, subversive humor shows through in all aspects of the Concord Free Press—from our website to our books to our media coverage. We’re Billy Bragg to the mainstream publishing industry’s Electric Light Orchestra. We’re the Diggers to their Democratic National Committee. We’re the gentle thumb to their anxious eye.

JDS: The notion of giving away books for free challenges many of our assumptions about “value” and the nature of transactions. Would you say that people are rethinking their approach to material goods? If so, do you attribute this to the recession? Environmentalism?

SF: Yes. While the motivations vary, I sense a lot of people are giving up on conspicuous consumption, probably because it just isn’t that rewarding. Giving away something beautiful and original—for free, to someone who appreciates it—has an incredible power to it. Seeing our books out in the world, inspiring generosity in so many different ways, is really exciting to us. And much more rewarding than any paycheck we could be taking home at the end of the week by selling our books.

Friday, July 2, 2010

More On My Double Life: E-Book Sale! Version

Sometimes I amuse myself by the extent to which I go back and forth. I talk about Slow Money, but what I’d really like is to sell a zillion books for some fast money right now. One minute I’m reading about ways that soil can absorb more CO2, and then I’ll pop over to the Northshire website to see how many copies I’ve sold.

So, I interrupt my note-taking on matters of great ecological and economic significance to announce that the e-book version (any format) of The Therapist’s New Clothes is on sale at Smashwords—26% off! (How’d they figure on 26%? There must be a reason...) This special offer only runs through July 31, so make sure you’ve got your reading for August when your shrink goes on vacation! (Or, if you are a shrink, you need some beach reading for your Kindle, iPad, whatever—and you’ve really gotta read this!)

I'm still going through my Israel photos, and found this one of my son squinting in the bright Mediterranean light. If he had read what I've written above (or, for that matter, anything else I've ever written or said) he would be rolling his eyes!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Revolution Will Be Blogged...And Maybe Published

As visitors to this blog know, I lead something of a double professional life. (What can I say, I’m a Gemini. As is most of my family. When I was a child, we had “Gemini parties”. I thought everyone did.) On one side, I dwell in the literary world, exploring the overlap of writing and psychotherapy through The Therapist’s New Clothes and continuing similar preoccupations in a novel, a love triangle in Freud’s Vienna (based on my grandmother’s psychoanalyst who was a member of Freud’s inner circle. My grandmother, Charlotte, was a gifted painter who dabbled in alternative healing. Yes, she was a Gemini.) Then, I’ve been writing and reporting on new economic models, looking at the nexus of the environment and economics. I’ve linked to some of my pieces, but didn’t know how to make topics like the social cost of carbon and ecosystem services relevant to therapy or my publishing experiment.

Last week I attended a conference on Slow Money, a growing movement I wrote about last fall. Let me try a flash explanation like I gave a friend earlier on the phone: Today money is rushing around the world becoming increasingly abstract and chasing bigger and faster profits. Money, which is simply a unit of measure and means of exchange, needs to be slowed down and brought back to earth so as to build actual, as opposed to illusory, wealth. Buy or invest locally, and the money stays local and provides jobs. Buy or invest in chains, etc. and the money gets whisked out of town to corporate headquarters and into the speculative market. Profits go up while our communities, health, and quality of life languish. The Slow Money approach is to keep money real, starting with investing in small, local food enterprises that nurture the soil and communities.

The event, at Shelburne Farms, VT, gathered a group that you never would have seen together ten, even five, years ago: financiers, investment professionals, environmentalists, farmers, chefs, and community organizers. I was struck by how folks from such disparate universes milled about affably, chatting and exchanging ideas. I felt a camaraderie borne of a shared understanding of just how out-of-whack our economic system has become, mainly because what’s most important to all of us is outside the market, and thus not valued. I mean, would BP have been so cavalier about drilling if it were common knowledge that the Mississippi Delta’s natural assets are estimated at between $330 billion to $1.3 trillion? As this piece in The Solutions Journal notes, that greatly exceeds BP’s market value before the spill. There is a kind of exhilaration that occurs once you stop denying a problem, which releases energy for solutions—solutions that are beginning to spring up and which make me feel more optimistic and inspired. I’ll post articles as they’re published.

One challenge is that my success as a writer depends on the system—even as some of my work is critiquing aspects of it. I think this is where my ambivalence about marketing sometimes comes from. Do I want to wear myself out to get my message heard, and shout along with everyone else trying to get heard? If money has gotten too fast, marketing has gotten too “loud”. As usual, the only satisfying answer I can come up with is to do my best. In my fiction (the novel I described and another I’m working on) I like to write about people trying to figure out their lives amidst tremendous change. If I could choose, I’d rather write novels about people in times of upheaval rather than grappling with upheaval myself. But we don’t always get to make those choices, do we? As a writer and as a person, the best I can do is to be open to it.Tony found this Luna Moth outside our bedroom window. Once they sprout wings, these beautiful creatures only live for about one week.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Marketing As Theater: Meet Kevin Daum

So I’m in a marketing funk, and then I remember this guy from a panel at the American Society of Journalists and Authors Members Day, Kevin Daum, author of Roar! Get Heard in the Marketing and Sales Jungle. He radiated such energy and enthusiasm about marketing I felt if I could bottle a fraction of it, I’d be in great shape. Clearly this fellow was a marketing maniac—and of course I mean “maniac” in the very best sense. I caught up with Kevin while he was on the road (where else?) and tossed him a bunch of questions.

JDS: Your book, Roar!, an Amazon #1 best-seller several times over, is, improbably, a business parable based on the four sons we meet at the Passover Seder. I’ve always wondered what they were about. Who are they?

KD: The four buyers you as a marketer need to reach: the Wise Buyer, the Cynical Buyer, the Simple Buyer (who just knows what he wants) and the Buyer Who’s Unwilling to Ask Questions. Your job as marketer is to draw these buyers by offering them an Awesome Experience—which is the convergence of need, entertainment and the unexpected.

JDS: You have a degree in Theater Arts and have been involved in numerous theater productions. When I learned that you found a connection between theater and marketing, I assumed you were referring to marketing as a kind of acting or performing. But it seems that’s not it.

KD: No, for me it’s not about getting in front of an audience. I’m not interested in the validation of me. What matters is the validation of the book. If I have ten standing ovations, that would do nothing for me. If I die and have ten best sellers to my name, then my life would have been complete. My point was that what you learn in theater, compelling messaging, intentionality and delivery, are crucial to marketing. Everything you need to know about marketing is taught in every college in the country, but in the theater department, not the business school.

JDS: You seem incredibly driven. How do you keep yourself motivated?

KD: I love sharing my ideas. There’s also fear: I’ve got to earn a living. In addition to writing books I had a very successful company, and in the 2008 downturn got completely wiped out. Twenty-five years of work gone. I had to reinvent myself. I knew it would take two years before I had money, and I thought: if I’m going to get myself up every morning, I’d better love what I do. When Wiley published Roar!, I decided that more than anything in the world I wanted to have a NYT bestseller. So I got a tattoo that says “NYT bestseller”. This way I’m always reminded of the challenge I set for myself. Recently a CEO wrote to me and said, “We love this book. Can you talk to us?” I drew up a proposal and just sealed a $10,000 deal. And I’m talking to a Major League Baseball team. Now, I started from scratch. I had nowhere to go but up. And the fun of having a Major League Baseball team wonder, “Where the heck did this guy come from?” It doesn’t get any better than this.

JDS: Unlike many writers, you don’t seem cynical about the publishing industry. Why?

KD: I’m passionate about the publishing business—whether or not the publishers actually know what they’re doing. One of the problems is that most people under 45 don’t know anything about marketing in a down market. It’s about how do you use the tools available to you, and getting the people at the company energized about that. The publicist says, “You can’t do that—no one’s done it before”. My reaction is, “Great! Then we don’t know that it doesn’t work.” I like to think of the publishing industry looking at me and saying, “Where did this guy come from?”Kevin and his awesome tattoo--designed so he can read it in the mirror.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

(My) Last Word on Numbers

I don't know anyone who's published a book during the last few years who's happy with his sales numbers. I'm often surprised to hear this, as it includes writers who have sleek, professional websites and big-brand publishers and have done the kind of media that has other authors thinking, "If only I could be on that show..." It's tough out there and we know the reasons for it and yet we each take lower-than-hoped-for sales as a personal shortcoming. We've gotten the message that, once we've written a good book, if we just get out there, becoming marketing machines and creating this nifty new entity called "Brand Moi", we will be successful authors. But not everyone is suited to the on-all-the-time salesperson mindset, particularly once you reach a point of diminishing returns (and these days diminishment seems to come before the returns even begin.)

I'm lucky in that I have a gregarious streak that does lend itself to marketing, at least for a while. But it's liberating to acknowledge that it can get tiresome. The Web has given authors many new vehicles for marketing their work; however it has also created a situation where you're potentially marketing all the time. You've always got to be ripe for that adrenalin surge; at any moment of the day, you can see how well you're doing -- or, more typically, not.

Since my small, personal artistic/publishing experiment does not lend itself to by-the-numbers success, I'm going to come up with my own metric -- one that allows me to succeed. And that would be...the "Raves to Readers Ratio". My book isn't out there in major commodity-level quantities, but I get a lot of phone calls and "wow" emails and even the occasional person stopping me on the street to say, "I have to tell you what your book meant to me..." This amounts to a high Raves to Readers Ratio. I can feel pretty good about that, right? And the world is so full of figures and statistics and ways to measure this or that, what's wrong with adding one more?

Here I am on top of a sand dune in Israel, about to dash down.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Resisting the Numbers Game

As with so many things, “success” as an author is determined by how many books you sell—at least according to publishing’s business institutions. But sales are determined by so many factors that may not have anything to do with the quality of a book (the publisher’s marketing and PR, timing, distribution, etc.) And I believe what happens between a book and a reader is too personal to reduce it to mere figures. If you’ve written a book and someone reads it, loves it, thoroughly embraces your literary vision, isn’t that meaningful in a way that transcends a mark on a sales statement? I think so. Or at least I wish I felt that way. For if I really believe that, why do I reflexively check sales rankings a zillion times a day? Readers have reached out to me and said those things that an author dreams of hearing: “Your book is everything I want a book to be”; “I want to personally thank you for writing it”; “The writing is beautiful”; and, one of my favorites, “I kept thinking throughout—I wish you were my therapist!” Shouldn’t that be enough?

When I write “resisting the numbers game”, it’s not that I have resisted, but that I’m actively in the process of trying to resist. I straddle the two sides: part of me believes that connection matters more than cold figures, while another part says, “Darn! Can’t I just sell more of these things?” A part of me looks for integrity in a work of art; a part of me is impressed with plain old success.

So I’ve sold, I don’t know, a few hundred books. That’s pretty significant, and the thought of all those people investing their attention in my work should, more than anything else, humble me. True, when I know someone has bought my book my first thought is to hope it proves worthy of his/her attention. But as much as I fight it I was born into a world dominated by numbers, and so I look to the numbers to validate me.

When I feel myself sinking into the numbers trap, I often turn to the memory of a friend and writer who I admired hugely, Lynn Luria-Sukenick, who I got to know in California and died fifteen years ago now. Her work was never commercially successful—no big numbers there—but she had a unique sensibility and her writing stays with you, like a heartfelt song. In one prose poem she writes, “A deer leaps her slanted script over the field.” Touching a dolphin at Sea World is “like stroking a giant olive”. To me her writing is still alive, and a reminder that beauty and meaning can’t be measured.Here's Brendan, ecstatic, tearing down a sand dune in the very South of Israel.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Geographies of Writing and Reading

This long break between posts is thanks to a trip to Israel followed by conferences/book fairs in NY and, finally, the literary festival in Manchester, Vermont. I’m always heartened by the creativity and enterprise that lurk in these mountains – especially in the spring when people finally emerge from wood-heated rooms and find each other again. We had great organic pizza from Mach’s Brick Oven Bakery of Pawlet, VT (pop. 1,400), award-winning cheese from Consider Bardwell Farm, and fine music from Red Heart the Ticker, which I hadn’t heard of but apparently was once on Prairie Home Companion. (I've got their CD on now.) Writing is definitely happening up this way. The festival organizer, Clemma Dawson, is thinking big for next year, noting she’s hoping for work that pushes boundaries since, she says, “there are plenty of venues for denial.” As Clemma also says, “We Vermonters are quiet but revolutionary.” Amen.

I read a snippet from The Therapist’s New Clothes. It went over quite well, with listeners chuckling and smiling over lines I chuckled and smiled over when I wrote them. As much as I appreciate it, getting laughs make me shy and I tend to read through the moment rather than milking it. Maybe I should get some coaching from actor friends.

I realized that I’ve posted photos of Brendan and tons—even repeats when I couldn’t resist—of Thembi but none of my husband. Here’s a shot of Tony in Israel, where you can see Syria in the background. Syria's not unknown turf for him. The last time he was in the Middle East he was part of a cultural diplomacy group through the U of Iowa International Writers Program, a whirlwind tour that included Israel and the West Bank, Syria, Jordon, Greece, and Turkey.Note the South African flag patch on his knee.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Literary Festival Alert

Just a quick note to say that the Manchester and the Mountains Poets and Writers Weekend looks to be a lot of fun, very low-key but with great workshops and mingling opportunities. Plus, it's reasonable and in a beautiful place. Hope to see you there!

Also, I have another piece about publishing with the Espresso Book Machine up on Huffington Post.

Here's a glimpse of spring in Vermont, a daffodil just unfurling its petals.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

That Was Fast!

The Therapist’s New Clothes is now an ebook. Smashwords has been much in publishing news lately for its deal with Apple’s new iPad. Despite the rush on Smashwords, the process of putting it up was straightforward, with no delays. When I expressed concern about the formatting, Mark Coker encouraged me to do it myself, saying, “it’s easier than you think”. Hmm...that sounded ominous. I did read through the style guide and took the formatting as far as I could. When I got stuck, I contacted Lucinda from the list of recommended format mavens, and she fixed it up promptly and quite reasonably. I am glad I forged through the style guide as far as I did as it helped me understand the strengths and weaknesses of the various formats, and made what had been a foreign language at least a little less foreign.

I haven’t spread the word and have yet to make a sale, but the sample (about 25 pages—or what would have been pages in the print version) has been downloaded five times. My initial excitement about this (wow—people can see it as an ebook!) quickly swerved into classic writer angst. Someone looked at it and didn’t buy it? Why not? Then I realized a couple of things: first of all, the whole point of the sample is to give someone a chance to read a bit of the book. Which takes time. The other is that it’s like flipping through a book in a bookstore. How often do I glance at a few pages and make a mental note about buying it later? Could you imagine if every book kept track of each time someone touched it and didn’t buy it? This is the game we’ve got now. The challenge is not to let it make you crazy.

In the spirit of serenity, here's Thembi, lord of all she surveys.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A "Smash"-Course on Ebooks: Interview With Mark Coker

When I began my publishing experiment, I assumed that books and ebooks were an either/or matter – you did one or the other. Upon choosing the Espresso Book Machine route I thought: phew, thank goodness I don’t have to deal with ebooks, which seemed so futuristic and cold compared to a volume you can hold in your hand.

How things change in a year! At the Tools of Change Conference it hit me: an e-version of my book is a no-brainer. My biggest challenge is limited distribution, and an ebook is instantly available to readers worldwide. People are increasingly receptive to reading on screens, and new devices are making the experience more satisfying and aesthetically pleasing. Of course I still have questions, so I reached out to ebook maven Mark Coker, whose company, Smashwords, has been a pioneer in making ebooks available to authors, publishers, and readers.JDS: One thing that gives me pause about doing an ebook is the notion of bypassing the bookstore, in part because I feel I owe so much to the Northshire. What does the future hold for bookstores in the context of an expanding, if not exploding, ebook market?

MC: This is really tough, painful question, and I'm afraid the answer will not cheer those of us who love browsing books at our local bookstore. Amazon is doing to large chain stores what large chain stores did to indie bookstores and what Walmart has done to indie stores all around the globe, or what NetFlix has done to video rental stores. Consumers have clearly shown a preference for broad selection, convenient ordering and low prices. I don't know how indie stores can compete in this environment. Yes, they're local, they employ our neighbors, they help your dollars circulate in the local economy, and they contribute valuable personal recommendations and curated selection, yet they're targeting an ever-shrinking pie of what consumers really want.

JDS: Ooh, you’re making me sad. I was hoping for a win-win for authors and bookstores.

MC: There is one trend in ebooks that bears close watching because it may present an opportunity for some brick-and-mortar bookstores to offer unlimited selection, a competitive price, and still earn a fair profit. It's this so-called "agency pricing model”, promoted by Apple. It's a model we've been using at Smashwords for two years. Essentially, we allow the author or publisher to set the price, and we don't discount.

If this pricing model catches on with publishers, and especially if it's adopted by Amazon, then I do see the day where bookstores could act as reading device fueling stations: you take your ebook reader to a bookstore, enjoy the ambiance of face to face community with bookstore employees and fellow readers, enjoy bookstore events, hang out with friends in the bookstore cafe, and, of course, purchase any ebook at the same price as anywhere else. Is this the future of bookstores? I doubt it. The challenge here is that so much of what creates book community translates so well to online communities. I think ebook sales will take place in brick-and-mortar retail locations, though I don't think such sales will sustain the bookstores of today.

JDS: I thought it interesting that at TOC the question was raised "Do authors still need publishers?" but not "Do authors still need agents?" Do ebooks change the role of literary agents? How should authors make sure their agents are up to speed on this?

MC: An agent is the author's advocate, so you should expect your agent to keep on top of the latest publishing trends and tools available to you. One challenge professional authors and their agents face is that we can expect serious downward pressure on book advances in the years ahead, especially for midlist authors. Such pressure may cause surviving agents to refocus their client lists only on larger authors with established platforms, large fan bases and proven commercial potential. I think the rise of ebook self-publishing tools such as Smashwords and Amazon's Digital Text Platform present exciting new options for agents and their authors. We might see some agents changing their business model to look more like digital publishers. All I can say for sure is that 12 to 24 months from now, the e-publishing landscape will look dramatically different. The stigma of self-publishing is disappearing as more and more professional authors take advantage of it for smart economic reasons.

JDS: What is the smart economic way to do an ebook? I’ve heard of authors setting them up themselves and selling them via their own websites. Why, then, should an author consider a program like Smashwords?

MC: Ebooks do make it easier for authors to sell direct to customers, and direct selling is worth considering since most authors are managing their book marketing efforts anyway. However, an author's own website is only an island, and most book buyers go to bookstores and book communities, not islands, when looking for their next read. Authors should also consider the time and expense involved in selling on their own web site. There's the monthly PayPal fee of about $30, plus transaction fees, plus the time and hassle of conducting customer support when readers invariably ask how to load a file to their Kindle, or ask for a replacement copy because they lost the first copy. I think many authors who initially try setting up their own island retail operation quickly determine it's not worth the hassle.

Regardless of whether or not authors sell on their own websites, they should still work to gain distribution at major ebook retail outlets. This is where we think Smashwords can help. Once a book is published at Smashwords, it's available for immediate sale at and the author earns 85% of the net proceeds. Most Smashwords authors actually use Smashwords as their primary transaction processing platform for book sales because it provides the customer a much better experience than can be offered simply by emailing a PDF file.

At Smashwords, the customer pays one price and can then access the book in multiple formats for reading on any e-reading device. Since we maintain the book in the cloud, they never have to worry about losing access to it. We also offer various social media-enabled tools that make it easier for your readers to do your book promotion for you. And once a book is listed at Smashwords, we also distribute it to major online retailers such as B&N, Sony and Kobo.

JDS: Great! So once I’m set up, I can expect zillions of sales….right?

MC: Well, although we make it easy to publish and distribute, we don't make it easy to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. For that you still need good old-fashioned marketing, and of course, a great book that resonates with readers. The advantage of author-driven online marketing, however, is that you can reach a lot of readers at no expense beyond the cost of your time. There are many online forums, such as Kindleboards or Mobileread, where authors can reach dozens or hundreds of readers instantaneously. You can upload your book to Smashwords today and start selling it around the globe in minutes; Ebook publishing puts anyone with a computer one click away from discovering your book.

Here's how to find Mark Coker:

Smashwords -
Twitter -
Blog -
Huffington Post -

Friday, March 12, 2010

Huff Post and Random Posts

My book and I got some airtime on Huffington Post this week. The story behind the piece is that during the TOC conference (see above post), I had wandered off to a quiet spot to retrieve a phone message. Then Arianna Huffington, who had just delivered her keynote, tapped me on the shoulder and asked how to use the elevator. (The elevator system at the Marriott-Marquis Times Square is a bit odd and futuristic.) Taken aback, I thanked her for her talk, handed her a copy of my book, and told her that I was giving a presentation on my Espresso Book Machine experiment. She then asked me to do a blogpost on it. My pals at Freelance Success (FLX) call this a prime example of a successful “elevator pitch”.

This late-winter season (aka mud season or sugaring time) has been exquisite here. With our long winters it’s easy to get impatient as we hit February and March, but two friends of mine, the incredible Southern Vermont-based artists Tom and Elizabeth Torak (do check out their work!), once told me that they regard this as the best time for painting because of the quality of the light. Since then I’ve focused more on the light and notice that February/March light does have a broad, clean, almost new aspect to it that yields a special kind of beauty.

While my son was at his guitar lesson, I wandered over to Battenkill Books, which has just moved to a larger spot on Main Street in Cambridge, NY--a town I recommend visiting if you like art, antiques, theater, and Victorian architecture (and, of course, books). One more store that will carry the book. I then sold a copy to the guitar teacher, the extraordinary Barry Hyman, who in addition to being a pedal steel maestro, has a literary pedigree himself (have to visit his site to learn why.)That’s Brendan bounding around the stage as his band performs Phish’s “Chalkdust Torture” at the high school Pops Concert. If this were audio you’d be hearing teenage girls screaming in the background. It's getting more interesting all the time...

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Age of Re-Tooling

As a writer, I found the Tools of Change Conference fascinating, if a bit disorienting. With all the talk of e-book formats, digital rights, and enhanced content, I had this heady feeling of getting a glimpse of what’s behind the curtain—and not being quite sure if I really wanted to see. I was struck by the contrast between the amiable chatter typical of conference crowds and what seemed to me muted responses to the speakers (particularly unnerving as I was one of them!) with few questions for the presenters. I felt a bit like a student who had walked into a class where everyone else was already confused.

With such volatility in the industry, confusion makes total sense. Question marks hover over the way books will be produced, sold, read, and even written. That’s big stuff. But behind the confusion I felt something else, the kind of ambient fear that accompanies the push-and-pull of change. A friend said the mood reminded her of the CD Rom era, when it became increasingly clear that this seemingly game-changing new medium wasn’t the future but no one knew what would replace it.

What will these changes mean for writers? I don’t know – but I do believe it’s better to engage in conversations about the future of the book than to wish change away. In her keynote speech Arianna Huffington said this was not the end of publishing, but rather the beginning of an age of engagement—and noted the folly of wishing ourselves back to a “golden time” for publishing because such a time didn’t exist; rather, reading habits and literature have always been evolving. So with open eyes and an open spirit I’ll continue to write, knowing that my words may be read in transit on a small screen rather than in a comfortable chair beneath the warm glow of a reading lamp.

Regarding the nuts and bolts (indulge me the cliché; we are talking “tools” here) I will defer to what participants are saying about the conference. There’s a wealth of information, so I encourage anyone interested in how publishing is changing to dive in. I particularly liked this piece by Kassia Krozser of the industry blog Booksquare and this quick-fire response from Mark Coker of the ebook publisher Smashwords.The brief presentation I gave was in a strict format: 20 slides, 15 seconds a slide. Here is one image that didn’t make the cut. Tony and I had stopped by Vermont Confectionery when we were out looking for cows to photograph. Pictures of cows? Don’t ask…

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Road Show

“Literary Adventures In POD” is taking to the road this week as I'm giving a presentation on a Slow Publishing Model at the Tools for Change for Publishing Conference in New York.
O'Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference 2010
I've never attended before, but from what I understand this is where hundreds of industry professionals get together if not to hatch up publishing's future, at least try to make some sense of what it might look like. I'll be sharing my bit of experience, and look forward to sharing some of what I learn with all of you. Onward...

Monday, February 15, 2010

More On Power (The Taking-It-Back Version)

So that big, mean therapy phase of my life reached its natural, or rather unnatural, denouement. As it receded in time I realized I had a story I wanted to tell. Which I then wrote. An agent submitted the book to publishers, and we kept hitting a wall.

Now what? Commercial publishing is an institution with an evolving set of rules and strategies. As was therapy. I had learned the hard way that institutions, believe in them as we may, are not infallible. From keeping up on publishing news I saw that while money was being invested and decisions were being made, no one really knew what people wanted to read or what books would sell. It seemed that nobody was happy—bookstores, authors, publishers, or, for that matter, readers. So the question for me became: why should I allow my literary fate be determined by what seemed increasingly a dysfunctional system?

This made sense, but acting on this also meant reclaiming the power I had, in my own mind, granted the publishing-literary-critical establishment. It was comforting to believe that there was this distinct entity called “a good book” that a writer aspired to and that an editor would recognize and embrace. But I could no longer believe this. So, tentative about this though I was, I chose to take back that power and avail myself of new publishing vehicles to bring the book out myself. Every once in a while I slip and find myself apologizing about its being self-published, but it turns out readers are not as hung up on those publishing brands as I thought. The same with writers (though every once in a while I sense that someone sees self-publishing as a disease they might catch—but this could be my own projection.) Not that I’m against conventional publishing; I have a novel making the rounds (I’ll write about this another time). It’s just that, same as with therapy, you’ve got to know when it’s working for you and when it’s time to go your own way.

In honor of the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from prison--and the notion of taking back power, generally--here's the necklace that Beverley Price, a friend and South African artist, made as a contemporary interpretation of the Xhosa neckpiece Mandela wore to his sentencing. Beverley had the chance to present it personally at an exhibition on the occasion of Mandela's 90th birthday.Anyone who knows me has probably seen me wear this necklace, depicting Drum magazine, which my late father-in-law, Cecil, at one point edited.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Thoughts On Power

I’m thinking about a line in the One True Thing blog that ran two posts ago. Blogger Jen Haupt asked me what I had to give up in order to get better, and I responded: the willingness to give complete power to another person. I’m realizing that this was crucial not only in affording me the courage to step aside from therapy, but in other aspects of my life as well.

It is extremely difficult to disagree with someone in whom you have invested power—either because of an inherent power differential (a boss, teacher, editor, etc.) or the particular dynamic (spouse, lover, friend). When you’re dependent on someone, you fear what you might lose (love, support, a job). Sometimes you merely hold back from voicing your dissent; sometimes you stop yourself from even acknowledging disagreement in your own mind.

At different points in my life I did risk standing up to authority. Years back I told a literary agent that I believed in a book I was working on and stayed with it rather than taking the secure-but-dull projects she recommended. I gave up a lucrative freelance gig because I felt the company wanted me to downplay a problem in a way I felt was dishonest.

The big one, however, was therapy. I regarded a therapist as a lifeline, a link to the world outside myself that often felt out of reach, so I bought everything he/she said. Truth was, I didn’t know what it was to feel okay. The therapists I saw seemed to have a purchase on okay-ness, so I deferred to their judgment (as in, I needed to endure a lot of psychic pain to get better). The worse I felt, the more willingly I gave power to others. I felt that I was gaining something—attention and support—and didn’t see what I had given up, ultimately my own best interests. It wasn’t until it became clear that continuing therapy was untenable that I began to question the framework for healing that I had accepted on faith. Which made for a painful withdrawal rather than a gradual transition.

I believe the courage not to give power to others is important in other ways, including our role as citizens in the larger world. Can our economic “experts” always tell us how to find prosperity? Today, I don’t think so. Check out my recent article on are lions gathering courage in the Kruger Park.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Notes From My “Ideal Reader” (Or, at Least One of Them)

A therapist friend said my book should be required reading for clinicians in training. I’ve yet to grapple with how to get the book to budding clinicians so I was thrilled when, via Twitter, I made connection with Sharon Sanquist who is studying for a Masters in Social Work—and has read the book.

What spoke to her was that I conveyed the process of therapy from the perspective of either sides of the couch. Indeed, every therapy session is really two distinct but interconnected narratives—that of the clinician as well as the client. Sharon says that, like me, during a session she often takes an imaginative leap to try to consider what the client is experiencing, and was glad to see how this proved productive in treatment.

She also related to literary descriptions of experiences usually only described in clinical terms. One example was how my then therapist and I worked in Self Psychology mode, building a core from the ground up, attempting a psychological revision of my life story. These sections articulated “how empathy can be meaningful in building up a person’s sense of self,” she said, which is important as many seeking therapy have “lost their sense of self”.

Finally, she reflected on the complexities of medication and how clinicians can drop the ball on it: “Some say that medication is stuffed down people’s throats. But sometimes those who truly need it are the ones who aren’t getting it—often those who have developed effective coping mechanisms but are really struggling. Such people may see taking medication as a weakness and need to have it suggested by someone else.” In many cases, she says, considering medication earlier in treatment can spare someone months or years of suffering. (Don’t I know it!)

Sharon also started in a different profession: banking. While one wouldn’t think of banking as preparation for clinical work, she said she often found herself doing a lot of handholding and helping to reduce the anxiety inherent in the getting-a-mortgage process. I guess many roads lead to therapy!Sharon is a dynamo in keeping up with trends and ideas in psychology and social work. Her Twitter link is:

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Holding On Too Long (Therapy Version)

One of the great things about publishing a book is that you get to find out what stories you're telling--the ones lurking beneath the narrative you intended to write. A theme several readers have responded to is the danger of sticking to one approach or strategy well past the point that it's helpful. This brief Q & A is adapted from a post on Jen Haupt's Psychology Today blog One True Thing. I thought this was a good begin-the-year message (as in, New Years Resolution: if it's going nowhere, ditch it.)

Do most people realize when they're hanging onto strategies in their lives that aren't working?

Often no, because we find virtue in the act of holding to whatever course we’ve decided upon. We may end up putting more emphasis on the strategy—whether it’s using a particular health modality, following a diet, or a sure-fire way to succeed at work—than on the results. And when we check on our “progress”, that too can be deceptive. That’s what happened to me with psychotherapy. If I felt bad, I could say, “This must be the pain I need to experience in order to be okay.”

What's the pay-off in staying in a bad relationship?

I co-authored a book on honesty and deceptive in marriage (Tell Me No Lies) and this was a revelation: people lie to each other in order to keep things the same. Basically, people bond in a way that feels good, and then do anything they can—lie, tolerate abuse, abandon dreams—in order to maintain that feeling. So the payoff is having access to that good feeling, or at least the illusion of getting there again. There may be a point when that payoff isn’t enough, and that’s when you do something. But it is amazing what people will live with.

What life strategy did you have to give up in order to get better?

The main one was the willingness to give complete power to another person, in my case a therapist. The other was the quest for “answers”—some kind of epiphany or catharsis that would free me up. But letting go of that quest ultimately proved more liberating.

What's the first step people can take in giving up strategies, relationships and habits that are destructive?

A willingness to question whether things are working. It sounds simple, but we’re often fearful of losing our nerve—or even losing our identity, which can become bound up in a given way of doing things. It’s also good to have reality checks in your life—and to listen to them.Here's Thembi enjoying a relaxing read in a sunnier season.