10. The Map vs. The Compass: A Writing Therapy Session w/ Author & Psychologist Susan Schnur


Susan Schnur has been the senior editor at Lilith Magazine–her “paper pulpit”–for 26 years. Susan has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, and USA Today. She holds a masters from Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, a rabbinical ordination, and a doctorate in clinical psychology. Her private clinical practice is full of writers and writers’ issues, and this work has inspired her to sit on a number of different panels and teach a variety of seminars designed to support authors in their pursuit of a pure, inspired, creative experience. Today we’ll speak with Susan about the psychology of writing, and she’ll share some basic strategies each of us can employ in our writing lives. Bring on the writing therapy! (29:20)

On the 1200-word essay and the constrained form

“Like a pantoum or anything else length is also a constraint. If you discipline yourself to work within those same boundaries over and over and over you will start to internalize what rhythm is specific to 500 words, 800 words, 1200 words.”

On writing with a partner

“I get people to write in pairs. You are never to study the Talmud alone. The way you do Jewish study is always with a chavrusa, with a partner. It’s always dilectical, really a beautiful thing, back and forth. You’re constantly feeding on each other to get to stuff.”

“When people go to write, they get stuck. They get paralyzed. If [they] can do it verbally, diotically, just talking it out, they have written something without realizing they’ve written it… When it’s a white page, it’s completely unknown and uncontrollable. If you can talk someone through the first paragraph, they can keep going on their own.”

“Get a partner.  This is why people go back for MFAs, so you’re being partnered and writing and being listened to and hearing people. Get a partner, talk through the first paragraph and you’re off and running.”

On The Toxic Triangle: Solitude – Money – Time

“These are three things that are really hard for writers. If you have money, you don’t have time; if you have time, you don’t have money; finally you’re alone in the room, but you get depressed, because it doesn’t feel like solitude, it feels like jail.”

“For every Jonathan Franzen, for every good writer, there are 99 other writers just as good, but the one thing they can’t do is sit in a room by themselves.”

On The Map vs. The Compass

“If you’re going to be a creative person, you’re not going to have a map, you’re only going to have a compass. You have to be somebody you can tolerate a compass. You’re not going to know where you’re going, but you’re just going to keep turning it to find out where north is. And I think for 90% of the people who might do some creative thing alone, they can’t tolerate that.”

On The Path and The Incubi

“What happens with creative people who struggle is they waste an enormous amount of time because they don’t take seriously the conditions under which they can be productive and the conditions under which they can’t be productive.”

“Writers underestimate how difficult it is to not have structure. They don’t have what everybody else in the culture has: which is you show up at an office, people expect you, you get paid, you get validated, you get seen… you feel like you’re part of humanity.”

The next logistical step

What most people need is a partner in all this. “Somebody with whom to just talk this through. Who can hear you, who can write it down and ask, Is this what you mean?, so you can clarify it.

“Stop trying to work at home! I can’t tell you for how many people that’s the issue.”


The Laughter of Aphrodite by Carol Christ

Closing Quote

It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.
― E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

3 thoughts on “10. The Map vs. The Compass: A Writing Therapy Session w/ Author & Psychologist Susan Schnur

  1. Pingback: 13. Thus Far: A Retrospective on One Year of Author Interviews | The Postmasters Podcast

  2. Pingback: 15. Essay Therapy: A Dialogue w/ Nonfiction Writer Suzanne Hegland | The Postmasters Podcast

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