Writing the Difficult Character

Winter 2014

When we speak of the “writing alliance,” we are considering the writer/reader relationship as comparable to the therapist/patient alliance.  As therapists, we work to establish what Winnicott called a “holding environment.”  We hope that our patients feel emotionally held by us in the work, so that the patient can articulate her inner experience as she negotiates confusing, difficult and sometimes dangerous aspects of her internal world.   A solid therapeutic alliance can allow for the intricate work of therapy to unfold. Similarly, as writers, we strive to establish with the reader an empathic bond that will allow her to enter into our work alongside of us, whether we are writing about the clinical process, about a theoretical analysis, a work of fiction or a memoir.  When the material is challenging, we hope to engage the reader without overwhelming, confusing or overly frightening her, lest she back away, perhaps thinking “This writing no longer interests me” or “Where is this heading?” or “This makes no sense, and I no longer wish to follow.” In other words, our challenge is to keep the other (i.e. the reader) engaged in difficult, emotionally taxing material.  When a narrative or a character offers complexity, how do we, the authors, hold the reader with intrigued suspense through the thorny moments in the narrative – characters whose motives are obscure or unlovable, stories that disturb or mystify, material that is dense, free-form or surprising in some way?  Likewise, how do we, as analysts, bring all of the depth, the intricacy, and the unexpected turns of each analytic hour into our writing, in a way that captures the essence of the analytic process? In the analyst’s craft, as in the playwright’s craft, the challenge is to bring difficult characters to life in ways that are compassionate, bearable and, ultimately, human. To explore these topics, we have invited analysts and playwrights to come together to discuss writing a difficult character in light of the concept of the writing alliance. 


GUEST FACULTY: DONALD MOSS, MD is on the faculty of the Institute for Psychoanalytic Education at NYU Medical Center. He serves on the editorial boards of JAPA, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, American Imago, and Studies in Gender and Sexuality.

He is the author of Stories, a book of fiction, Hating in the First Person Plural:  Psychoanalytic Essays on Racism, Homophobia and Misogyny, and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Man.

 ARI ROTH has served as Artistic Director of Theater J for the past 15 years, where he has produced over 100 mainstage productions.  Theater J was hailed in 2005 by The New York Times as “the premier theater for premieres.”  His own “Born Guilty Cycle” was recently workshopped by the Epic Theatre in New York.  His other plays, including “Oh”, “The Innocents”, “Goodnight Irene”, “Love and Yearning in the Not For Profits”, and “Life in Refusal”, have been produced across the country and nominated for five Helen Hayes awards.  He is a 1998 and 2003 recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts playwriting grant.  He currently teaches for the University of Michigan’s “Michigan in DC” program.

JOYCE SLOCHOWER, PHD,  ABPP is Professor Emerita, Hunter College & The Graduate Center, CUNY; Faculty at the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy & Psychoanalysis, The Steven Mitchell Center, the National Training Program of NIP, the Philadelphia Center for Relational Studies & the Psychoanalytic Center of Northern California in San Francisco.   She is the author of over 60 articles on clinical theory & technique as well as two books: Holding and Psychoanalysis: A Relational Perspective and Psychoanalytic Collisions.

MARY KAY ZURAVLEFF  is the author of Man Alive! (published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), which revolves around a pediatric psychopharmacologist who is struck by lightning. Her earlier novels, The Bowl Is Already Broken and The Frequency of Souls, received the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the James Jones First Novel Award. She has taught fiction writing in many graduate programs and has edited books and exhibitions for the Smithsonian Institution. She earned a BA in mathematics and literature from Rice University and an MA in creative writing from Johns Hopkins. Mary Kay serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and is a cofounder of the D.C. Women Writers Group.

LYNNE ZEAVIN, PHD is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City. Dr. Zeavin is on the faculty of the Institute for Psychoanalytic Education, and the Department of Psychiatry  affiliated with  the NYU Medical Center as well as on  the editorial boards of Psychoanalytic Quarterly and Division/Review.  She has written widely about female sexuality, pregnancy, misogyny, countertransference, and the contemporary Kleinians of London.