You’ve heard about the “therapy book,” right? The first book every author produces that isn’t so much a story but the story of your life in whatever twisted, organic form it happens to take when it tumbles out of your brain onto the page?

Really? You haven’t heard about that? Wow. You must be new.

This is why newbie writers are told not to get too attached to that first book. ‘Cause it may be, for lack of a nicer word, compost. Yes, you slaved, and yes, your momma liked it, but to the rest of the world…well, keep trying. Writing is an art, not a science.

I’m not saying your writing (or your life, for that matter) sucks eggs, but perhaps your unintended autobiography of it does. This isn’t me talking. This is years of writers’ conferences and lectures. I’m just sharing the joy.

Ready for some turtle arrogance? I haven’t displayed it in a while.

My first book isn’t a therapy book. It’s too good. I have vivid characters and a solid plot, all kinds of twists and turns, and nobody is anything like me. Okay, it drags a bit in places and maybe gets a bit confusing somewhere in the middle, but, overall, it’s pretty clear and sensible.

Definitely not compost.

So I must be the exception that makes the rule, right? The one writer out of a billion who doesn’t start with a therapy book. I am exceptional. Just ask Momma Turtle. It’s possible.

But not likely.

As I’ve struggled to overcome consistent obstacles in my production of Book Number Three, I am confronting the fact that I have nothing in common with my main characters (except arrogance. We got that going for us). I don’t know what it’s like to be psychic (the only thing my gut ever tells me is when to eat next). I don’t know what it’s like to be a robot (some might argue with that statement but I don’t think those folks read my blog posts). I don’t even know what it’s like to be an adrenaline junkie (my blood pressure was so low at my last dental appointment the hygienist woke me up to comment I was barely with her).

So what does this tell me? It tells me Star of Justice flowed from my fingers because it was my story. I knew it. I lived it. It’s me all over, from the vivid characters to the dragging middle parts. All the twists and turns are my twists and turns. I wrote a therapy book. I just couldn’t see it.

And it broadens my understanding of therapy books. They don’t have to be compost. They just have to be you. (There’s that arrogance again. Did ya notice?)

You would think I would apply my mantra of “it’s all about me” to my writing, and I do, but it took me eight years to admit it. I suppose that’s quick for a turtle. Of course, this “search for me” must be balanced against “author intrusion.” Writing is an art, not a science.

My goal at the moment is to find me in Past Ties. Without me, it just ain’t happening for the rest of us.

What about you, authors? What are your thoughts on therapy books?

Readers, have you ever read a book and thought, “Wow. Somebody’s working out issues.” Did it make the book for you or break it?

About Robynn Tolbert

Born in Kansas and born again at age six, Robynn has published two novels and started her third. Robynn, aka Ranunculus Turtle, lives in Kansas with a clowder of cats, a patient dog and a garden.

17 comments on “Therapy

  1. Oddly enough, I don’t think that my first book is a therapy book (although it stems out of my personal experience in my area of expertese…)

    I like to help people. One way I’ve done this is teaching classes on subjects that people have requested. And my first book takes one of my classes, and puts it out there for folks who can’t reach me directly.

    So, this seems to be more about others than myself.

    Feedback says that it’s rather compost-free as well

    So, at that point, I’m thinking that it might be worth re-examining the whole “therapy book’ theory, no?


  2. Interesting point!

    I was thinking specifically of fiction books. I don’t know that I’ve heard the term in relation to non-fiction books. Except the normal kind of therapy books, that is… 😉

    • In re that, I’m currently working on my second non-fiction book for publication, which is also a service book as opposed to a therapy book.

      Meanwhile, waiting in the wings, I’ve also got two mostly completed first draft urban fiction novels,which I’ll buckle down on once the second non-fictionis complete. Also not therapy books, other than that the act of writing is meaningful to me.

      But I may be the far end of the bell curve. Just saying that I don’t concur with a universal rule on first books being therapy, based on my personal experience…


  3. >>>What about you, authors? What are your thoughts on therapy books?

    I think it depends (nice cliche, fallback answer, right?). If you look at classical literature, you can nearly drown in therapy writing. Charlotte Bronte’s Villette was semi-autobiographical. Kate Chopin’s doctor actually told her to write as a means of therapy. There are plenty of examples. They turned what they experienced in real life, struggles and all, into fiction, and it has endured. So I think it’s quite possible to use your writing as a means of therapy and still produce a fine work of art. I think the key is to recognize that that is what you’re doing, and so, control it and direct it into an art form, and not just a spill of cathartic words on paper.

    • You’re right. I can’t possibly claim to have covered the topic in this tiny treatment. 🙂

      And while previously I understood the connotation as that uncontrolled “carthartic spill,” I’m starting to accept it doesn’t have to take such a negative form. It can, but it doesn’t have to.

      I wonder if the difference between a published and an unpublished author in this respect is gaining enough objectivity about that first book to move on to the second, and third, and so on.

      • Ah, I see where you’re coming from. Yes, I think if you can cathartically spill enough in the first ms, you can set it aside and move on to the second one. Or if, as Ren pointed out, the writer isn’t too sentimental, s/he can tackle the massive changes needed to work the first into something publishable, assuming they would even want to. I destroyed my first theraputic ms, something I now regret.

  4. k, I admit it – I wrote a therapy book. Boy, if it weren’t for that book, I would have seriously lost it. But, it might not be what you think. I didn’t want something at all resembling my issues. I was (and sometimes still am) an escapist. I’d much rather go and help someone else work out their issues than mine. Plus, all the adventures, thrills and tension… how can you beat that?

    And even outside of that, Hall of Masters bears very little resemblance to emotional soap-opera of my teenage years. That really was “compost”. However, it had to start somewhere and I don’t regret any of it. I am honestly glad I didn’t know I was writing junk – It was the best I could do back then with what I knew, but the story evolved as I grew up and learned. I think the biggest danger is not letting the story evolve as the writer does (or of course the writer not evolving). I’ve met writers who are too sentimental or intimidated to tackle massive changes. With them, yes, they are probably better off starting something new, if for no other reason than to strengthen their craft and faith in revision.

  5. Oh, Star of Justice was most definitely an escape. My mom was going through breast cancer and my dog was dying of congestive heart failure while I was writing it. I just didn’t realize how much of me was in it at the time.

    Do you think every writer has to start with that original book to clear the pipes, as it were? Inward and upward, as Aslan would say?

    I haven’t written any short stories. Anybody have something to offer about “therapy short stories?” 🙂

    • Does “just thinking about writing a short story necessitates therapy” count?

      Okay, I’m not that bad… and I’m getting better. Yep, that therapy is actually paying off! lol.

      I think that there is potential. I know I had a couple ideas or started stories that could fall into that category, but short stories require a level of concise planning and structure that makes “working things out” difficult.

      In my humble opinion anyway.

    • I can’t believe I’m going to admit to this, but…. “The Quest” (my story published in TC2) is a therapy short story (post-rape PTSD therapy). It’s not the first short story I’ve written, and I crafted it with absolute deliberation and intent while in counseling. The first draft was hideous. It was also in first person, and when I started thinking about actually making it publishable, I knew that would be the first thing to go. And I would have to depersonalize it enough for readers to be able to get into it. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded. In that particular folder on my hard drive, I have 10 versions of the story spanning a 4+ year period, so it took me awhile to get it where I wanted it. And even after all that, I never thought I’d find a home for it.

  6. Interesting topic.

    I consider “Dying for Dragons” my “first” book, but mainly because it’s the first one I’ve actually put effort into editing and finishing. I don’t know how much “therapy” is in it, but my main character has a lot of me in her, and she does what I’d do if I had no responsibilities and unlimited funds. 🙂

    Seriously, though, I can look at some of the stuff I wrote earlier in life, particularly high school, (and who wasn’t a mess emotionally in high school?) and pinpoint exactly what I was going through and who I had a crush on, etc., at the time that I wrote it. Definitely therapy in those earlier stories.

  7. Perhaps the lesson I should take is I will be in all my writing, no matter how much I try to deny it. 🙂

  8. I’ve never thought of my book as therapy, but it did wind up teaching me a lot about myself. I thought my character had qualities totally different from mine — like pride. Turns out I just didn’t recognize my pride for what it was. I sometimes think the book was given to me to teach me a lesson.

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