COMING ATTRACTIONS. Out November, 2021.
Because artists make something out of nothing, the process can seem like magic, divinely inspired and inexplicable. It’s not. A single, potent factor lies at the heart of most everything creative: the mysterious, multi-faceted trait of “openness.” This book describes the role of the openness dimension in the typical artist mind: how it loosens thinking, how it widens feelings, how it motivates behavior, how it stimulates an inner chaos encouraging artistic invention. For creatives, openness is a unifying glue. It binds together states and processes at the core of the art making impulse. A related key variable is trauma, according to scientific findings: the raw material with which so many artists work. In novels, poems, stories, and photographs, trauma gets symbolically repeated, shaped in the direction of a torturous beauty. Scientifically astute, conceptually subtle, and packed with richly-detailed artist examples—from David Bowie to Frida Kahlo, from John Coltrane to Francesca Woodman, from Diane Arbus to Kurt Cobain—The Mind of the Artist demystifies artistic genius. It is a new, true portrait of artistic vision.
A brilliant psychologist takes on the question of what makes artists artists. And yes, he has data. And rigorous research. And superb intuition too. (Did I mention style?) One of civilization’s great mysteries — solved! Or closer to solved. What an adventure!
–Walter Kirn, New York Times bestselling author of Up in the Air, Thumbsucker and Blood Will Out
This book blew my mind. It grabs you right away and you can’t put it down. Fascinating and brilliant, beautifully written. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen on the subject before. All artists should read it.
–Asia Argento, actress, director, writer, artist
There is no way to be more rigorous and comprehensive in one’s research or more thrilling and illuminating in presentation. The great mystery of creativity bursts into clarity in these pyrotechnic pages. This book will make you rethink everything you know about art, psychology, yourself — a critical step in cultivating an artist’s outlook.
–Yelena Akhtiorskaya, author of Panic in a Suitcase
A book on artistic creativity should be written by a creative author – and Todd Schultz has one of the most creative minds in psychology today. Drawing upon personality science, personal experience, and a wealth of biographical vignettes, Schultz presents a fascinating and truly unique perspective on what it means to be an artist and how artists do their creative work. There are insights here for artists themselves, as well as psychologists, and for so many of the rest of us who aspire to be more creative in our thinking, in our work, and in our lives.
–Dan P. McAdams, The Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology, Northwestern University, Author of The Strange Case of Donald J. Trump: A Psychological Reckoning
Creativity often gets discussed in airy and imprecise ways, but the science behind it is unassailable. In this extraordinary, elegantly written book, Schultz shows us the psychological research, tracing it through the lives of various artists—John Lennon, David Bowie, Sylvia Plath, Frida Kahlo—to elucidate how personality lays the foundation for the states of mind in which art gets made. Essential reading for artists and anyone curious about the creative process. In other words, for pretty much everyone.
–Amanda Fortini, Beverly Rogers Fellow at The Black Mountain Institute and author of the forthcoming book of essays, Flamingo Road
Books about creativity and ‘unleashing your inner artist’ are a dime a dozen. With The Mind of the Artist, we have something entirely different – a serious, nuanced, evidence-based look into the research behind creativity and what separates Picasso from the hobbyist down the street.
–David J. Morris, author of The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
William Todd Schultz has x-ray vision for the creative psyche.
–Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs
New blog post on the DSM 1’s surprisingly sharp take on anxiety and why, to make anxiety go away, you have to stop trying to make anxiety go away! HERE
Fresh blog post on the one thing Freud admitted he could never explain. LINK
I thought I’d post links to some old work here, stuff that may be hard to find. I can’t say I love these pieces equally. In fact, a few are (to me) almost cringeworthy, but then you keep growing and keep getting better and better. Every new project almost invalidates the old! Not totally of course. Or maybe not at all. Anyway, here are a set of old pieces. I may add more over time.
- My very first academic publication. What I was interested in here was the connection between early loss and creativity, especially in writers. Subjects are James Agee and Jack Kerouac: an orpheus complex in Agee and Kerouac
- When my kids were little they went through a serious “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” phase. For several weeks we watched the film almost every day. Slowly an interpretation dawned on me and after looking into it, I decided to write it up. Loss figures in this essay too, so in some ways it’s a continuation of the article above. finding fate’s father Roald Dahl and loss and Wonka
- I wrote this in a shed in my backyard. The subject is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s fear of death/suicide and its effect on his philosophizing. Wittgenstein and death fear
- This one is pretty bad but parts still seem valid and/or interesting. It’s a floridly Freudian interpretation of James Agee’s masterpiece “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” James Agee Let us now praise famous men
- I wrote this during a time I was very involved in Buddhism and thinking about things like satori and much more. It’s on Oscar Wilde’s prison experience and the psychology of epiphany. Prison as a turning point Oscar Wilde
- I like this piece. It’s dark and dense and feisty. I wrote it in an isolated cabin on the Oregon coast and the setting fit the theme: Sylvia Plath and her attempts to hate her parents into valuelessness. mourning melancholia & Sylvia Plath
- A methodological chapter I also like a lot on how to strike psychological paydirt in biographical data. In two parts: striking paydirt in biographical data 1 striking paydirt in biographical data 2
- This is short, also sort of methodological, and lots newer. The person I talk about most here is Bowie. behind the masks
- About Peaches Geldof. This is a remembrance rather than a psychobiography. Peaches talks about the trauma of fame. I adored her and miss her. Peaches and me
- Now, stuff that is newer (relatively). A book chapter on the Psychobiography of Genius in which I discuss one genius (Capote) and one non-genius (George W. Bush), and a review article from American Psychologist on Psychobiography Theory and Method. Psychobiography of Genius Psychobiography Theory and Method
- A never published essay on Jack Kerouac and how the loss of his brother Gerard prefigured so much of his fiction and fueled his need to write, with the un-shy title “The Whole Reason Jack Kerouac Ever Wrote At All” Kerouac Psychobiography
- From my book on Truman Capote, chapter one. The book is Tiny Terror: Why Truman Capote (Almost) Wrote Answered Prayers. Chapter here > Tiny Terror Capote Chapter One
- Then finally (for now), here is the first chapter from my book on photographer Diane Arbus (An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus). diane arbus essential mysteries
Narcissism PSA. Lots of talk about the topic. Not lots of clarity. A few things to know.
1) There is healthy narcissism, as in confidence, assertiveness, solid self-esteem, belief in talent, belief in abilities, even a sort of badassery that comes off, to some, as arrogance. Nothing wrong with healthy narcissism. It correlates with success in the world.
2) What amounts to pathological narcissism comes in two broad types: grandiose and vulnerable (or, closeted, stealth narcissism). The grandiose form is easy to spot. It’s in your face and, eventually, unignorable (at first, grandiose narcissists are captivating; slowly, they turn rancid). The vulnerable form is trickier: “I suck but I’m still far superior to you” (implied, not said out loud) or a quiet, shy, reticent, but totally thoroughgoing subtextual entitlement.
3) An inventory exists for detecting particularly pathological narcissistic trends. Here are the factors: contingent self-esteem (thirsty need for admiration/external validation); exploitiveness (manipulative user of others); self-sacrificing self-enhancement (self-glorification disguised as altruism); hiding the self (inability to display faults); grandiose fantasy (self explanatory); devaluing (no need for others who don’t puff you up); entitlement rage (fury when entitled expectations not met).
4) These factors are invariant across gender, btw, and they map onto the grandiose and vulnerable types.
I can’t remember how I met the philosophical Texan Hugh Parker. It may have been Honke who introduced us. I think it was Honke. We’d sit near a window in this spot called The Trail Room, and the topics were Sufism, Dostoevski, Wittgenstein, Monty Python, and what Hugh called “The Floyd.” He always called them “The Floyd,” by which he meant Pink Floyd. We were crazy diamonds shining on. We were trading heroes for ghosts, hot ashes for trees. The frame was Notes from Underground. Hugh was the underground man. “I am a sick man, I am a spiteful man,” he used to tell me, though he looked and sounded like neither. To me, then, it seemed like melodrama, wanting to be more fucked up than you were. Hugh proved it later though, after I stopped knowing him. So they say.
Hugh was a transfer student from some unnamed community college where rivers converged, three rivers, and he lived alone in a bare apartment. The living room had one thing in it: a stereo against a wall, two waist high speakers. I never saw the rest of the house. I never saw his bedroom. I never used his bathroom. He smoked Dunhills from the one place in town that sold them, and he drank Ballantine’s exclusively. I drank brandy, cheap brandy, or gimlets, and I thought I was Thomas Wolfe. Later I’d think I was other people. Writers always think they are someone else at first. Then, if they are lucky, they think they are who they are. Some never get to this second stage.
There was something Hugh always wanted to do with me, an experience he believed I should have, and it was important to him. He wanted me to hear, as if I’d never heard it before, “Comfortably Numb.” I knew the song. He wanted me to know it more. He wanted the erotics of perception. Immersion. Your face in the speakers.
A lot of planning went into the evening. We used to get handfuls of cheap weed from some insane biology prof who kept the stuff in a grocery bag under his desk. There was that, in a bowl on the floor, and beside it, the Ballantine’s. The weed was unpredictable. You never knew how much of it you needed to smoke. One moment, you’d be lucid. The next, you’d be high as fuck, words coming out of a mouth you didn’t recognize, making sounds you didn’t intend. You’d hear them, then ask yourself, “Who said that?”
(Once this old woman ran a stop light, her car charging onto the curb. Her passenger said, “You need to be more careful.” She said, “Am I driving?” It was a lot like that).
At some point we were ready, our backs against the facing wall. With religious specificity Hugh cued up the tune, its thick, abrupt beginning and rise, like it fell from a tree it then reclimbed, its second person address. It told you hello, it wasn’t sure you were home, it said to relax. All songs are about receding. You disappear into them. This was a fever dream, your hands two balloons. Hugh had it very loud, very very loud. He’d timed it out. The song would finish before any perturbed neighbor knock on the door. In my memory it was 2:45 in the morning.
We didn’t say anything. Words weren’t the point. All Hugh did was smile, beatificially. It was a smile I knew well. It was a grin. Hugh was always grinning. He seemed to know a little more about stuff you hadn’t figured out yet. It had something to do with Texas, oil, money. He used to tell me, “Welcome to the machine.” A lot of what we talked about was where you started and where the machine ended.
I got a message from Hugh’s ex-wife. They met in divinity school. That didn’t surprise me. Hugh had a lot of worship in him. Anyway, she wanted to tell me Hugh was dead. I could see she wasn’t grieving. Her Hugh was not my Hugh. Her Hugh was a lonely angry isolated drunk. My Hugh was Syd, young Syd. My Hugh is the true Hugh. I’m saying to him, nod if you can hear me.
If you are here for info on PSYCHOBIOGRAPHY, these are my most recent academic overviews on the subject, one written along with the sublime Stephanie Lawrence.
•”Psychobiography: Theory and Method” (American Psychologist) > Psychobiography AP
•”Psychobiography of Genius” (Handbook of Genius, edited by Dean Keith Simonton) > Schultz, Handbook of Genius
This was recently published in the journal CLIO’S PSYCHE (2018). I was interviewed by Paul Elovitz.
Todd Schultz: Psychobiographer of Creative Lives
Paul H. Elovitz
William Todd Schultz, PhD, was born in Portland, Oregon. He earned a BA in philosophy and psychology from Lewis and Clark College, and then from the University of California (Davis) he earned a PhD in Personality. He served as a visiting instructor at Lewis and Clark College and as visiting assistant professor at the University of Portland. Currently, Schultz is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Pacific University, where he has taught since 1996. His classes include Abnormal Psychology, The Mind of the Artist, Personality, Psychobiography, and History & Systems. He’s written numerous articles, including “Psychobiography: Theory and Practice” (American Psychologist, 72, 2017, 434-445) and “The psychobiography of genius” (Handbook of Genius, Guilford, 20-32). Prior books include full-length psychobiographies of Diane Arbus (“An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus”) and Truman Capote (“Tiny Terror: Why Truman Capote (Almost) Wrote Answered Prayers”), as well as a biography of musician Elliott Smith (“Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith”). Schultz presently curates and edits a psychobiography book series for Oxford University Press titled “Inner Lives.” Schultz has delivered many presentations; his most recent speaking engagement was a Distinguished Speaker Talk at the Western Psychological Association Convention, titled “The Mind of the Artist” (April 2018). He’s received several awards and grants, including the Shearing Fellow Award (2016), the Erikson Prize for Mental Health Media (2015) and a Faculty Achievement Award at Pacific University (2015). In June and July Professor Schultz (WTS) was interviewed online by Paul H. Elovitz (PHE).
PHE: What brought you to psychobiography?
WTS: I come from an abusive family, an abusive father. Like a lot of abused kids, I lived in a state of red alert, and it was critical that I get good at reading people, especially my dad, as a means of self-protection. So, some of my interest in personality/psychobiography relates to a need to understand and predict the personality of the individual who was harming me. From there, in therapy as a kid, I focused on understanding myself—also, my mom, my mom and dad’s relationship, and certain things my siblings did, the gestalt of influences having something to do with how I was feeling inside and what I was struggling with. I started to dissociate, as a defense. I was always very dreamy, living in my head, imagining and daydreaming. I got interested in art and artists, especially music, and eventually literature as well. Now I write, or have written, psychobiographies of artists—so again, the interest in art and in psychobiography goes back to my childhood and the situation in my family. My family unit was 6 people. 3 were/are psychopaths.
Up to around age 19 or 20 I had no clue what psychobiography was; I’d never heard the term used. But I wound up at UC Davis, where I got my PhD. This was an iconoclastic, very unconventional department and faculty in the year 1988. Charles Tart studied altered states of consciousness, Tom Natsoulas wrote opaque, hyper-specific theoretical articles on phenomenology, and Dean Simonton did historiometric analyses of greatness. On the other side there were people researching pigs and goats and primates. An incredibly rich, stimulating, free atmosphere.
To my good fortune there was also Alan Elms, who became my major advisor, mentor, role model. Alan started in Stanley Milgram’s lab and worked on the obedience studies, but he’d shifted, of late, to the study of single people—in other words, psychobiography. Elvis Presley really obsessed him. Psychobiography made sense for Alan because he’s a gifted writer and in psychobiography he could put that gift to use, he could be more creative. Anyway, Alan offered a psychobiography seminar, I took it, I felt an instant SHAZAM, and the rest is history.
PHE: I have the highest regard for Alan Elms who writes so well and avoids pathologizing his subjects. What courses did you take with him and what was he like as a teacher and mentor? Which of his ideas had the greatest impact on you?
WTS: Alan and I were perfectly matched. We both loved literature, Nabokov, and writing. He modeled a crafty way of being a non-academic psychologist (psychologist, in the sense that what he did—psychobiography—was sniffed at by all the method-centered folks yet still, nominally, psychology). I think what Alan really wanted to be, in his heart of hearts, was a writer. Me too! With psychobiography, you were able to get away with writing in a more narrative, more literary fashion—artfully, in other words.
I also liked Alan because, as a mentor, he was hands-off. He wasn’t always steering you, micromanaging, or checking-in. He pretty much left you alone so long as you weren’t violently clueless or something. He had a light touch. As a loner this suited me fine. Alan was quiet, reserved, an introvert (I’d guess), but he had this mirthful countenance, a sly, charming smile, like he was secretly thinking merry thoughts 24/7. His movements were slow and deliberate. One thing about Alan: he never did anything fast. For instance, I could not imagine him running. He adores and is very proud of his daughters. His passions include Elvis, science fiction, and he’s crazy about politics. I have not spoken to him since shithead Trump became president, but I’m certain he’s got hundreds of thoughts about Trump and who he is and how he came to be and what it means for America.
I don’t think Alan loved being a teacher, but I’m not sure. We never talked about it. I was his teaching assistant for his courses on Personality and Psychobiography. I loved those classes. He taught them with great care and close attention to detail. You knew that he had done his homework. He didn’t have miles of charisma, but he had miles of real wisdom. I really love him as a person and as someone who profoundly altered the course of my life and I am grateful Fate delivered me into his hands at a time when I could have gone astray. It wasn’t his ideas that affected me. It was more HOW he went about things, his quiet excellence, his soft-spoken power. He delivered. I try to do the same.
PHE: What book are you working on now?
WTS: I’m working on a book about personality, creativity, and the creative process. It’s not a psychobiography, but I do discuss a lot of artists as a way of illustrating ideas, from Frida Kahlo to David Bowie.
PHE: What is your primary affiliation?
WTS: I have three jobs. First, I’m a writer. I write books on artists. I doubt I’ll ever write academically again. Too many constraints are placed on voice. I find it stultifying. Plus, I want to reach a wider audience, an audience of non-experts. Second, I’m an editor. I curate a series for Oxford University Press called “Inner Lives,” short psychobiographies organized around a central question. To this point subjects have included Truman Capote, John Lennon, Philip K. Dick, George W. Bush, and Bob Dylan. We have two more books in the pipeline (neither by me), focused on opera diva Maria Callas and Gloria Steinem. Third, I’m a college professor. I teach at Pacific University, about 45 minutes west of Portland. My classes include Personality, Abnormal, and Psychobiography. I’ve been at Pacific since 1996. It’s a small liberal arts college with an average class size of around 20.
PHE: What special training was most helpful in your researching creativity and in doing psychobiographical work?
WTS: I don’t feel like I had any special training. I mean, nothing extraordinary. At UC Davis I took one psychobiography seminar from Alan Elms, a graduate seminar, and as I said before, I was his teaching assistant for his psychobiography classes. This was in a time, by the way, when Alan’s own book, Uncovering Lives: The Uneasy Alliance of Biography and Psychology (1994), did not exist, although Mac Runyan’s, Life Histories and Psychobiography: Explorations in Theory and Method (1984) did. So, a lot of the approaches were Freudian. In his undergrad classes, Alan was teaching the chapters that would later make their way into his book, like the “Land of Oz” and the Nabokov material. We read Erikson too, Ghandi’s Truth (1969). I remember there was this guy who talked to our class who was fixated on proving the thesis that Stalin was gay. I think he actually published a book titled “Was Stalin Gay?”
Anyway, I don’t think you can be taught how to do outstanding psychobiography. I’ve come to that conclusion through years of trying with my own students. The number one thing that good psychobiography requires is creative perception, an ability to notice things, the smallest, most marginal of details, plus a gift for connecting what had been disconnected. Even before that, it requires a talent for coming up with a fresh angle on a life, asking a question that hasn’t been asked before. A great example is Alan Elms and his chapter on why Elvis had such a hard time performing the song “Are You Lonesome Tonight.” People just have this kind of creative perception or they don’t. You can’t really show them how to be creative—and psychobiography is VERY creative. I find most psychobiography essays boring because nothing hatches. Nothing is illuminated. Nothing is revealed that wasn’t already known or guessed at. You can’t really tell a person, “here is how you can be more illuminating.” It seems to be a gift, or if it’s not a gift, I just suck at teaching psychobiography.
I’ll say one more thing. The chances of you doing good psychobiographical work increase if you’ve got the theoretical knowledge. I was always a theory nut. From my college days I was obsessed with Freud, then I got into object relations, then R. D. Laing, then Henry Murray. I love the total lunacy of Melanie Klein, especially her focus on the death instinct. But then I also really deeply investigated modern personality science, what Dan McAdams refers to as the three levels of personality: traits, characteristic adaptations, and scripts. Theory knowledge helps with the shedding of light. My PhD is in personality, so I think that set me up really well for going in a psychobiographical direction.
PHE: Have you published, or do you plan to publish an autobiography that will reflect on your inner life?
WTS: Everyone tells me to because my family was and is so toxic and insane. Just to give you a glimpse, my dad used to say the secret to his life was that he always needed someone to hate. In 1976 my sister hijacked an airplane, along with her Croatian husband, and they put a bomb in a locker in Grand Central Station that killed an NYC police officer. Anyway, it goes on and on. But the answer is yes. I’m going to write a memoir about my 20 years working in a locked inpatient psychiatry unit (I detest psychiatry, which I believe to be essentially bankrupt), but it’s also going to include details on my own psychological history. I’m about 30,000 words into it now, so I think I’m around halfway done. By the way, I started out writing fiction.
PHE: How did your early life impact your work and your choice of subjects?
WTS: I think my early life has shaped my work in a lot of ways. Of course, I’m just guessing here, because we all have blind spots, and it’s the blind spots that are most formative. We’re in the dark a lot of the time. Anyway, I come from a family that lied and distorted. It was an atmosphere of enforced delusion, grandiose delusion. This made me maniacally fixated on truth, maniacally revolted by falsehood. So that is one effect, a good effect, I like to think. I’m driven to get to the bottom of things, to expose buried secrets, to shed new light. This is probably why I’m attracted to psychobiography, which is about revelation, illumination. Psychobiography is exposure.
Here’s another element. People always ask me: what draws you to tortured artists? You seem so sane and normal? I never had any fabulous answer. I just wanted to do what I did. I just wanted to make things. The why part I set aside. I worked, and that was that. But one day I realized, or think I realized, that it wasn’t so much the torture that drew me in, but the families that produced the torture. I’ve written books on Arbus, Capote, and Elliott Smith, and what they all had in common, and what I had in common with them, was fucked up families. Family trauma. Family secrets. Abuse. Rejection. Clotted silences. Pathological narcissism. Hate. Grandiosity. A profound lack of self-awareness. I wasn’t writing about depressed and suicidal people because I was depressed and suicidal—suicide has never crossed my mind—but because of the circumstances that made them that way. I knew these families because I came from one. I sympathized because I’d been there.
I think you need to love your subject. Not blindly, but empathically. Being a victim of emotional abuse myself, I was always very very sensitive to cruelty, to people who suffered. The thing I’m most proud of in my work is my capacity to sympathize. It’s so key. It came from trauma and from going crazy myself. I know what it feels like to be haunted, to battle, daily, with severe emotional pain, the feeling that your mind has become an enemy.
PHE: How do you see the study of inner lives, which is what psychohistory is mostly about, developing in the next decade?
WTS: I’m not an expert on psychohistory. If it’s focused on historical actors, like Trump, and the effects these actors have on the world, then I guess I’d see it as psychobiography. If it’s a psychological study of group behavior, then I’d see it as a social psychology group-level case study.
PHE: What is the importance of childhood to the study of inner lives and psychohistory?
WTS: It depends on the childhood. Some childhoods are pretty unremarkable, so it would not make sense to focus on them. I focus on childhood a fair amount, but that’s because the people I’ve studied more or less pointed me in that direction. It’s the life that determines where you zero in.
PHE: What do we as scholars need to do to strengthen our work and gain acceptance for the study of what you call the inner life and psychobiography and what I mostly subsume under psychohistory?
WTS: I don’t have any drive to make psychobiography more accepted. I used to, when I was younger. I was more evangelical then. I’ve always said, and I still believe this, that mainstream psychology is method-centered. It’s less about figuring out what the important questions are and hypothesis-formation (a creative task) and more, much more about hypothesis testing. I don’t see that changing. Psychobiography is art. That’s how I see it. It’s interpretation. It’s subjective. For those reasons, it makes most experimental psychologists uneasy, or maybe anxious. They see it as psychobabble. I disagree, but I’m too busy to argue with them. I just follow my obsessions and devote myself to doing work of the highest quality I can make it. I’m grateful for whoever reads it. If it’s not someone’s cup of tea, I’m fine with that. I’m not a joiner anyway. So if psychology doesn’t want me in its club, so be it. Being an outsider suits me.
PHE: What is your psychoanalytic/psychotherapeutic experience and what is its influence on you as a student of inner lives as a psychobiographer? How has it changed your vision of the world?
WTS: I went pretty crazy from about age 13-17 and didn’t really feel reliably stable until many years later. I think of it now as a Laingian form of rational madness; that is, a strategy for living in an unlivable situation, where the situation was a monumentally toxic family. Going nuts got me the help I needed and possibly literally saved my life. I saw a gifted, broadly psychoanalytic psychiatrist twice per week for three to four years. I believe he very intentionally became a replacement father, doing the things your dad is supposed to do, but mine didn’t do. For example, he taught me to drive and let me use his car for the Junior Prom. He came to my different performances as a singer and loaned me records he thought I might like. He advised me about which college I ought to attend. If I had not met this psychiatrist I would have dissolved. I wouldn’t have been able to see the difference between reality and the distortions my family foisted on me.
Naturally, my dad hated my psychiatrist. My dad would drop me off for appointments then wait in the parking lot, reading Homer or Housman. When my session finished and I crawled back fearfully to the front seat, my dad would mumble something like, “What did your faggot psychiatrist say today?” So, you see what I was up against as a kid. Lately I feel a need to name it for what it was—abuse. I’m not certain what effect all this had on me as a psychobiographer. Possibly it sensitized me to suffering and it made me aware of the nature of interpersonal toxicity and what it can do to a person. It put me, by absolute necessity, into very close daily contact with the workings of my own mind and questions about defenses, motives, strategies, hidden needs, etc. In contrast to my dad, my psychiatrist modeled for me a sort of patience, love, and wisdom that I aspire to always—just basic loving kindness with penetrating insights.
PHE: Regarding asking about your inner life, in my recently released first history of psychohistory, The Making of Psychohistory: Origins,Controversies, and Pioneering Contributors, I reveal much of my inner life. Most academics certainly do not reveal theirs.
WTS: I think it’s a good thing to be open about yourself.
PHE: Like you, I teach at a small institution with small classes. Despite my 350 publications and having won a teaching award, I have not and will never be promoted to full professor because of prejudices against psychobiography and psychohistory generally. How did you manage to be promoted to full professor?
WTS: At my school there’s no bias against psychobiography. Also, I write books that, luckily enough, get lots of attention in lots of major publications from the New Yorker to Vogue to Vanity Fair to the LA Times to the Wall Street Journal. I’ve made a switch that’s uncommon—from academic writing, which I don’t think I’ll ever do again, to writing that is called, in publishing, full trade. Plus, I do get really good teaching evaluations and my university puts a lot of emphasis on high quality teaching.
PHE: How can we recruit new people to the field of psychobiography?
WTS: I guess I’m not that interested in building the field of psychobiography. I don’t like the idea of recruiting people. People are either drawn to it or they aren’t. You can’t talk them into it. You can’t convince them to do something they don’t already strongly want to do. It’s a growing field, I think that’s clear. I mean, I manage an entire book series on the subject, with Oxford University Press (it’s called “Inner Lives”). So I say, just let it grow naturally and organically.
PHE: I hear you. But there are people who, when introduced to the concept, become excited by the prospect of knowing in depth about others, and often themselves. Some may see it as part of their life’s work, as you did at some point as a result of your encounter with Alan Elms. To a great extent what I do as an advocate of psychobiography is to first, validate an interest that is already there, second, provide a place to deepen the psychobiographer’s understanding when s/he presents at the Psychohistory Forum meetings, third, provide a sense of psychobiograhical community, and fourth, provide a scholarly journal in Clio’s Psyche where they publish without the usual academic constraints of lots of footnotes, a long bibliography, and arguing from the authority of the leaders of the field. I guess I’m more concerned with the field of psychohistory than you.
What books were important to your development?
WTS: The most important book for me was Alan Elms’ Uncovering Lives. Alan is such a beautiful writer. He’s conversational, clear, interesting, inviting. I love his style. He writes like a writer. He writes to be read. Also, he’s never boring, and he avoids deadening jargon. When I was comingup Mac Runyan’s Life Histories and Psychobiographywas a touchstone, of course. It lays out the field. It takes on the epistemological questions. His essay on why Van Gogh cut off his ear is absolutely required reading. I really liked Henry Murray and Gordon Allport too, mostly because, like Alan, they knew how to write. They wrote creatively. Their prose had a fizz to it. They did psychology artfully. I was never a big fan of Erikson—too thick, too much ponderousness to fight through. I like concision. I’ve learned about concision over time. I had to find it. Freud was my first crush. I adored everything he did, especially the meta-theoretical stuff. I read him extremely closely in college. I got to know him really well. Jung, on the other hand, turned me off, though I like his idea of the compensatory function. I used to meet all these people who told me they loved Jung, then I found out they never read him. They liked the idea of him or something. I loved R. D. Laing. I can’t stand psychiatry so I liked how he carved it up. I enjoy Melanie Klein, especially when she’s at her craziest. Silvan Tomkins is brilliant but pretty unreadable. Most of my strongest influences aren’t psychologists. I love Kafka, Flannery O’Connor, Philip Larkin, Philip Roth, Janet Malcolm, Walter Kirn, Robert Hughes. Those are the people I look to for inspiration.
PHE: Good luck with your current book on creativity and thanks for an informative interview.
WTS: You’re welcome!
Hey all! I interviewed the brilliant Craig Morgan Teicher for Poetry Foundation. Link HERE