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An Interview with 2018 Erikson Scholar Dr. Elise Miller, Clinician, Psychoanalytic Literary Scholar, and Adjunct Associate Professor, St. Mary’s College of California

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Elise Miller, PhD is an Erikson Scholar at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, MA.Aaron Beatty:  What led you to Austen Riggs?

Dr. Elise Miller: I am grateful to a colleague of mine, a psychoanalyst in the Bay Area, who let me know about the Erikson Scholar-in-Residence program.  A place like Riggs and the Erikson Scholar program is a chance for psychoanalysis and academia to intersect, and as a scholar of applied psychoanalysis, I embrace such opportunities for cooperation and communication.

Like a lot of academic disciplines, psychoanalysis is really siloed, so we need writing and research that brings together these worlds and disciplines. I thought my research project on the psychology of scholarly and clinical writing would line up with the spirit of the Scholar program. I am a clinician, but I also have a PhD in English, and years of teaching college writing inspired my interest in what facilitates and gets in the way of academic writing and publishing. I consult with academics and scholars, but particularly clinicians and psychoanalysts who find themselves unexpectedly encountering some kind of a block or impasse when they write–that’s what I’m here studying.

Whether I am teaching undergraduates or leading a writing group for clinicians, I hear similar struggles. Writing is very hard, but many writers make it harder than it has to be, which is why psychoanalysis has a lot to learn from the field of composition theory–the study of conscious, concrete strategies for critical thinking and writing. For several years,  I have been interviewing scholarly writers,  asking them, “What do you do?  What are you trying to do when you write?  What are your procedures?  What works?  Where do you get stuck? What do you do when you get stuck?” All writers experience what is commonly known as writer’s block, and often practical information about writing procedures and strategies can help. Many writers, however, report persistent writing impasses that get in the way of their writing ambitions and professional development; these writers can benefit from help thinking about unconscious conflicts around having a voice, being heard, being recognized, and feeling special. For example, scholarly writers must manage the expectation to know all the important conversations in a field before they  can feel authorized to have something to offer too–it makes the writing process all the more daunting.

I work with writers of all ages and levels of experience, and one of the things that writers have trouble understanding is the difference between what composition theorists called writer-based writing and reader-based writing. This idea is the result of research from the 1970s and 80s that studied college writers. The researchers realized that [the subjects] were basically producing two different kinds of writing. In the early stages of writing we are writing for ourselves–it’s like talking to yourself. What a lot of college students do is decide, “I’m done, I just read it, it’s clear, that’s what I’m going to say, I’m going to hand it in.” And then they get a “C” and they don’t understand why they got a “C.” The same thing is true when a clinician has submitted a writer-based journal article and doesn’t understand why it’s getting rejected or coming back with extensive revisions requested. A crucial stage of writing is being skipped, writing that is ready for public consumption, whoever your public happens to be. This is interesting from a psychological point of view, since I’ve found that many writers have fantasies about how long it takes to write, revise, and edit before submitting a paper for publication.

AB:  What do you hope to accomplish while at Riggs?

EM:  I have been reviewing my interview responses, previous conferences presentations, and drafts of papers. A break from my busy teaching and consulting schedule gives me room to have a birds-eye view of this research project. But I also want to get to know Riggs. I want to talk to the people here who write or who want to write. I’d like to learn from them; maybe I have something to teach them. A lot of these writers are talking to me about how hard it is for them to get started and to find a way to get into the space of the writing. They have these dreams and ambitions and they have what seem to me to be some really interesting ideas for writing projects, but they can’t get themselves going. I am currently writing a paper about the intellectual and psychological challenge of beginning to write, of encountering a blank page or screen. Meeting with the writers here at Riggs has deepened my understanding and clarified a lot of my thinking on all that goes into putting words on paper.

I feel that as an Erikson Scholar my writing and my mind have been changed as a result of my being here. I’ve learned so much since I’ve been at Riggs and some of it comes from talking with people here who write. But some of it has come from being immersed in this kind of treatment setting and being able to observe the case conferences. I don’t know how that’s going to mark the writing I do in the future, but I feel like it will. 

And I know that knowledge of Riggs and what people do here will help the rest of the clinical world too.

AB: You are also teaching a writing course at Riggs; tell me about that.

EM: It was interesting for me to plan for this writing course elective for clinical staff, which came at the suggestion of Dr. Jane Tillman. Talking with writers here helped me shape the course.

We began by reading some well-written clinical papers, because the worst thing you could do for writers is to have them reading bad writing or mind-numbing prose. It’s always interesting to just look at how you would do this–for example, how do you write a conclusion like that or navigate the literature review section? It’s kind of nuts and bolts, but we also paid a lot of attention to some of the unconscious dimensions of the ways in which we get in our own way. In our final meeting, we made room to discuss how Riggs as an institution supports writing and publishing, and how the writers here might better collaborate with one another.

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