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Clinicians and Creativity: How Psychology Informs Therapists’ Inventive Projects

Clinical psychologist Deborah Serani, Psy.D, has been writing since she was a little girl—everything from short stories to poetry to science fiction. So, for her, publishing books as an adult was a natural progression.

Serani is the author of several titles on treating and living with depression. Recently, she published a psychological thriller entitled The Ninth Session about a psychologist who starts working with a patient who’s struggling with severe anxiety—and keeping some dangerous secrets.

“My work as a psychologist was vital in writing The Ninth Session,” said Serani, who has a private practice in Smithtown, New York.

“This book is about psychoanalysis, so I could not have written a thing without my professional training.” Serani’s book gives readers insight into what psychotherapy is like, along with how clinicians think and work. The book also delves into psychopathology and trauma.

Understanding Clients and Characters

For New England clinical psychologist Jacqueline Sheehan, Ph.D, writing has always been a natural outlet. “I have always had stories running through my head.” Sheehan is the author of six novels (almost seven!), including The Tiger in the House and The Center of the World.

“My background as a psychologist helps me to understand the motivation of my characters, just as it guided me to understand why my clients did what they did, even when it didn’t serve them well,” said Sheehan. Her background also helps her not to judge her antagonists.

Sheehan spends a lot of time “listening to her characters,” just as she listens to her clients. For example, she sometimes interviews new characters, writing out a list of questions, which they respond to (“by simply writing down what seems right for the character”).

“Even though characters come through me, and I create them, they are not me and they are unique characters,” Sheehan said. “They have to respond to situations in a way that I might not at all. And I generally put my characters in terrible situations.”

Sheehan’s characters also often show up in her dreams, which she regularly records.

Listening Attentively to Silence

Portland psychotherapist Philip Kenney considers himself to be “an unlikely writer” because he didn’t start writing until he was 45 years old—and in the midst of deep despair and an anxiety attack. Even though he’d never written a poem (or even enjoyed poetry), a fully formed poem emerged. After jotting down his “terrible” creation, he realized something “remarkable”: He wasn’t anxious or depressed anymore. Instead, he felt “enlivened.”

Later, he met Portland’s poet laureate, William Stafford, who suggested he write a poem every morning, which Kenney did for a decade. On his 60th birthday, Kenney made a list of everything he wanted to accomplish but couldn’t—including a novel. Six months later, he completed his first manuscript.

Today, Kenney has published an assortment of creative works: Radiance: A Novel; The Writer’s Crucible: Meditations on Emotion, Being, and Creativity; and Where Roses Bloom: Collected Poems.

He believes that practicing psychotherapy, which he’s been doing for 40 years, has inspired and enriched every aspect of his life. Indeed, he noted that moving from working with clients to writing feels seamless for him.

For example, Kenney’s books build on psychology themes. The characters in Radiance struggle with the unconscious forces that shape their experiences and the overwhelming feelings that ensue. Kenney described the novel as “a meditation on memory and the transmission of trauma from one generation to the next.”

Ultimately, the greatest support of his writing practice, he said, has been listening to the deep unconscious—as he would in session with his clients.

“I don’t have to be brilliant, or figure everything out. What is asked of an author is to listen attentively to silence. That practice never disappoints, either in therapy or at the writing table. Every day I find myself in awe of what comes freely in both environments.”

The Book Writing Process

The Ninth Session was published this fall, and it’s been 10 years since Serani wrote the first word. Because she was working full time at the time, Serani’s writing sessions happened on early mornings and weekends. She also asked friends and colleagues to read the book in its various iterations.

“I wanted to make sure that my clinical leanings as a psychologist weren’t too heavy handed in the novel,” Serani said.

Sheehan describes her writing process as “unruly and chaotic.” On her most productive days, she writes in the morning, takes a long walk, eats lunch, writes some more, naps for 30 minutes, and then reads.

“But there are a lot of days when I procrastinate like crazy for absolutely no good reason.”

Yet, Sheehan noted that “I am rarely happier than when my writing process is proceeding in a steady way. I love being with writers and artists because it is a wonderful way to see the world and understand what our existence means.” 

Kenney noted that his writing practice is “scrambled.” Ideally, he wakes up around 5 a.m., meditates, writes at least one good paragraph, and walks or rides his bike. But in actuality, he said, because of his morning responsibilities and capricious creativity, writing happens throughout the day.

Kenney’s creative impulse “calls in the middle of therapy sessions, when I’m running out the door to get somewhere and at 2 or 3 in the morning when I wake up with whole sentences streaming through my head.”

Which is why he carries a notebook in his pocket everywhere he goes. Indeed, this is what Kenney loves about writing: It invites us to be awake, to look and listen, and to be touched by awe throughout the day—not just when you’re sitting at your desk, pen and paper in hand.

The Power of Literature  

Kenney believes that literature should be an integral part of psychological training. “For one, the writing we find in most psychology texts, though rich in ideas, is a chore to read.” But even more problematic, these texts often encourage readers to focus on conceptual formulations over the nuances of their client’s experience, he said.

“I know I was guilty of that in my earlier years and many a time found myself sounding stale and the person across from me looking at me dumbfounded. Literature, on the other hand, is fresh and takes us into the living reality of people so as to develop a greater sense of empathy and complex understanding of psychic realities.”

In fact, a recent meta-analysis of 14 studies suggests that reading fiction improves social cognition (including empathy).

In the past, Kenney viewed psychology, spirituality, and creativity as three distinct domains. Which led him to struggle “with feeling disjointed.” However, he realized that these are actually “three different faces of one remarkable force that pulses through all of us.”

“This realization has freed me to live knowing writing is spiritual practice and that spirituality is at the heart of creativity.” And that realization has been transformative for him.

“I can now leave my writing desk and go for a walk in the park knowing that I am feeding my work, not abandoning it. In short, there is nothing we experience or encounter that is not sacred, and similarly, everything contributes to our creative work.”

Clinicians and Creativity: How Psychology Informs Therapists’ Inventive Projects

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Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2019). Clinicians and Creativity: How Psychology Informs Therapists’ Inventive Projects. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 26, 2020, from
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Last updated: 3 Dec 2019 (Originally: 4 Dec 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 3 Dec 2019
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