"Mirror Image" (Poisoned Pen Press) now at your bookseller's.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

I Know I Have a Book in Me: Writing for Therapists

In the name of shameless self-promotion, I'm making a pitch:

For those who might be interested, I'm teaching a workshop this Sunday, May 4th, at the California Association for Marriage and Family Therapists Annual Conference. The 3-hour intensive workshop is called "I Know I Have a Book in Me: Writing For Therapists."

Who might benefit from this workshop? Glad you asked.

It's perfect for therapists, psychologists, social workers and psychiatrists who want to write for either clinical journals or the general public.

This workshop addresses everything from writer's block and procrastination to the plain facts about editors, publishing and the changing marketplace.

Using anecdotes, examples, and in-class writing exercises, the mental health professional yearning to write will learn how to turn their clinical expertise--as well as the lessons of their own personal journey--into marketable material for magazines, newspapers and books.

The Conference takes place at the Marriott Hotel at the Los Angeles Airport. My workshop runs from 9:00 AM to Noon. For registration info, call 888-892-2638.

End of pitch. Hope to see you there!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

LA Times Festival Of Books

I just got back from signing copies of my new book, From Crime to Crime, at the LA Times Festival of Books at UCLA.

What a crowd of book-lovers, authors, Festival volunteers and food vendors. Pretty impressive gathering, given that the temp hovered around 100 degrees!

So much for the idea that Southern Californians aren't readers, or interested in literature. Some of the most eager attendees gathered around small press booksellers booths, or took a chance on books (and authors) they hadn't heard of.

The most exciting thing about the whole event was how happy, engaged and curious the attendees were. Glad to be among others who loved books. Glad to meet their favorite authors. Glad, I think, that such a festival exists.

I know I am.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


From the pages of medical journals to feature stories on the network news, there's been a swell of media coverage the past few years concerning "the teenage brain."

Despite sounding like the title of Hollywood's latest horror-movie blockbuster, the phrase actually refers to recent neurological research on adolescent brain chemistry. To the surprise of practically no one not wearing a lab coat, it's finally been demonstrated scientifically that the teenage brain is different from that of a mature adult.

According to the data, these differences explain the average teen's inclination to stay up late, sleep until noon, and exhibit extreme mood swings (for example, from sullen and defiant to really sullen and defiant).

Some researchers have even blamed these brain differences for the adolescent's inexplicable devotion to high-decibel music, low-decibel mumbling and the piercing of unlikely body parts.

As soon as these results made national headlines, the usual social pundits weighed in: This new research, they claimed, clearly suggested that we should ban teen driving and even raise the voting age. After all, we now had proof positive that today's teens are simply too erratic to be entrusted with such responsibilities.

This may be. But what about the midlife brain? Perhaps the next time we embark on exhaustive, heavily-funded research into what's in the human skull, we should focus our efforts on the average middle-aged person--because if my friends and I are at all representative, I'd argue that whatever's going on in our collective brains is equally suspect.

Though not without good reason. Most adults I know are over-worked, over-stressed and generally overwhelmed from their daily struggles with careers, child-rearing and relationships. They're forgetful, obsessed with their health (popping pills to an extent no teenager would even contemplate), envious of their neighbors and co-workers, and always--always--sleep-deprived.

Frankly, even on a good day, our brains are nothing to write home about. It's everything we can do to keep our complicated, must-have Starbucks coffee orders straight in our heads.

I think it's too easy to blame all this on brain chemistry. The truth is, life is hard, no matter how old you are. Whether you're worried about making the track team or paying the mortgage, about fitting in with the cool kids or impressing your new boss, it's all about trying to cope.

Granted, your average teen's coping mechanisms rarely extend beyond junk food and video games. But are adults' choices any better? Addicted to Internet porn, "Deperate Housewivess," Tom Clancy novels and golf. Running from their yoga class to a Parents Without Partners meeting to the latest Donald Trump get-rich-quick seminar.

And, between all this, compulsively checking e-mails and sending text messages on their cellphones (all while nursing fantasies of winning the Lottery or running off to Tahiti with the office manager).

Let's face it, teens have just two basic goals: having sex and getting into a good college. Both pretty laudable and straightforward aims, especially when compared with the confusing and relentless demands of contemporary life with which adults have to contend. It's no wonder that at the end of the day, most adults just want to collapse on the sofa and channel-surf.

Sartre once said that the state of man is incomprehension and rage. Okay, maybe he was a bit of a Gloomy Gus. But isn't the bewilderment and struggle to which he alludes true at times for all of us, particularly at certain crucial stages in our life?

As a psychotherapist, I see daily the unfortunate consequences of assigning a diagnostic label to practically every kind of behavior under the sun. We need to remember that people are too complex to fit neatly into categories.

And that includes teenage people.

In fact, before we start debating whether teens should be allowed to drive and vote, we'd better be able to defend letting us adults do so. It's not as if our record in either of these endeavors is anything to brag about.

In other words, give the kids a break. They're not responsible for the way their brains develop, any more than they are for the world in which they have to grow up.

If anything, the latter is a result of brains much older, and supposedly wiser, than theirs.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Given its obvious drawbacks, there aren't many good things to say about death. Sure, it's quiet, and you're unlikely to be bothered anymore by Internet spam and telemarketers. But, to many a noted person throughout history, perhaps the only real comfort of the grave has been the secrets you were allowed to carry to it.

Not anymore. A few years ago, a leading news story concerned the late Dr. Robert Atkins, whose popular diet has taken a bite out of the profits of bakeries, pizza parlors, and other purveyors of high-carb delights. Until a group of pro-vegetarian physicians obtained copies of Atkins' medical records and released them to the press.

Apparently, the happily-carnivorous diet guru's health was less than optimum for some years before his death.

Understandably, his supporters--including his widow Veronica--were outraged. "They're like the Taliban," she said. "The vegetarian Taliban."

Health issues aside, what I find alarming here is the increasingly common practice of violating the privacy of the departed. Just a few months after the Atkins story appeared, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' former priest broke his forty-year pastoral silence to disclose her private talks with him following her husband's assassination.

And he's not alone. In a parade of tell-all books, ostensibly scholarly biographies and TV show "exclusives," people are rushing to reveal the intimate details of the lives of (usually) famous friends and relatives no longer around to defend themselves. So much for the sanctity--let alone the silence--of the tomb.

It's as though we're in some new Age of Postmortem Debunking, a kind of sociological frenzy of hero-bashing that reflects our doubts about altruistic or intellectual integrity. Or, perhaps more to the point, confirms our cynicism.

How else to explain the spate of less than flattering portraits of formerly Great Men and Women that seem to be appearing weekly? Even such usually untouchable stalwarts as Einstein, Lincoln and Gandhi have taken a drubbing.

Lately, it's a truism of American life that privacy is under attack. From identity theft to "profiling" air passengers; from the inequities of the Patriot Act to the selling of personal information databases. But at least those of us troubled by these developments can complain about them. We can email our elected officials. Write scathing letters to the newspapers. Harrass radio talk show hosts.

Alas, these options are unavailable posthumously. Perhaps it's just the therapist in me, uncomfortable with the idea of confidentiality expiring just because the person in question has. Yet I can't help thinking of an interview I saw with Carl Jung, filmed shortly before his own death, as he politely but firmly refused to divulge the details of a painful dream Freud had disclosed to him.

In exasperation, the interviewer said, "What difference can it make now? He's dead."

To which Jung replied, "Because it was told me in confidence."

Bad television, maybe. An anecdote without a punch-line. Plus the fact that Jung--himself fodder for a number of recent idol-smashing biographies--was apparently something less than a paragon of integrity in either his personal or professional life. But in this moment he shone, merely by keeping silent.

For the rest of us, still above ground, not a such a bad model to emulate.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

DATELINE HOLLYWOOD: Ageism vs. Dying Young

There's an old joke about a man working in the circus, whose job it was to follow behind the elephants, sweeping up their droppings. When asked why he doesn't find some other line of work, he replies, "What, and leave show business?"

What makes the joke funny, of course, is the truth behind it. Creative and talented people, once having tasted the wild nectar of Hollywood success, find it almost impossible to quit the field, even when the odds are stacked against them.

And nothing stacks the odds higher than committing the one unpardonable sin in Hollywood--getting older. As veteran TV writer Larry Gelbart said in a recent interview, "The only way to beat ageism in Hollywood is to die young."

Which reminds me of a story, from my own practice as a therapist working with creative people in Hollywood: At 58, my patient Walter has been directing episodic television for most of his adult life--except for the past five years, during which, despite Herculean efforts to get work, he's been unemployed. He also got divorced and lost his house, and had to move to a condo in Thousand Oaks.

At a recent session, Walter announced more bad news.

"My agent finally dumped me," he said quietly, without rancor.

"I'm sorry, Walter. I know you've been his client a long time."

"Twenty-one years. Lasted longer than my marriage. And the sex was better..." He managed a rueful smile. "Hey, I can't blame him. He busted his ass for me. But let's face it, nobody wants to see a gray-haired old fart like me on the set. Everybody there looks like my grandchildren."

As is often the case with patients in his situation, we talked about options. Walter agreed that he could probably teach, but that even teaching jobs were getting scarce and the money wasn't very good.

But the money wasn't really what bothered him. Right now, at 58, he felt he was a better director than at any time in his life. He knew his craft, he understood actors, he could keep his head in a crisis. But it seemed clear that nobody wanted to see a face much over 45.

"I might as well pack it in," he said gloomily. "My life in this town is over."

"Your life isn't over, Walter," I said to him. "Neither is your career. Unless you're ready for it to be over."

"What does that mean?"

"It means you don't have to let other people decide what you can do. Or how to feel about what you can do."

"Shit, don't get all therapeutic on me now."

"I'm not. I'm being pragmatic. If you want to teach, go teach. But if you still love directing, go find something to direct. A play. A short film. Maybe something you can show on the Internet. Everybody else is."

I leaned in closer. "Listen. You told me once you still have a few bucks. Okay, then hire someone to write something. Or rent an Equity-waiver theater down on La Cienaga for a week and put something up on its feet."

"Forget it. I'm used to working for studios. Networks. Guys with parking spaces on the lot, who at least have to pay me for the privilege of pissing all over my work."

"And I know how much you'll miss that. But at least you'll be directing. If that's what you still want to do."

"Hell, it's what I am."

He sat back, stroking the edge of his trim, salt-and-pepper beard. Then he laughed.

"Hey," he said, "remember that joke about the guy at the circus, cleaning up after the elephants?"

"One of my favorites."

"You think I'm that guy?"

"Walter, I think we're all that guy. These are the lives we lead, the things we do. If it's who we really are, all we can do is keep doing it. As a colleague of mine said once, about trying to achieve in any profession: Keep giving them you, until you is what they want."

He paused. "You know, Alvin Sergeant is in his seventies, and he wrote those Spider-Man movies. Huge hits. For years, David Chase couldn't get arrested, and then he creates The Sopranos. Hell, John Huston directed his last picture in a wheelchair, sitting next to an oxygen tank."

"All true."

"I mean, maybe I'm just kiddin' myself, but..." He nodded toward the door. "There's gotta be at least one more elephant out there, right?"

I smiled. "I've never known a circus without one."

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Sue Grafton's Integrity

I just read a terrific interview with best-selling mystery novelist Sue Grafton in The Strand magazine. (Pretty terrific magazine, too---and I mean that sincerely, not just because they published two of my mystery stories!)

Anyway, the best thing about the interview was Sue's continual insistence on not selling the rights to her long-running Kinsey Milhone series of books to Hollywood.

Having worked as a TV writer for years before becoming a novelist, she's too well aware of what can happen when the Hollywood "development" process gets a hold of a beloved character.

As she reminds the interviewer, Strand editor Andrew Gulli, "From my perspective, they would ruin my series in a heartbeat. One of the lessons I learned many years ago was from Lawrence Block, who sold his Bernie Rhodenbarr series to Hollywood. Bernie Rhodenbarr is a white, male, Jewish burglar. They cast Whoopi Goldberg in the part!"

Sue goes on to point out that, regardless of which current "hot" actress was chosen to play Kinsey, many of her readers would be upset, or at least disappointed. And with good reason.

"They will cast anybody they think will sell tickets," she explains, "which means they most certainly would pick somebody totally inappropriate to play the part of Kinsey Milhone."

While I think Sue might be over-stating her case a bit--Kathleen Turner was perfect casting for the part of V.I. Warshawski; they just screwed up the movie--I do respect her integrity and allegiance to the character she created. As well as to her loyal fans who've supported her work over the past twenty years.

BTW, though I doubt she'd remember, Sue and I met many, many years ago, when we were both members of an awards selection committee of the Mystery Writers of America. I can't remember myself exactly what category we were deciding (best mystery short story, best TV crime show episode, etc.?), all I know is that at the end of a very pleasant--though long--afternoon at fellow writer Mark Schorr's house, we ended up giving the coveted Edgar award to something.

Anyway, I recommend the interview with Sue Grafton whole-heartedly. It contains a lot of great writing tips, as well as rueful advice about the writing life.

You can learn more about The Strand magazine by going to http://www.strandmag.com/.

It's worth the visit.