Write Now with Dr. James S. Gordon

Who are you?

James S. Gordon, M.D. — Jim Gordon. I’m a psychiatrist by training and the Founder and Executive Director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, a non-profit in Washington, DC. I’m a clinical professor at Georgetown Medical School, and an activist who has, over the years, spent time in the streets and held public positions, including Chairman of the Advisory Council to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Alternative Medicine, and Chairman of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy. I’ve long been an advocate for a humane and effective approach that brings self-awareness, self-care, and group support into the center of all health care, the training of all health professionals, and the education of our children.

What do you write?

I write about whatever is most exciting and compelling to me. My first published pieces were a review of R.D. Laing’s Knots in The New York Times and a cover story about R.D. Laing –Who Is Mad? Who Is Sane– for The Atlantic in January 1971. I had been inspired and influenced by Laing’s writings — particularly The Divided Self and The Politics of Experience — and made a pilgrimage to London to meet him and spend time in the Kingsley Hall community that he created — a non-hospital setting where people diagnosed as psychotic could live with psychiatrists and others, embrace their psychosis as a journey of self-discovery, learn from it, and move through it. I wanted to see if Kinglsey Hall worked and how, and if it did to bring this model back to New York City where I was soon to be a chief resident in psychiatry.

This has been my pattern ever since. If something seems vitally important to me, I want to write about it to share my experience. My most recent book (pub date September 10, 2019) is The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma. It’s a distillation of 50 years of work with patients in my office as well as with whole populations that have been traumatized by war, climate-related disasters, school shootings, government-sanctioned torture, and historical trauma. In The Transformation, I share a comprehensive program with practical, evidence-based techniques of self-care that anyone can use to deal with challenges in their lives. I wrote The Transformation because a number of people had asked after reading my previous book on depression, Unstuck, if I could write a book for “us,” for “everyone,” and that’s what The Transformation is.

Sometimes, if I think I have something original and important to say about what’s happening in myself, my writing is more reflective than analytical. So for example, I wrote for The Washington Post about a young patient of mine, Rodrigo Rojas, who was burned to death by the Chilean secret police, when he returned to his home country to photograph demonstrations; and about my 25th reunion at Harvard College, remembering with pain as well as affection the early deaths, often by suicide, of classmates who were gay and in the closet.

Years ago, I wrote The Golden Guru about Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the Indian spiritual teacher, whose group was the subject of the recent documentary Wild, Wild West. I learned a great deal from Rajneesh — about meditation and myself that has been of help to me personally. And I also learned about the hazards of leadership, and the very great dangers of being a follower.

I’ve also written about wars and the psychological damage they’ve done in Kosovo, Israel, and Gaza, and in The Guardian about why religious people support President Trump and what we can learn about ourselves from paying attention to the ways we resemble, as well as differ from him.

Writing is an essential part of my life. A subject will grab me and won’t let go. Then comes the strenuous, sweaty part as I try to wrestle it into comprehensible, publishable form. There are moments of joy in the struggle, and sometimes it’s just plain work. I’m not crazy about the 800-word limit that major publications often impose, and I mourn the frequent editorial elimination of what I thought were lovely turns of phrase.

Where do you write?

I write wherever I can, but usually not in my home or office. Sometimes in the early mornings I do sit at a table in my kitchen or in my living room looking at the trees outside my window. During the rest of the day, there are too many distractions in the office, too many people with requests for meetings or action that are all so much easier to address than writing. I go to coffee shops and, in good weather, sit outside. I like to have a cup of coffee with me when I write, and sometimes a little food.

I write by hand in a spiral notebook with a retractable blue Pilot pen. Nobody else can read my scrawl — sometimes it’s a challenge for me — so I dictate it and my very-kind assistant types it out. And the process goes on as I revise.

Photo: HarperOne

When do you write?

Early in the morning, before my workday begins, especially if I have a deadline. It’s very satisfying to do a very rough first draft then. Mostly I excuse myself from my office and head to that coffee shop for two or three hours. I write until I’m finished with a draft of a short piece or, if it’s a book, a section of a chapter.

I can’t say I love deadlines, but as Samuel Johnson apparently said about the immediate prospect of being hanged, they do concentrate my mind.

Why do you write?

I write because it’s a part of me and has been since I was a little kid, when, at eight or nine, I created fictionalized, highly idealized versions of my rather complicated and conflicted family life. I realize, as I respond to this question, that I was pretty much always committed to excellence in writing — in my essays at school and in college.

And then beginning at 18 I kept a journal, a place where I could bring out what was inside: all my uncensored feelings, thoughts, and observations — what a relief. The first time I did this was during a solo 800-mile bike trip in France. I suppose I felt a little like those “cafe-sitters” I read about and had seen in Paris. And when I was lonely, my journal was a companion for me.

Later, during medical school, my journal also provided a much needed opportunity for freedom and creativity.

Ever since medical school writing has been an integral part of my work — as well as my life. I have an almost physical need to share what I’m discovering and learning — to touch, maybe even, to borrow the title of my most recent book, to “transform” the people I hope will read what I’ve written. I remember when I was still in college, reading Dostoyevsky and thinking, “That’s what I want to do! Make people laugh and cry.”

Writing is as much a part of my work as listening closely to the person in front of me, or doing acupuncture for someone who is in pain, or showing up in the middle of a war and creating a program to heal the trauma which is bewildering, enraging, and debilitating the whole population.

How do you overcome writer’s block?

Reading has always been helpful, a kind of warm up that gets me in the mood for writing. Sometimes I crave an example, an inspiration. Long ago, it was Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, More recently, I’m re-reading Montaigne’s essays, E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, and anything by Flannery O’Connor.

Sometimes I want to take refuge in a world far from the one I’m trying to put on paper. It could be the dark, hidey-hole of modern mysteries, everyone from Raymond Chandler and John D. MacDonald to Michael Connelly and Tana French. Sometimes I wrap myself in great, enveloping fictional worlds: Anna Karenina or Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War at the End of the World.

When reading doesn’t remove the block, I start with mindless tasks I need to do — shopping or cleaning up. Physical activity also helps — yoga in my living room, tai chi on my porch, a workout in the neighborhood gym. Other times, I begin with simple writing chores: emails I need to get out to potential funders, old friends, or partners in our trauma-healing work. If I’m loosening up a little, I may work on an as-yet unblocked section of the piece which has been resisting me.

Bonus: What do you enjoy doing when not writing?

Everything that I’ve described that helps me to write, plus hanging out with old friends (many of whom are writers). Being with my children. Great food and drinking wonderful wine. Discovering a new place, new people. Welcoming and finding ways to bring hope and practical tools to people who’ve been overwhelmed by destruction and dislocation. Breathing deeply, raising my arms up to the sky, enjoying, being grateful for every motion, every movement, every moment. Being in love.

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