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My social work interview

This interview, along with interviews of some other social workers who are also writers, can also be found at this link: http://www.socialworkguide.org/advice/fran-dorf/

An Interview with Fran Dorf

 

Fran Dorf is a professional writer and a psychotherapist (MA, LCSW) and a member of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). As a therapist, she offers private, confidential counseling to those struggling with depression, anxiety, relationship issues, and trauma. Dorf has particular expertise with grief and loss and with those struggling with creative efforts. As a creative coach, she helps people come to grips with the fact that to do creative work “you must have the hide of an elephant and the soul of a child….”As a professional writer, Dorf is most notably the author of three acclaimed, internationally published novels: A Reasonable Madness(Birch Lane/Signet); Flight (Dutton/Signet) and Saving Elijah (Putnam). Her articles, essays, and poetry have appeared in anthologies, literary magazines, and online periodicals such as McSweeney’s, Forbes, Brainchild, Bottom Line, and Ars Medica. Dorf’s’ full-length play, “The Angel of Forgetting,” a family drama with a psychological (and supernatural) mystery at its core, had an enthusiastic reception at the Lark Theatre in NYC in April 2015, and another drama, “There You Are,” received rave reviews in its debut in July 2015 at the St. Louis Actors’ Studio Neil LaBute New Theater Festival.

Fran Dorf displays her dual interests with her psychotherapy website and blog and her professional writing website. Dorf speaks to groups on “Coping with Loss,” “Creating Happiness,” and “Write to Heal” workshops, from one hour to one day, to help people use expressive writing as a path to inner healing and to cope with their struggles, losses, illness, grief, and trauma.

We would like to thank Fran Dorf for taking the time to speak with us about her rich career.

1. Why did you choose the field of social work rather than psychology, counseling or another helping profession? What circumstances or influences led you to pursue a career as a social worker?

My pursuit of this field has been a lifelong effort, a back and forth between my two main interests in life, psychology and writing, and a real case of something I’d have to call “life intervenes.” I got a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1975, then got a master’s in psychology in 1985, thinking I would go on to get a PhD in psychology, and eventually have a private practice. The master’s degree sparked an idea for a novel about a psychiatrist and his patient, so instead of going on in school I returned to something I’d done in my teens, creative writing. I used a lot of what I’d learned in the study of psychology in graduate school.

In 1990/1991 my first novel, A Reasonable Madness (Birch Lane hardcover/Signet paperback), was published and sold very well, in America and internationally. Writing became my career. In 1993, my second novel, Flight (Dutton/Signet) was published, and I had a two -book contract with the publisher. Then my three-year-old son, Michael, became ill and died seven months later. It took me a long time just to get out of bed (metaphorically speaking), let alone think about going back to a career. When I did go back to writing, I eventually wrote a novel inspired by my loss, Saving Elijah, published in 2000 by Putnam. Honestly, the process of loss and the catharsis of writing that novel saved my life, and I developed an abiding interest and expertise in the writing process as a way to deal with trauma. I decided to go back to social work school in 1999, basically because I saw myself as too old to get a PhD, especially since I was planning to continue to write. After the book came out, there were more distractions, film options and so on. I abandoned the MSW, and then didn’t return to it until 2007. They accepted all my credits from 1999. Ah, but then I got breast cancer, so had to delay the second year of the MSW again.

2. How has your career grown and developed over time?

By the time I finally got my MSW in 2008, I was already 53 years old. (I was not the only “elderly” student in the class.) I worked at an outpatient clinic for four years to get the hours to get my LCSW, which I got in 2013.
Since I always knew that I was interested in doing clinical work with clients (rather than running a program or something like that), all my internships and my work following my degree were in clinics. This experience was very valuable, in that I got to work with a variety of people from different walks of life, and on a variety of issues.

I now have a small private practice and three groups, two with bereaved parents, and one for senior spousal bereavement. I also facilitate writing-for-healing workshops for bereaved, addicted, homeless, and other populations. I take an eclectic approach to working with people, using standard techniques such mindfulness, DBT, CBT, narrative therapy, IMAGO, but given my age and level of experience before I formally took this on, I rely heavily on my instincts, and sometimes, if clients are interested, I employ creative techniques such as writing exercises I’ve developed over time, techniques I’ve used myself in my creative life. I get a lot of creative people in my practice, writers, artists, and so on.

3. What do you see as the top social issues facing social workers today?

Lack of funding for social programs, low pay so that it’s difficult to keep good clinicians in a clinic. I felt overwhelmed by the amount of, and focus on, paperwork, when I worked in a clinic.

4. What advice would you give to new social workers entering the field?

Be in it to help people. Have and keep both moral and ethical standards. Use what works. Examine your own prejudices. Know your own psychology.

5. What are two or three top recommendations that can help social work graduates keep their skills current and continue learning after graduation?

If you’re working in a social service organization, you do have to be sufficiently respectful and know when to back down, but only the other hand, if you find fault with a certain policy, or especially if you feel the policy is harmful to your client(s), stand up for what you believe in.

Here’s an example of one way this played out in my situation: A few years into my work in a very large social work agency, where I was working as a contract worker with individuals and groups, I realized that they were only counting the actual hours spent face to face with clients toward my accumulating hours. Not only were they not paying me for hours and hours of work each day, spent doing paperwork, making phone calls, etc., they weren’t counting any of these hours toward getting my license.

What is permissible in terms of counting toward licensure varies from state to state, but I called the NASW office in my state and was told that ALL social work hours could be counted according to law in my state, including paperwork, phone calls, reports, case conference, etc.

I got a letter from the president of the NASW chapter detailing what was permissible, and I pointed out to my supervisor how valuable a worker I was, and that the agency was interpreting the law in the most restrictive way that was hurtful to the worker rather than being helpful. They were shocked that anyone had brought this up. Not only were they under the impression that the law said they were only allowed to count the face to face hours, they had done it this way for years.

It was difficult, but I stuck to my guns and pointed out that it would have taken me ten years to accumulate enough hours. Given my age, I didn’t have time to do that. In the end they did change their rules, and I got the hours in four years rather than ten.

There are a variety of interesting certificate programs you can get into that will help you hone your techniques and also help you get referrals, if you’re looking to do clinical work.

6. What is the key strength you bring to your career and how would you advise new graduates to mine their own strengths to further their careers?

My experience and creativity. I would advise new graduates to be open to living life fully, and learning good lessons about life from whatever comes their way.
Research in positive psychology shows that a mindset like this can contribute to happiness, anyway.

7. What can social worker students do to improve their competitive edge in the current job market?

Be professional yet approachable, courteous but strong. Seek out a wide variety of experiences and reading, personal and professional, which will contribute to your value as a worker and a person.

8. Social work can be rewarding but challenging as well. What self-care strategies do you recommend for new social workers?

I meditate five times a week at least. Get into some sort of psychotherapy yourself, so that you have knowledge of how your own issues can intrude, and how your clients’ issues can intrude upon you. Also, have a balance in your life: I have a family, friends, and hobbies, plus a half-time practice of psychotherapy, and a half-time practice of writing. Try to find something outside of your work that moves you and involves you in a collaborative effort.

9. Can you give an example of an interesting project or case that you have worked on and your role in helping to achieve a positive outcome?

I feel particularly good when I am working with clients and I see progress that is going to help them move forward more successfully in their lives.

10. Is there any further advice you would share with students concerning social work as a career?

Get a good supervisor. The supervisor relationship is very important for people just starting out.

Poetry in medical practice, art as therapy

WATTS+1[1]-filteredArt as therapy?  Poetry as healing? Take a look at the wonderful video I’ve linked to below by Dr. David Watts, which shows how the good and gentle doctor who was the force behind the “Healing Art of Writing” conference I attended a few years back, uses poetry in the practice of medicine.  This is really something.  In this age of “managed” care I really would like to clone Dr. Watts, and distribute his healing gifts to every physician on the planet, especially since I’ve run into quite a few who are his opposite number.  Here’s the link:  

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZS7JSi8h_U

Also interesting, I heard today on NPR author/philosopher, Alain de Botton discussing his “controversial” new book, written with art historian, John Armstrong.  It’s called Art as Therapy.  The book proposes that just looking at familiar masterpieces can be therapeutic, and talks about how art can help us manage the tensions and confusions of everyday life. The book suggests that art has seven functions, to teach us about such things as love, hope, suffering, and remembering.  For example, Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter helps us “focus on what we want to be loved for;” Serra’s Fernando Pessoa reminds us of the “importance of dignity in suffering.  Hmm.  Interesting.  

Henri Matisse Dance (II), 1909

Henri Matisse
Dance (II), 1909

 Guess which of the functions of art this painting by Matisse represents? Okay, I’ll tell you:  HOPE!  

On NPR, deBotton said he had been given the project to actually rearrange the art in a certain museum in the Netherlands, not according to the standard way, usually by date or artistic “period,” which he says is a nonsensical way of arranging it.  Instead, he’s working on arranging the art according to its psychological effect on the viewer.  And he gets to put new captions on the paintings too!  

Well, of course art is therapeutic. Creativity is the source of all healing. Doesn’t seem controversial to me.

Reading with Sari, Sachi, Linda, and Randye

1A couple of months ago, Kimberly Wilson, an incredibly talented actor and singer, asked me if I would be part of a “theatrical reading” with other members of the Theatre Artist’s Workshop in Norwalk,CT, where I am a member.  I joined this professional theatrical workshop about a year ago, and it has turned out to be one of the best things I ever did for myself, mainly because it’s helped me reconnect again with my own creativity, which I believe is the source of all healing.  I’m proud to be on the bill with four remarkably creative and talented women, Sari Bodi, Sachi Parker, Linda Urbach Howard, and Randye Kaye.  Next Sunday, November 17th at 3 PM, we’ll all be reading from our books, and telling the stories of how and why we wrote them. It’s free to the public, although a donation to TAW is always accepted. Here’s the link for info.

 I haven’t read all of the books yet, but I’d guess that for most if not all of us, harnessing our creativity in order to write these books was a huge step forward in our personal healing journeys. Certainly this is true for me.  As the readers of this blog surely know, my novel, “Saving Elijah,” was inspired by the devastating experience of losing my son, Michael, in 1994.  It’s strange to contemplate reading once more from a book I published thirteen years ago and wrote fifteen years ago, inspired by something that happened twenty years ago. Here’s why: I’ve always maintained that writing “Saving Elijah” saved my life, but life, of course, doesn’t stand still, and just as I was a different person when I wrote “Saving Elijah” than I was when I lost my son, I am a different person now than I was when I wrote it.  I hope the book is still compelling, and I stand by it as a novel, as a true representation of the process of grief, but I think I created a terrifying book because I was still very close to the depth of those terrifying feelings when I wrote it. I hope the book still compells readers, but the truth is that I have moved beyond that terrifying place.  Well beyond.  I hope to bring this perspective to my talk before the reading.

If you’re in the area, please come.  We are:

Sachi Parker, Actor/Author of “Lucky Me: My Life with–and Without–My Mother, Shirley Maclaine.”  This is Sachi’s account of her childhood; it was co-written by one of the other TAW writer members, the brilliant Fred Stroppel, and it is truly fascinating and eye-opening, especially if you were a fan of Shirley Maclaine.

Sari Bodi: Author of the young adult novel,“The Ghost in Allie’s Pool” I’ll give this one to my grandaughter when the time comes.

Linda Urbank Howard:  Author of the novel, “Expecting Miracles.” Sounds interesting, a novel about what happens to the woman “who has everything when she is denied the one thing that all women take for granted.”

Randye Kaye: Actor/Author of the memoir, “Ben Behind His Voices: One Family’s Journey from the Chaos of Schizophrenia to Hope”  I’m looking forward to reading Randye’s book, which is an account of her son Ben’s descent into the terror of schizophrenia and back. This one had to be a healing project for her.

I’m looking forward to doing this.  Please join us, if you can.

Shining a Light on Grief: Carole Geithner’s novel, “If Only”

Carole Geithner’s novel, “If Only”

I was honored last night to be part of a panel discussion, “Shining a Light on Grief,” with Carole Geithner, author of “If Only,” a young adult novel I thought was enchanting. I’d recommend Carole’s book to anyone, young or old. I’d especially recommend it to bereaved young people, and those who want to learn more in order to help a bereaved friend.  Some may find a novel like this more helpful than even a “how-to” book because it organically teaches what, and what not to do and say. “Showing” (as in a novel) is always more effective than “telling.” (as in a “how to”)

Carole’s a professor and social worker who works with the bereaved, and she said she wrote the book, at least in part, to help her deal with her own experience of grief.  As Bruised Muse readers know, I too wrote a novel inspired by my grief, “Saving Elijah.”  I inscribed a copy for Carole. She and I have a lot in common, it seems, both in our professional interests and in our understanding of the power of writing to heal.  (We may also have some personal things in common, since both of us are social work types married to successful businessmen. Okay, so maybe that’s a stretch, since Carole happens to be married to the US Treasury Secretary.)

Carole Geithner

Anyway, Carole is lovely and calm and knowledgeable and reassuring (all good things for a social worker), and her book is wise and accomplished and real.  It brings to life and gives voice to a believable thirteen-year-old named Corinna as she makes her way through the very difficult first year of aching loss and grief after the cancer death of her mother, Sophie.  In scene after scene, often with humor, Carole believably, enjoyably, and instructively depicts many of the situations and dilemmas you encounter after the death of someone you love. As a writer I particularly admired the scene in which Sophie is listening to a private conversation between her father and her aunt about her mother.  I was also struck by the range of experiences Carole managed to get into the book.  This includes everything from the feeling that nothing is normal and you’ve arrived on an unknown planet called Planet Grief, to the need to create new rituals, to the natural attraction to people who’ve experienced similar situations or just know how to “be with” you, to all the strange and hurtful things people say to you.

What is helpful/What isn’t

Carole has put into the novel wonderful examples of what’s helpful, which fit with my own suggestions:  Be present.  Be humble.  Be patient.  Observe. Reflect.  Give witness. Allow silence.  Don’t judge. Don’t try to fix it.  Accept.  Listen.

As for what to say, “I’m sorry” is fine, or even, “I don’t know what to say.” Some people are instinctively gifted at compassion-giving, while others need instruction.  It takes commitment and stamina to sit with the truly bereaved.

Carole also put in quite a few examples that nicely fall into the categories I’ve described for all the people who mean well but say the wrong things, including: babblers (Let’s talk on and on—about anything else); advice givers (It’s time to clean out the room…start dating again…get over it…); platitude-offerers/pain-minimizers (God must have wanted him…he’s in a better place…you did everything you could); pseudo-empathizers (I know just how you feel); lesson-learners (Everything happens for a reason…life is short…) and last and worst, abandoners.

I experienced most of these myself and I see them echoed over and over in the experience of others, so much so that at one point I was thinking of writing a book called: The Ten Worst Things to Say.  The key is: Don’t say anything that de-legitimizes whatever the bereaved might be feeling.

The evening was jointly sponsored by the Jewish Family Service, Jewish Community Center, The Den for Grieving Children, Family Centers, and the Center for Hope.  I have associations, one way or another, with all of these wonderful institutions in the community.

The audience included many professionals who work with the bereaved, and quite of few bereaved too.  I was thankful for some wonderful questions, such as this one (I’m paraphrasing):  “I understand it’s really hard to know what to say when people ask you how many children you have.”  Yes, indeed, this is always a loaded question. It’s one of the many real dilemmas of grief, particularly at first.  If someone asks how many and you leave out the dead child, you might feel as if you’re betraying that child. But if you include that dead child you might then be forced to answer the follow up questions, which might lead you (and the asker) where you might not want to go.  It’s always awful to find yourself suddenly talking about your most profound pain to a stranger who was simply making conversation, or even actually breaking down in tears in the cheese aisle.  There’s also the concern that you might ruin someone’s day.  Anyway, eventually most bereaved people figure out and make peace with how they want to handle this dilemma, which is one that’s going to be with them for the rest of life.  It’s a case by case decision.  It gets easier with time.

I hope the newly bereaved who were brave enough to come felt supported and cared for.  I admit that while I wasn’t surprised I was a bit disappointed by the lack of attendance by more non-professionals perhaps looking for information on how to help a friend. I guess I’m so comfortable with this topic, and with offering compassion to the suffering that I forget how much most people really just want to avoid it.

Here’s the link to Carole Geithner’s website, which has some great resources about grief in addition to info about the book.

My novel, “Saving Elijah,” is now available on Kindle!

Wow!  It’s been twelve years since Putnam published SAVING ELIJAH, my novel “inspired” by the loss of my son.  It’s now available in a KINDLE edition through Amazon, and RIGHT NOW, for a limited time, Amazon is offering it FREE if you’re an Amazon Prime member.  Otherwise it’s just $3.99.  My blood, sweat, and tears for only $3.99!  And what do you get?  Terror and sorrow, poignancy and inspiration, I hope.  That’s a lot for free, and even for $3.99. Click HERE for the Amazon link to get the book, and if you happen to read it and like it, please leave a review there.  For reasons I don’t exactly understand, the reviews for the print edition of the book don’t automatically get transferred to the new Kindle edition.  This, of course, is one of the many things about this life that I don’t understand.

Here are a few of those rave reviews:

“Stunning, spellbinding, cracking with suspense, dark humor and provocative questions. A compelling page-turner that meditates, with honesty and insight, on the nature of parental love and responsibility.”  (Publisher’s Weekly, notable review)

Ambitious, imaginative, and beautifully done. (Wall Street Journal)

Fascinating, skillful, a fiercely compelling read. (Glamour)

Survival in books: Emma Donoghue’s haunting novel, ROOM

The Bruised Muse has long been a fan of writer, Emma Donoghue. I loved and admired her novel, Slammerkin.  I was completely unprepared for ROOM. I had resisted reading this one for a long time, since I’d heard that the novel was about a kidnapped woman and her child held captive in an 11×11 cell.  I don’t generally read formulaic suspense novels any more, particularly creepy serial killer ones, and this sounded to me like a typical suspense plot.  I also wondered how a novel written in the voice of a five-year-old could possibly have anything to teach me, or even hold my interest all the way though. Boy, was I misguided.  ROOM has been haunting my dreams.  ROOM has intruded on my thoughts. ROOM makes me want to weep with envy at the author’s artistry and accomplishment. ROOM has even renewed my hope (well, a small bit of hope) that we can as a species survive. ROOM IS JUST BRILLIANT. BRILLIANT. BRILLIANT.

I’m often puzzled at the commercial success of many so-called “literary” novels I see on the bestseller list.  I wonder, What is it about this particular book that so very MANY people connect with? Why this book, and not that book?   What is this one’s magic?  What theme does this novel consider that resonates with so many people right now?  And why didn’t the book I read last week and found far more interesting, well written, engaging, or brilliant connect with enough others to make it too, or even instead of this one?

No one needs to read stories about made-up characters, of course, so it seems to me that (leaving Oprah aside) a novel succeeds commercially because millions of people recommend it, one by one (or social network by social network). That is, when one reader feels so moved that, without any reason at all (other than perhaps generosity), he or she will say to a friend, “You’ve got to read this. This is important. This will teach you something about life.” Multiply that formula by millions and you have a bestseller, in this case possibly even a classic.

ROOM is that rare book whose success is completely right and understandable. Unique, artful, poignant, authentic in its voice and characters, and beautifully, brilliantly written without flourishes or writerly self-consciousness, ROOM grabs you from the first minute and refuses to let go. Yet many (well, some) books do all that.

ROOM’S wisdom comes upon you slowly, like the light of a sunrise. In telling the story from the child’s point of view, Donoghue protects us from the horror, just as Ma protects her child. In focusing so tightly on the relationship between this devoted and inventive mother and this boy, by observing so clearly every single object and moment in its character’s 11 x 11 world, ROOM manages to illuminate the entire World.

I think ROOM connects with so many because it speaks to a certain planetary zeitgeist.  Everywhere on earth, things seem to be spiraling out of control, and Donoghue has written an unexpectedly hopeful book that speaks to human resilience in adversity, our capacity to survive. ROOM comments powerfully on our culture of gluttony, and profoundly teaches us about the nature and meaning of reality, how we construct our realities.

ROOM is also, of course, about the bond between mother and child. Most psychologists agree that failure to form a bond of attachment with at least one human being in the very early years can have devastating lifelong consequences. In my social work practice, I see many people who seem so damaged by early neglect, parental cruelty, selfishness or narcissism, and/or simple bad mothering/fathering, that it almost seems nearly impossible to effect repairs. ROOM forces you to note (and believe) that this remarkable woman, though she lives in constant personal terror, is managing to save her son by simply using her own good sense, subjugating her own needs to the needs of her child, and making the best of what she has for the sake of her child. And by saving her child, she also saves herself. And the hooked reader can’t help wonder about what will happen to Jack and Ma, even after that last powerful scene. The Bruised Muse has faith that what Ma has done will, in psychological terms, will be, “good enough.” How extraordinary. To wonder what will happen to made-up characters. Now THAT’S suspense. And suspense is another reason the book succeeds. By adhering broadly to the outline of a creepy suspense novel, yet being completely without creep, ROOM draws in the reader looking for “suspense,” but effectively turns the genre inside out.

The Bruised Muse also found that ROOM has aroused her long suppressed desire to write fiction again. (Wait. No. Don’t.  Push it away. Don’t be a fool.)

#10 Top Grief on Film: Six Feet Under

Last but by no means least on my top ten “Grief on Film”:

10) Six Feet Under

Even though this multi-award-winning drama about the Fishers, a Los Angeles family of funeral directors, was a television show and not a film, for me, it was, and remains, the most accurate, authentic, multifaceted and complete portrayal of grief ever filmed, particularly effective in its portrayal of death as part of life. Created by Alan Ball, who wrote American Beauty, Six Feet Under ran for five seasons, from 2001 to 2005, and can still sometimes be seen on HBO on demand, or rented. It’s well worth it. On one level, Six Feet Under is a family drama that deals intelligently with such issues as relationships, sex, religion, infidelity, sibling rivalry, and mental illness, but its brilliance stems from quite another level, namely its bold and daring focus on death and grief and its willingness to employ an inventive array of fictional techniques to illuminate the subject. Psychologically sophisticated, often surreal, with a strong measure of irony and dark humor, Six Feet Under regularly brings the world of the living in contact with the dead in ways that show how people actually deal with loss, as the dead taunt and/or comfort, explain and/or question, frighten and/or anger, and illustrates its complex, authentic characters’ interior monologues and psychological issues by exposing them as external dialogues. This technique has enormous emotional, philosophical, and metaphorical payoffs; I employed a similar approach with the ghost in my 2000 novel, Saving Elijah, which was inspired by my own experience of losing my son. Each Six Feet Under episode begins with a death –anything from a heart attack, to SIDS, to old age, to murder, to a pool accident—and that death sets the tone for the drama to come as each of the characters live and reflect on their own lives with the introductory death and preparations for the funeral service as a backdrop. Six Feet Under stars Peter Krause as Nate, the older prodigal son who returns after his father’s death to reluctantly become a partner in the family funeral business; Michael Hall as the gay, younger son David; Lauren Ambrose as the artist rebel daughter Claire; Frances Conroy as bewildered, stymied matriarch Ruth; and Richard Jenkins as Nathanial, the patriarch killed in the first episode who regularly returns as a ghost. Smaller but no less powerful roles are played by Mathew St. Patrick as David’s boyfriend Keith; Lilly Taylor as Nate’s first wife; the wonderful Rachel Griffiths as Nate’s second wife, Brenda Chenowith; Jeremy Sisto as Brenda’s bipolar brother, and many others. The last episode in which each character ultimately embraces life and finally death left me (and every Six Feet Under fan I’ve ever met) deeply moved and weeping. So many scenes remain with me, but I have to say that the entire show is worth watching just so one can feel the full measure of the last amazing sequence as daughter Claire rides away from Los Angeles to meet her life and her fate, and each character in turn does the same. The ending is the perfect coda to all that came before it. True genius.