Today I’m welcoming Kenneth Weene to Ascroft, eh? to talk about how he used his psychology training in writing his second novel, Memoirs From The Asylum. His first novel, Widow’s Walk, was published in 2009.
Ken is a New Englander by upbringing and inclination and his career – primarily in New York – included teaching, pastoral care, and psychology. Throughout his career Ken has also been devoted to writing. He started writing poetry to help him deal with mid-life. He soon branched out to include short stories, plays, and essays. His poetry has appeared in a number of magazines and on the web. His essays have been picked up by a few newspapers, especially on Long Island, New York, where he was living. An anthology of Ken’s work, Songs For My Father, was published 2002. A psychologist by profession, he has also published a number of papers in that field.
Happily married for thirty-four years, the Weenes have one “adopted” son and two grandchildren. His wife, Rosalyn Weene, is a well known painter whose work has been shown in Europe and throughout the United States
Using my training as a psychologist in the writing of Memoirs From the Asylum
by Kenneth Weene
If there is one think I’ve learned from years working as a psychologist, it is that we humans are story-creators. Because we need to understand – to explain to ourselves and to communicate to others, we use our language skills not simply to record events but to interpret them.
As a novelist I think a great deal about the stories my characters are creating and what they are telling us about their lives. I ask myself some simple questions about a character, questions that seem to flow from my psych training.
The first question I ask is how does the character tell his/her story. What is the character’s voice? For example, in Memoirs From the Asylum there is one character, a black adolescent, Jamul, who tells his story in snatches of song, lyrics taken from Jimi Hendrix. He accompanies these lyrics on air guitar; what could be more telling of his disconnection from society’s reality, his immersion in a world uniquely his own, his realization of his own racial identity? The power of his method of telling his story also helps to set the reader up to really appreciate it when they finally read Jamul’s own words.
The second question I ask is what makes a character’s story unique. The answer to that may include biological factors; certainly mental illness includes the biological. One of the saddest characters in Memoirs is Mitch, a professor whose intellect has been stolen by Alzheimer’s. However, the biological issues are not the ones that make for great storytelling for a novelist. Characters need to have stories that challenge us to make sense along with them.
One is a narrator who is dealing with his own fears and whose ability to maintain a coherent life story is hindered by the suicide of his closest childhood connection, his cousin. In a sense this is the most autobiographical of my characters. As I explain in my author’s afterward, I, too, had a cousin commit suicide. I will leave the details for you to read in Memoirs.
The second focal character is Marilyn, a catatonic schizophrenic, who plays out her desperate attempt to make sense of her life by watching a pastiche of events unfold within a crack in the wall opposite her bed. The world she is trying to understand is more primitive than the narrators and is filled with things about which people have forbidden speaking. Her hallucinations, if you insist on using that word, reflect the chaos of the child trying to come to terms with the world into which he is helplessly born.
Dr. Buford Abrose is a resident, new to the asylum and expecting to become a polished psychiatrist. Yet he, too, like all of us is trying to make sense of his personal story. Because he is more in touch with the world as it is, Buford is perhaps least able to deal with what doesn’t make simple and clear sense. It is Buford who is in the end perhaps most deserving of our pity, for he is caught in the world as we expect it to be while trying to navigate in the world as it sometimes just is.
Memoirs From the Asylum has both tragic and comedic qualities. How could it be otherwise when it is about the inner world of characters, about their psyches? Could I have written this novel without a background in psychology? I don’t think so. I think the non-psychologist would have become too caught up in events and would not be able to appreciate the real strength of these characters, that they are in the end making sense of chaos.
About Memoirs From The Asylum: This tragi-comedic novel takes the reader inside the asylum, inside the worlds of three central characters: a narrator who has taken refuge from his fears of the world, a psychiatrist whose own life has been damaged by his father’s depression, and a catatonic schizophrenic whose world is trapped inside a crack in the wall opposite her bed. This is the interwoven story of their lives, a story that includes love, sexuality, violence, deaths, celebrations, circuses, and surprising twists. As the plot unwinds, the reader learns a great deal about the nature of futility, frustration, and freedom.