A Conversation with Writer Vivian Heller
April 5, 2016 - Boston, MA
“I think of myself as a writer first,” says Vivian Heller, Ph.D and Core Faculty member at the Center for Narrative Practice. “Even though teaching has been part of my life for a long time, I think of myself first as a writer. A writer of fiction and non-fiction.”
“The non-fiction book I’m writing now is about my father, but about him long before I knew him. It’s about his childhood, his adolescence and his early manhood. He was among the first children to be psychoanalyzed by Anna Freud in Vienna, and he was one of her most highly documented cases. My description of the assimilated Jewish world that he grew up in draws on his case history, as well as on many other original documents. Even though his family fled Austria when the war came, they managed to retain massive amounts of letters and diaries and journals.”
Though coming from a literary background, Vivian found her way into Narrative Practice and Narrative Medicine through working with Maura Spiegel and Craig Irvine at the NYU/Bellevue Program for Survivors of Torture.
“Maura and Craig created a narrative medicine workshop for the staff of that program,” says Vivian. “In the workshop format, the participants looked at poems and short stories together, writing to prompts and then sharing their writing. We used those methods to give the caregivers a place to articulate some of their own feelings and experiences, even if those experiences weren’t directly related to the people they were caring for. It was a place of expression for them. Really significant things happened in those workshops.”
One of the methods often used at the Center for Narrative Practice is the short writing prompt inspired by a text of some kind. The short writing prompt is very freeing, Vivian says, “It says to the writer, just search within yourself and write. There are so many inhibitions that come up when you try to write something and sometimes having that time constraint allows you to slip by all those doors you tend to close before you’ve even begun. Shorter is better to let people slip past their own censors. It frees people to be spontaneous and say “I have this, I’m using it, I’m writing.”
Vivian ascribes her original interest in writing to her father, who was a writer and a professor of German philosophy and literature. “As a child,” she says, “I wanted to know all about what my father was thinking about so that I would be able to speak to him about it. Reading was initially a way of trying to have a dialogue with him. If I read this book and talk about it then I’ll have his full attention. That kind of thing.”
“I also think it was in my nature to be a reader and to be someone who loved reading books. It just became more and more of a place that I inhabited, is the best way I can say it. As I got older, my father and I did have that dialogue and a very close intellectual relationship and that was something very great in my life. But my mother was part of it too. I grew up in a very bookish family.”
Drawn to the freedom provided by the Center for Narrative Practice format, and its ability to bring people from different fields together, Vivian has been pleased at the results of this first year.
“The thing that I’m really struck by is the creative aspect of the center. It reminds me a little bit of Black Mountain College where people were inventing something that was new and responding to one another in a moment by moment way. Decisions can be made based on what happens in a session or what happens in a week. There’s so much possibility for growth and flexibility. It’s not codified, but there is a structure to the way things happen and proceed. We’re in a wonderful moment where that structure doesn’t mean rigidity.”
Vivian admits that she was nervous about the online component at first. “I had never taught that way before, but it’s clearly crucial that we have this intensive time where the group comes together and people get to know each other before the online part takes place. We need to go through those intense days first before branching out online.”
“Trust is really the thing that provides the continuity,” she says. “A feeling of community has to be established so that you never feel like you’re just sort of falling out of the picture. I think that really is key.”
Vivian is excited about the future of the Center for Narrative Practice. “To just continue to bring in all kinds of people from different pursuits to be presenters - people with really amazing narrative practices - to just keep finding them and bringing in more and more people into this would be one of the things I would want. I’ve been thinking about visual artists to invite that have narrative practices. There are all kinds of possibilities.”
Vivian Heller received her Ph.D. in English Literature and Modern Studies from Yale University. Her non-fiction publications include "Joyce, Decadence, and Emancipation" (University of Illinois Press) which won the Choice Book Award, and "The City Beneath Us" (W.W. Norton & Company.) She received a NYFA Fellowship in 2011 and a Yaddo Fellowship in 2013 to complete her upcoming book, a work of creative non-fiction based on family archives. She has taught literature and writing at Bennington, Barnard and Bard.