Robert Winer, M.D.

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How I Learned to Write

The first time I wrote a paper was for an Adolescent Psychiatry meeting in Chicago. I’d been asked to do it by a man who was like a father to me in those days, although later we would let each other down. The paper was obsessively thick, and I was going second. As I read it to the group, I became preoccupied with somebody in the tenth row who looked enormously bored. I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Afterwards, the first speaker told me that the case I’d described was unbelievable; initially flattered, I quickly realized that he was accusing me of having made it up. I thought he was trying to curry favor with our shared mentor. Thirty years later, at the memorial service for this patriarch, this fellow spoke of how close the two of them had been over the years, but how in the last three years they had only hurt each other every time they spoke. So it came full circle, and my rival and I had this bond after all.

My improvement as a speaker came with the recognition that the trick was to zone in on someone in the audience who looked interested in what I was talking about. There has to be at least one in every crowd. Keeping that person entertained was easy and the other people stopped existing. This was my turning point as a public speaker. I also discovered that beginning with a funny story was tricky business because if no one else thought it was humorous I’d be demoralized from the start. Better to begin with an aphorism, something wise and slightly impenetrable.

Another mentor pushed me to write; over the years he invited me to contribute chapters to volumes he was editing. On one of those occasions he told me that I’d written the best essay in his book. I never thought he was impartial! Some time later I was moaning about how bad my writing was and he reminded me of what he’d said. I thought he was complaining that I wasn’t taking his praise seriously, and I believe he was right. I don’t think I’d been fishing for a compliment, it was more that I’d been uncomfortable with his praise, and I hadn’t let it mean as much to me as he’d wished I had.

On my fiftieth birthday I got a call from the human sciences (or whatever) editor at Basic Books. She said that one of her authors had spoken highly of some book chapters I’d written; would I consider writing a book for them? I picked myself up off the floor and met her in New York for lunch at some fancy place where I told her that Roy Schafer was one of my favorite psychoanalytic writers (he’d published with them) and she told me I was so much better than Roy Schafer. It took me a couple years to write the book, and then it took her three months to do whatever she did with it before she rejected it. I decided that she’d sent it to Roy Schafer to read and that he’d hated it. I haven’t been able to make eye contact with Roy since. Panicked, I sent the manuscript to Jason Aronson and he read a chapter, liked it, and sent me a contract all in the space of a week. Redemption! Months later, my best friend held a book signing party for me. The only thing he said about the book was: wasn’t it funny that the printer mistyped “Rodin” as “robin”. Painfully, I still remember that. What bothered me wasn’t that he was making fun of the book, but that my getting published had hurt our friendship.

After I discussed the film “The Pawnbroker” at the Lincoln Center and the New York Times wrote an article about this and about our group, The Forum for the Psychoanalytic Study of Film, a book agent approached me about putting together a volume of film essays. I gave him a batch of the papers that I’d already written and he told me they had too many fifty-cent words in them. He wanted me to make change? He wasn’t talking about the pieces being jargony, just too literate for what he saw as the intended audience. I think he didn’t buy me lunch. When I’ve run into him from time to time over the years he chums me up with, “Hey, how about that film book?” He doesn’t give up easily. He’s a friend of one of my close friends. Watch out for the friends of your friends.

Much of the writing I do these days is on-demand: I agree to discuss a paper, or to respond to a film. Over the years I’ve found something that I think of as my voice. A little showy; a little ironic; a little bit full of myself, but not too much. Even so, every time I sit down to face the blank screen I have this moment of dread that this time I’m going to come up empty. And then, voila, I find something to say. It’s like pulling rabbits out of a hat, except I wasn’t sure they were there! But it’s also like making it across the high-wire, defying death once again. I live to write another day. But isn’t that what writing is all about?