How Freud’s Fundamental Rule of Psychoanalysis Applies to the Writing Experience

How does Freud’s fundamental rule of psychoanalysis apply to the life of a writer? DeSales Harrison explores how his former training as a psychoanalyst helped him craft his novel—and the writing process in general.


The Inexhaustible Weirdness of Psychoanalysis

by DeSales Harrison

My older brother reports that when I was eight, I announced my plan to become an English professor. In punishment for this insufferable confidence, the Fates saw to it that in the fullness of time, I would become an English professor. Midway, however, through the dark wood of graduate study, I veered from the straight path, took the exit for New York City, and started training to become a psychoanalyst.

No one who reads my novel The Waters and the Wild will be surprised to learn this. The protagonist is an established but tormented psychoanalyst in New York, and his early training resembles my own. But when I think about those years, I am surprised. I live far from New York, in a semi-rural Midwestern town, and I teach modern poetry. I can’t quite believe that the person who lived that life is also the person living this one.

[Enter the 87th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition.]

And yet, sometimes, I think those years gave me everything. Certainly I credit them with giving me the equilibrium necessary to negotiate the demands of an academic career, the complexities of family life, the appalling velocity of time, and the lengthening shadows of mortality.

But they gave me something else, something not exactly an epiphany, not exactly answers to the questions of how to live and what to do, but something a monk might recognize as “rule of life,” a habit of living derived from and responsive to an intimation of order beneath or within the chaos of daily life. I’m grateful for the grip psychoanalysis gave me, but I’m even more grateful for this intimation, and ultimately, for the insight it gave me into that irremediable perversion known as the desire to write.

My arrival at that rule of life was by way of encountering what Freud called “the fundamental rule of psychoanalysis.”

Freud, in his essay “On Beginning the Treatment” described this rule as the requirement that, furing free association [1], the patient must say whatever comes to mind, and not seek to hold anything back. That is, the patient must promise “absolute honesty.”

You will be tempted to say that this or that is irrelevant here, or is quite unimportant, or nonsensical, so that there is no need to say it. You must never give into these criticisms, but must say it in spite of them—indeed, you must say it precisely because you feel an aversion to doing so.

I imagine that Freud’s first patients, already desperate or adventurous or credulous enough to commit themselves to an untried and experimental treatment, thought this “rule” no stumbling block at all. After all, who didn’t spend most days struggling to keep from saying what was on their mind? Who didn’t long for a tireless confidant?

But Freud goes on to assert that every patient—every single patient—contrives ceaselessly, helplessly, to circumvent this rule. If you have any doubts about this, try free associating in the presence of someone else, even your most trusted friend.

Therapeutic practices have multiplied and filled the earth since Freud’s day, but in the world of psychoanalysis proper, the fundamental rule continues to hold sway. For the analyst, it means that she must remain unruffled and alert in the face of what the patient says. For the patient, it means that he must strive, however imperfectly, however unwillingly, to speak in spite of—or as Freud puts it—because of, his aversions.

There are of course problems with the fundamental rule. It is impossible to predict, for example, where it will lead patient and analyst. Complete analyses are famously long and costly—in money, in time, and in the anguish of confronting what one has always sought to avoid. Analysts with the appropriate training, and the institutions that train them, may be in danger of extinction. The very possibility of psychoanalysis may dissolve in the culture of managed care and cost-effective quick fixes. Most insurance companies regard psychoanalytic treatment with blinking incomprehension.

This incomprehension is not a new development. My first “patient” was a 92-year-old man, a resident at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale, one of several residents who had volunteered to speak for an hour a week with beginning candidates. “What are we doing here?” he asked. Search me, I could have answered but explained that I was training in psychoanalysis. “Psychoanalysis?” said my patient, who was almost as old as psychoanalysis itself. “Isn’t that like studying phrenology?”

Maybe now it is. The claims of psychoanalysis can seem antique, discredited and discreditable. But the farther I get from those years, the more I think that Freud’s fundamental rule, and all that might follow from it, has yet to register or sink in.

The intervening century has proven (at least to me) that the promises held out by psychoanalysis—which is to say, by a secular discipline of non-judgmental listening—are not so much implausible or incredible as simply intolerable. The idea that the appropriate response to suffering is listening—and not, for instance, contempt, public shaming, revulsion, incarceration, deportation, or death—is simply more than we can bear. In other words the real problem with the fundamental rule is that it works.

This news—the real-time, lived discovery that the fundamental rule works—strikes the patient, sooner or later, no matter who you are, as the Worst News in the World. It means that you don’t know where you’re headed. It means that you do not want what you think you want. It means that you do not understand what you are talking about. It means that the self you recognize has been shaped, over the course of your life, through the repudiation and disavowal of vital energies, fantasies and loves.

Precisely for this reason, however, the Worst News In the World finally reveals itself to be the Best News. Welcoming back previously disavowed desires, fears and predilections, you see new possibilities for joy and responsiveness open up. You are, in some deep but literal sense, reunited with your true loves.

This is beautiful in theory, and in my experience, just as beautiful in practice. But if, as I have said, the desire to write is a perverse desire—say a masochism hiding inside a narcissism hiding inside an obsession—like other perversions it calls out for satisfaction rather than cure. It is one of those afflictions, as George Herbert put it, “too happy in its own unhappiness.” Books aren’t people, and anyway what book worth reading isn’t the product of a methodical violation of psychoanalysis’ fundamental rule?

A Spark to a Story: Listen to Your Instincts to Find Story Ideas

Writing what comes to mind may be a good way to jump-start a stalled morning’s work, but it will never turn out anything but a first draft. The final draft, if it appears at all, crowns a campaign of systematic violence. Only by means of radical surgery and ruthless darling-killing (we are told) does the final figure emerge.

T.S. Eliot, in a famous fit of snark, once said: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.”

Maybe it follows from this that writing is an escape from that “turning loose of emotion” that is free association. Maybe the fundamental rule of good writing is that it violates the fundamental rule of psychoanalysis.

Such conclusions would clarify matters, and in fact can be encountered in familiar psychoanalytic commonplaces—the claim, for instance, that analysis can free the patient from suffering, but remains agnostic when it comes to the question of what the patient should do or make with this freedom.

These tidy formulations, however, ignore an uncanny resemblance between writers and patients. After all, for writer and patient alike, the daily struggle is the struggle for the right word, the mot juste. Both writer and patient hold the same vigil, waiting for the unexpected word or phrase, one they recognize as right precisely because they couldn’t have anticipated what it would be. In recognizing the strange and strangely just formulation, writer and patient recognize furthermore that their world is a world of unfinished sentences.

The analyst gives her patient the patient permission to finish the sentences he begins. A long time may pass before the patient can accept that permission. At first his sentences may seem to him the utterances a rank stranger. But a skillful analyst will find a way to help that stranger feel at home in the skin he’s already in. You could say that the completion of the analysis is itself like the completion of a single, very long sentence. However circuitous and complex and idiosyncratic it might be, it always arrives at the same conclusion: “That stranger… is me.”

The writer too inhabits a world of unfinished sentences, and she too awaits their completion. But the writer here is less like the patient than she is like the analyst, attempting to discern an order of which the writing is unaware, impaired as it is by obscure longings for something it can’t quite express.

The writer poses questions, maintains what Freud calls an “evenly suspended attention” over the field of possibilities, absorbs and metabolizes the work’s self-disgust or self-delusion. Most momentously, the writer listens to the words on the page and waits for a coherence to emerge.

So while on a practical level, rigorous art and free association may form opposite poles of the language world, I wonder if there isn’t something—call it a unified field—that encompasses both of these poles, a background reality behind any local revelations vouchsafed to the patient in the session, or the writer at her desk.

This overarching reality might be expressed like this: Whatever your story, whatever unfinished sentences you’ve been sentenced to, your words are not your own. Like your desires, they aren’t anything you chose or made, but like your desires, they make up who you are. They are older than you are, and they will outlast you.

This realization is a dizzying one. Like the patient’s good news it seems at first, only bad—news of a primary alienation from the very substance of the self.

But arriving at this recognition was for me the pearl without price, the intimation of an order concealed in chaos, the everything that those years of psychoanalytic training gave me. Because our words are not our own, because they are older than us and will outlast us, because the number of unfinished sentences is infinite—language through its ancient inexhaustible variety safeguards its strangeness. It is on that strangeness that the soul feeds. We do not know what the future will require of us—what attitudes, what thoughts, what words in what order—but it is this strangeness of words that makes possible even unimaginable worlds.

[1] Editor’s note: Freud described the process and purpose of free association in the following terms: “The importance of free association is that the patients spoke for themselves, rather than repeating the ideas of the analyst; they work through their own material, rather than parroting another’s suggestions.”


DeSales Harrison is an associate professor of modern poetry and acting director of the Creative Writing Program at Oberlin College. He earned his BA from Yale University, his MA from Johns Hopkins University, and his PhD from Harvard University. He studied psychoanalysis at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research in New York. He is married to the literary critic Laura Baudot, has four children, and spends part of the year near Nevers, France.


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