Kisses: The Writing Lives of Irv and Marilyn Yalom

November 5, 2007
Presentation by Irv Yalom, M.D. and Marilyn Yalom, Ph.D.
Forum arranged by Laurel Tielis
Summary written by Nancy Wilson

He thinks writing workshops should have resident psychologists because editors can harm writers and their work.

She is brutal with the red pencil.

These were two of the observations revealed by best-selling authors Irv and Marilyn Yalom during their discussion at November’s Bay Area Editors’ Forum in San Francisco. The room was full with those who wished to connect with the world-renowned husband and wife authors. The Yaloms took time out of their schedules to talk about their backgrounds, process of craft, their luck in working with editors, and their current projects.

Irv, a best-selling author of fiction and non-fiction, is a noted psychotherapist and Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Stanford University. His fiction centers on the philosophical, universal principles of the human spirit in psychotherapy. Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy and the novel When Nietzsche Wept are among his many publications. Marilyn is a senior scholar at the Institute for Gender Research at Stanford. Her books include A History of the Wife, A History of the Breast, and Birth of the Chess Queen. Her newest work, The American Resting Place: Four Hundred Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds, co-authored with their photographer son Reid Yalom, is scheduled for publication this year by Houghton Mifflin. Their works have been published in dozens of languages.

On Reading

Learning that both have been avid readers from a young age, spending their spare time at the library, one imagines there was plenty for them to talk about when they met during their impressionable, excitable teen years. And naturally one wonders how they’ve gotten along since, scholars and writers who are lovers and beloveds. How has their marriage held up?

There is a French expression, “En amour, il y a toujours celui qui embrasse et celui qui offre la joue.” In love, there is always the one who kisses and the one who offers the cheek. The inference is that the roles change. The Yaloms seem to reflect this insight.

Irv appeared relaxed. He was talkative as he scanned the forum audience and began with his background. For him, the public library was the place to be. “It was safe there,” he said. As a youth, he started at A and worked his way alphabetically through the biographies.

Marilyn was straightforward, pleasant, and thoughtful. Occasionally she echoed Irv’s sentiments, but did not pave his way nor squeeze in to fill the cracks.

On Writing

Irv said that he always thought he was a good writer, even though his teachers disagreed. His first published works were papers in his field of expertise, then a textbook. He was told that his textbook read like a novel because it contained stories that demonstrated the skills of psychotherapy. It was an initial sign of changes to come. He told the forum audience that he rises and writes early, ends at noon, and then sees his patients. He said he writes all day long in his head. Like many writers, he expands his imagination from people and experiences that surround him. During the maturation of his work, a second, further insight was key to him: Deeply introspective topics belong as fiction. He is taking notes on the seventeenth-century metaphysicist Spinoza in preparation for a new work.

To become a writer, Marilyn had to undergo a shift in consciousness. She said that the idea of being a writer was far removed from her self-concept as an academic, wife, and mother. She said that looking back, though, it appears to be an organic process. She received her Ph.D. in literature, and then published academic articles. The fullness of her life’s identity began to take shape. Marilyn admitted she is fanatical and so must have a set schedule each day. She considers herself a full-time writer, even taking field trips to enrich her ideas and books.

On Editing

He rewrites until he feels he cannot make the work any better. Then he sends it to a professional editor. He has had misgivings about editors assigned through publishing houses, feeling that publishing houses don’t perform to his satisfaction in the editing process. He has benefited more from working with a superior line editor rather than a conceptual editor.

Marilyn has had good luck with editors, has found it useful to rely on friends and colleagues for their opinions, and long ago, happily realized that she could edit an editor’s work.

They admitted they are first-readers of each other’s manuscripts. What do they think? He said she needs to make her work more accessible to her audience. She said she has gotten him to use her long-standing literary agent, Sandra Dijkstra. Un baiser.

Perhaps the most illuminating comments came when each mentioned how they approach the all-encompassing aspect of voice in their work. Unwittingly they offered intriguing clues about themselves, and thus their marriage, when he said voice happens for him unconsciously, and she said she plans it all out as she hones her introduction.

Nancy Wilson is a creative writer for marketing and business communications. Her email is



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