An Interview with Fran Dorf
Fran Dorf is a professional writer and a psychotherapist (MA, LCSW) and a member of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). As a therapist, she offers private, confidential counseling to those struggling with depression, anxiety, relationship issues, and trauma. Dorf has particular expertise with grief and loss and with those struggling with creative efforts. As a creative coach, she helps people come to grips with the fact that to do creative work “you must have the hide of an elephant and the soul of a child….”
As a professional writer, Dorf is most notably the author of three acclaimed, internationally published novels: A Reasonable Madness (Birch Lane/Signet); Flight (Dutton/Signet) and Saving Elijah (Putnam). Her articles, essays, and poetry have appeared in anthologies, literary magazines, and online periodicals such as McSweeney’s, Forbes, Brainchild, Bottom Line, and Ars Medica. Dorf’s’ full-length play, “The Angel of Forgetting,” a family drama with a psychological (and supernatural) mystery at its core, had an enthusiastic reception at the Lark Theatre in NYC in April 2015, and another drama, “There You Are,” received rave reviews in its debut in July 2015 at the St. Louis Actors’ Studio Neil LaBute New Theater Festival.
Fran Dorf displays her interests with her psychotherapy website and blog and her professional writing website. Dorf speaks to groups on “Coping with Loss,” “Creating Happiness,” and “Write to Heal” workshops, from one hour to one day, to help people use expressive writing as a path to inner healing and to cope with their struggles, losses, illness, grief, and trauma.
We would like to thank Fran Dorf for taking the time to speak with us about her rich career.
1. Why did you choose the field of social work rather than psychology, counseling or another helping profession? What circumstances or influences led you to pursue a career as a social worker?
My pursuit of this field has been a lifelong effort, a back and forth between my two main interests in life, psychology and writing, and a real case of something I’d have to call “life intervenes.” I got a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1975, then got a master’s in psychology in 1985, thinking I would go on to get a PhD in psychology, and eventually have a private practice. The master’s degree sparked an idea for a novel about a psychiatrist and his patient, so instead of going on in school I returned to something I’d done in my teens, creative writing. I used a lot of what I’d learned in the study of psychology in graduate school.
In 1990/1991 my first novel, A Reasonable Madness (Birch Lane hardcover/Signet paperback), was published and sold very well, in America and internationally. Writing became my career. In 1993, my second novel, Flight (Dutton/Signet) was published, and I had a two -book contract with the publisher. Then my three-year-old son, Michael, became ill and died seven months later. It took me a long time just to get out of bed (metaphorically speaking), let alone think about going back to a career. When I did go back to writing, I eventually wrote a novel inspired by my loss, Saving Elijah, published in 2000 by Putnam. Honestly, the process of loss and the catharsis of writing that novel saved my life, and I developed an abiding interest and expertise in the writing process as a way to deal with trauma. I decided to go back to social work school in 1999, basically because I saw myself as too old to get a PhD, especially since I was planning to continue to write. After the book came out, there were more distractions, film options and so on. I abandoned the MSW, and then didn’t return to it until 2007. They accepted all my credits from 1999. Ah, but then I got breast cancer, so had to delay the second year of the MSW again.
2. How has your career grown and developed over time?
By the time I finally got my MSW in 2008, I was already 53 years old. (I was not the only “elderly” student in the class.) I worked at an outpatient clinic for four years to get the hours to get my LCSW, which I got in 2013.
Since I always knew that I was interested in doing clinical work with clients (rather than running a program or something like that), all my internships and my work following my degree were in clinics. This experience was very valuable, in that I got to work with a variety of people from different walks of life, and on a variety of issues.
I now have a small private practice and three groups, two with bereaved parents, and one for senior spousal bereavement. I also facilitate writing-for-healing workshops for bereaved, addicted, homeless, and other populations. I take an eclectic approach to working with people, using standard techniques such mindfulness, DBT, CBT, narrative therapy, IMAGO, but given my age and level of experience before I formally took this on, I rely heavily on my instincts, and sometimes, if clients are interested, I employ creative techniques such as writing exercises I’ve developed over time, techniques I’ve used myself in my creative life. I get a lot of creative people in my practice, writers, artists, and so on.
3. What do you see as the top social issues facing social workers today?
Lack of funding for social programs, low pay so that it’s difficult to keep good clinicians in a clinic. I felt overwhelmed by the amount of, and focus on, paperwork, when I worked in a clinic.
4. What advice would you give to new social workers entering the field?
Be in it to help people. Have and keep both moral and ethical standards. Use what works. Examine your own prejudices. Know your own psychology.
5. What are two or three top recommendations that can help social work graduates keep their skills current and continue learning after graduation?
If you’re working in a social service organization, you do have to be sufficiently respectful and know when to back down, but only the other hand, if you find fault with a certain policy, or especially if you feel the policy is harmful to your client(s), stand up for what you believe in.
Here’s an example of one way this played out in my situation: A few years into my work in a very large social work agency, where I was working as a contract worker with individuals and groups, I realized that they were only counting the actual hours spent face to face with clients toward my accumulating hours. Not only were they not paying me for hours and hours of work each day, spent doing paperwork, making phone calls, etc., they weren’t counting any of these hours toward getting my license.
What is permissible in terms of counting toward licensure varies from state to state, but I called the NASW office in my state and was told that ALL social work hours could be counted according to law in my state, including paperwork, phone calls, reports, case conference, etc.
I got a letter from the president of the NASW chapter detailing what was permissible, and I pointed out to my supervisor how valuable a worker I was, and that the agency was interpreting the law in the most restrictive way that was hurtful to the worker rather than being helpful. They were shocked that anyone had brought this up. Not only were they under the impression that the law said they were only allowed to count the face to face hours, they had done it this way for years.
It was difficult, but I stuck to my guns and pointed out that it would have taken me ten years to accumulate enough hours. Given my age, I didn’t have time to do that. In the end they did change their rules, and I got the hours in four years rather than ten.
There are a variety of interesting certificate programs you can get into that will help you hone your techniques and also help you get referrals, if you’re looking to do clinical work.
6. What is the key strength you bring to your career and how would you advise new graduates to mine their own strengths to further their careers?
My experience and creativity. I would advise new graduates to be open to living life fully, and learning good lessons about life from whatever comes their way.
Research in positive psychology shows that a mindset like this can contribute to happiness, anyway.
7. What can social worker students do to improve their competitive edge in the current job market?
Be professional yet approachable, courteous but strong. Seek out a wide variety of experiences and reading, personal and professional, which will contribute to your value as a worker and a person.
8. Social work can be rewarding but challenging as well. What self-care strategies do you recommend for new social workers?
I meditate five times a week at least. Get into some sort of psychotherapy yourself, so that you have knowledge of how your own issues can intrude, and how your clients’ issues can intrude upon you. Also, have a balance in your life: I have a family, friends, and hobbies, plus a half-time practice of psychotherapy, and a half-time practice of writing. Try to find something outside of your work that moves you and involves you in a collaborative effort.
9. Can you give an example of an interesting project or case that you have worked on and your role in helping to achieve a positive outcome?
I feel particularly good when I am working with clients and I see progress that is going to help them move forward more successfully in their lives.
10. Is there any further advice you would share with students concerning social work as a career?
Get a good supervisor. The supervisor relationship is very important for people just starting out.