Sharyn Wolf, a practicing psychotherapist in New York City, is the author of the memoir, Love Shrinks: A Memoir of a Marriage Counselor’s Divorce (May 3, 2011).
Prior to writing her memoir, Wolf wrote five self-help books on dating and relationships, including This Old Spouse: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Restoring, Renovating, and Rebuilding Your Relationship (June 14, 2007), So You Want to Get Married: Guerilla Tactics for Turning a Date into a Mate (May 1, 1999), and 50 Ways to Find a Lover (Jan., 1992).
Wolf, a New York State licensed psychotherapist, has been a frequent media commentator on celebrity marriage and divorce. She has appeared on Oprah several times, including a segment where she appeared one on one with Oprah for an entire hour, and has been interviewed by Katie Couric.
Wolf has contributed to numerous newspapers and magazines, such as The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times, to name a few. Her work has also appeared in Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and Glamour.
Before becoming a psychotherapist, Wolf was a jazz, big band and R&B vocalist for 17 years, performing as an opening act for such artists as B.B. King, Taj Mahal, The Climax Blues Band, and comedian David Brenner.
Derek Alger: Contrary to my initial impression, you’re not a native New Yorker.
Sharyn Wolf: I think that I’m a native New Yorker who wasn’t born here. At least, this is the only place I’ve ever felt comfortable. I was born in Springfield, MA where I was expelled from nursery school. In high school, my home room was a little desk outside the principal’s office. I was voted Class Night Owl and possibly Detention Queen. Basically, I was funky, depressed, miserable, traumatized and on a rant about social justice. So, of course, I was always a New Yorker.
My father played the tenor guitar and banjo and sang. He also dressed up in women’s clothes and mimed “A Good Man is Hard to Find” for Community Theater. So, I took up guitar and sang Phil Och’s songs in Veteran’s homes.
DA: You ended up at Hofstra University for a spell.
SW: I had such a bad rep at home that I refused to go to college unless they could find a college that no one from my high school was going to. I had some drama in my life and Hofstra had a good Drama Dept so I ended up there. Unfortunately, the older brother of one of my classmates went to Hofstra, so word somehow got out that I was trouble or troubled or troublesome…something like that.
I was a Drama major, but I left after the first year because I was unhappy and failing. But I had a pivotal experience there that changed a lot for me. For a class assignment a classmate got up and sang, “What Did I Have I Don’t Have Now?” I had a very strong reaction, and I desperately wanted to be able to hold a microphone and be sultry. I took a job as a telephone operator and a couple of years later I went back to school — finished my 3 years in 2 years with honors. Something was clicking.
DA: You made your debut as a rather special waitress.
SW: Upon graduation I had no plan so I moved back home with my mother and my new stepfather. My father had died at 41 of a massive heart attack. My stepfather wanted me out so badly that he started reading the Want Ads in the local paper. He saw an ad for a singing waitress and dragged me to it. The audition consisted of facing the wall and singing, “If I loved you” in the loudest voice I had. I was loud and I got the job. Every night I put on a short red skirt, white apron, support stockings, served full prime rib dinners and sang, “Rockabye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody.”
DA: Your singing ability eventually did get you out of the restaurant.
SW: One night as I stood with a gravy boat in one hand and a side order of onion rings in the other, the piano player said, “I think you can do more than this. I know of a trio that’s looking for a lead singer. Do you want to audition?” I got that job. Then, I got fired for lack of experience. I got another job, and, again, was fired for lack of experience. I kept getting jobs and losing jobs. I just didn’t quit. That was the only thing I did right. There were Sunday jam sessions in town, and I attended one. I sang two tunes I’d never choose again— tunes that show how green you are — “Lady is a Tramp” and “Summertime.”
On that day the comedian, David Brenner’s, producer was also there. Brenner’s opening act had just quit, and the producer offered the job to me, starting in two days. I needed charts, two gowns, photos — I found a friend who wrote me 27 charts in a day. Everyone said back then, when Brenner was popular, “What’s he like? What’s he like?” But, I never ever saw him. And, when I did, all he ever said to me was, “How’s the crowd?” After that, I opened for a bunch of comedians. Then, I had a total repeat incident. I had just met a sax player who was opening for B.B. King with his band, and shoot off of the James Cotton Blues Band. To impress me, he invited me to his rehearsal that day. While they were doing a tune on stage, the producer yelled out, “There’s a vocal part missing here….it’s missing!” The sax player yelled back, “Sharyn can sing it.” I went on stage and added in the part. I opened for B.B. King that night. I really had luck being in the right place at the right time.
DA: In a sense, we could say singing led you to poetry.
SW: These kinds of jobs were very lonely. I did one set (with Brenner only twenty minutes) and my work day was over. One day I went to a book store, and I bought a copy of “The Paris Review” about which I knew nothing. There was a series of poems in it by Bill Knott, and I nearly fell on the floor when I read them. I had no idea poetry could be like that. I had that education of Tennyson and John Donne. I was so blown away that I immediately decided to become a poet. When I decide something I work very hard. I wrote poems every day, and, naïve as I was, I sent my first eight to Bill Knott. He wrote me back a lovely postcard, suggested a teacher, and I did what he said. I just kept sending my poems out, and it was 10, 20, 50 poems that I had published.
DA: How did you first come up with the idea of teaching courses about dating and relationships.
SW: I was singing and writing poetry, and, during this time, I developed a friendship with Tony Cenammo, the evening radio personality on a very popular Boston station. He was teaching a class on Ellington at the Boston Center for Adult Education. The director asked him to teach a class called, “Fifty Ways to Find a Lover.” He asked me to co-teach. Actually, he didn’t want to do it, but he said he’d do it if I’d create it. So I did. It was very popular. He quit after the first workshop, and I went on to teach that workshop, “72 Ways to Flirt” and a host of others for the next 20 years, across the United States. Because I was writing poetry, I had learned to always take notes, so I took notes on every workshop — every problem discussed, every remedy imagined.
DA: And then you started writing self-help books based on your workshops?
SW: It’s all a bit confusing — everything happening during the same years. I moved to New York City while I was teaching the workshops and a friend said to me. “Give up the poetry and write something you can sell. Write about your workshops.” Since I tend to do what people tell me to do, I did that. I started writing a book named after my workshop called, “Fifty Ways to Find a Lover.” Not knowing that writing a book was difficult and getting an agent was even more difficult, I bought a book on how to do that, followed the chapters and got myself an agent. But I got a lot of rejections. Nan Talese said, “The author is very cute but she has no credibility.” I did sell the book, but I took the rejections seriously. And, even though I didn’t know a social worker or what it was, I applied to Hunter School of Social Work and was accepted. So now I was on my way to getting credentials, and I started writing, “Guerrilla Dating Tactics” which I sold to Penguin in two days.
DA: You received quite a compliment from Oprah Winfrey.
SW: I taught a small workshop on flirting in New Haven. The local paper printed an article. I received a call asking for another interview from someone who had seen that one. It came out in The National Enquirer. The next day I got a call from “Oprah.” They were doing a show on opening lines. They had four experts and wanted to add me. I was writing a chapter on opening lines for my next book. The interview went so well, they dumped the other four and put me on alone with Oprah for an hour.
The first thing she said to me was, “I like your red hair.” After that I was on 8 more times in the next three years. People recognized me in the street during that period of my life. I got a movie deal for the book. I was invited to all kinds of fancy events.
One day, it was over. The day after that it was really over.
DA: It seems like psychotherapy came naturally for you as a profession.
SW: I discovered that I actually was a psychotherapist. I just wasn’t paid for it. I didn’t really understand the lingo or anything like that, but I had this intuition for helping people. My own therapist at that time explained to me that I just naturally knew what to do. I worked by instinct, entered the problem, and helped to relax the problem so there was room for solutions. Plus, I’d had such a difficult time from childhood that there was almost no problem someone could bring in that I hadn’t been through at some point in my life. It is great work, almost always exciting — entering an unknown psychological landscape and getting to look around and help rearrange it.
DA: You also provided crucial support after the attacks on 9/11.
SW: I ended up working in many capacities. After 9/11, I immediately began working with survivors and the families of those lost. At first, we had to do missing person’s reports even though we all knew the outcome. Then I did death certificates. The stories I lived with then changed me forever. I remember one young man who came in with a photo of his wife in a bridal gown. They had been married for less than two weeks. He was dissociated — completely lost. This work was excruciating. Yet, I continued to work with survivors for ten years. A major change occurred in my work. I had been working with single people on how to find mates and now I was working with trauma and bereavement. Now, my practice is very mixed.
DA: What compelled you to take a solo bike trip from Astoria, OR to Crescent City, CA?
SW: I lived on 11th street. So, during the months after 9/11, the only way I could get to work was by bicycle, so I bought a bike. I couldn’t seem to get through the feelings, so I just kept riding. Eight months later I did an AIDS ride from Bear Mountain to Boston. A year after 9/11, I rode with a group of survivors and firefighters (one for every firefighter lost) from Ground Zero to the Pentagon. After that, I learned how to ride with big bike panniers and my tent and my sleeping bag on my bike. I took a solo trip from Astoria, Oregon to Crescent City, California, sleeping in hiker/biker camps. Just me. It was the most exhilarating experience of my life.
DA: It must have been a difficult decision to write your memoir, Love Shrinks: A Memoir of a Marriage Counselor’s Divorce.
SW: After writing five pop psychology books, I wanted very much to return to my roots and write something poetic—not poetry. I wanted to write a memoir, but I didn’t know if anyone would want someone like me to write it. I actually finished the memoir right before 9/11, found an agent who loved it, and sent it out that August. Of course this was a terrible time to try to sell a book and no one bought it. I was, in a way, relieved because the book was about a psychotherapist who had appeared on Oprah with her books, including “How to Stay Lovers for Life” yet she couldn’t keep her own marriage together. It went into my troubled childhood of sexual abuse and the two marriages I had before this one. I was dispensing advice on how to have a good relationship and I couldn’t keep my own together. It was so revealing that I wasn’t sure I should ever share it with anyone. And, I didn’t really want to hurt my ex-husband.
I knew my husband would never read it because he’d never read anything I wrote. Even when I begged. I remember once putting a chapter of an old book in his lap and begging him to read it. He promised he would. An hour later I returned and he was sleeping with the first page in his hand.
“I don’t know anything about books”, he said, though he was brilliant.
“But you know me.” I answered, and we left it there.
DA: What are you working on now?
SW: Well, I wrote my last book on marriage in 1997, and I know so much more about what makes a happy marriage now, I have done many years of research from Plato to the present, plus a great deal of processing and observing. So I’m almost done with a book called, “How to Have Your Second Marriage First: 52 Truths that Happy Couples Know. It’s 52 lessons filled with practices happy couples blend into the foundation of their relationship. They are generally simple tasks, but they are never easy. Most couples don’t have the discipline to learn and use good relationship skills. But, after reading this book, at the very least, they’ll know what they are and what they should be doing next time around. Or the time after that. I’m excited about it because I think I’ve really captured how couples remain engaged, stimulated and interested in each other.