Judith Handelsman Smith is the author of three books including GROWING MYSELF: A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY THROUGH GARDENING. After creating a mountain sanctuary for meditators, and teaching Vipassana meditation for a decade, she has refocused on writing. Her fourth book is a memoir of her lifelong spiritual awakening. Her blog is the most current outpouring of her writer’s voice, one that is personal, meaningful and real. Judith’s memoir is one of my favorites of all time, and so it’s no surprise I love her blog, too. Please visit www.deepscribejudith.com.

Self-Doubt/ Self-Knowledge/ Changing my Relationship to Writing/ Doing the Work of Writing/ Being a Professional Creative/ Glamour Isn’t Real

As a writer and an artist, the only time I am truly happy is when I am creating.  Creativity is intoxicating and not separate from my life. The creative process, in whatever medium, is my vehicle for satisfaction and empowerment. Everything I do is art.

I realized the truth of this when I first appeared on a TV talk show to promote my first book. Writing the book gave me satisfaction. Talking about the book, after the fact, tasted like sand in my mouth. When I realized the discrepancy between process and PR, I knew where my joy came from.

Writing always came naturally to me, even as a little girl. I was born with an ease and fluidity in writing, I unwittingly took for granted. I started writing professionally forty years ago, when I was in my early twenties. I had immediate success getting my first book published with a top-tier publisher in New York. I sold pieces to well-known magazines, and wrote and read a daily radio column for a major news network. I was doing well.

I believed being a successful writer should make me feel good about myself, but it only masked the wound I carried inside. In truth, I felt less-than, not enough, unable to take in my success, and afraid to fail. The glamour part was seductive, but it wasn’t real. It seemed real when I had books published, won awards, made appearances, signed autographs, gave speeches, and taught classes. But, it didn’t solve my problems.

At some point, I became inundated with unconscious material, as Jung would put it. I became depressed, fatigued, and overwhelmingly sad. I developed severe back problems and crippling pain. I had an abortion, got divorced, and lived in physical, emotional and spiritual crisis for years.

I knew I needed to heal myself in order to save my own life. Meditation and psychotherapy became my two strongest modes of inner work. It was obvious to me that being a writer and author did not make me feel like somebody. It couldn’t. I didn’t respect myself as a writer, or as a human being.
I began to address the hole in my being. Among other issues, I admitted I wasn’t living up to my potential as a writer. A big part of me felt like a hack. I had been writing in a certain mode for many years and got stuck in a good place. Inside me was a book calling out to be written that would be a huge departure from the kind of writing I was doing. I vowed to do everything in my power to birth that book into form.

Writing became my spiritual practice. I dove deep within myself to enrich my writing skills so I couldn’t blame myself if I failed. I stopped being afraid of my ambition and harnessed it to generate productive action. “Just do it,” became my answer to every fear that arose.

During the eighties, I gobbled up the new books about writing on both sides of the brain to access my creativity. At the time, these techniques were cutting edge. They taught me how to mine the personal gold of my feelings and put them into words.

With these methods and my enthusiasm, I changed my relationship to writing. I made myself vulnerable and stopped playing it safe. In this way, I recharged my creativity and found a boldness and iconoclastic bravery I never had before. I discovered I could be myself and write.

During this time, I developed my own curriculum and taught writing and poetry workshops from an inner point of view. I called my workshop, The Inner Game of Writing, and my college class, Writing as an Artistic Experience. When I decided to host a writing salon at my home, writers and poets from throughout the area came out of isolation.

In the salon, we’d each write a word or phrase on a piece of paper, and put it into a hat. Someone would pick out a topic, and we’d write for ten minutes, then read out loud what we wrote, round-robin style. Each writer had a vastly different take on the same topic. For a couple of hours, we’d do marathon writing and generate a lot of material.

We gained confidence writing together and had fun loosening up. We were all students, and we were all teachers. The only rule was no criticism. Some writers had been paralyzed for years after being picked apart by other writers in more traditional settings.

Navigating Within/Tracking/Trusting Myself/ Why do I Write?/Making a Contribution

I am still wary of buying into any mystique or fantasy about what it means to be a writer. I made that mistake in the past. The glamour part minimizes the struggle we all go through in our efforts to get the words right. When Meredith asked me to do The 5-Question Interview, I almost said no. I didn’t want to set myself up as “being a writer.” I keep that self-aggrandizing posture in check, even if I am being self-deprecating and unpretentious.

In order to do this, I monitor my daydreams, plans and fantasies so they don’t get out of hand. I use meditation techniques to maintain a witness relationship to my thoughts (inner talk and inner images), and my body sensations that correspond to feelings such as fear, anger and sadness. I call these categories the components of my inner movie. In this way, I know whether I am getting carried away with desire for outer recognition and inflated financial success. I stop, breathe deeply, and come back to writing.

I offer myself up as a conduit because that is what I believe what I am. I ask for help in orchestrating the reader’s experience, and trust the help will come. When I find myself creating the illusion that being a writer makes me worthwhile, I switch my attention back to writing. Writing is the only answer to being a writer. The rest is hollow.

I finally trust myself and my ability as a writer. I write in service. The words come through me. It is obvious “I” am not doing it. For me, writing is a co-creation. Defining where the inspiration comes from, whether it’s from the muse, the subconscious, or from beyond this material world, remains conjecture. What is real is knowing I do not do it alone.

Yes, I am a highly skilled writer and editor. I have read the best writing my whole life, so I know what it sounds like. But, ultimately, I know that the verve, the vitality, and the voice is a mystery.

This attitude is more difficult to attain and sustain when, as a professional creative, I need to sell my work in the marketplace so people will read it. I keep reminding myself, this is not about me. However small my contribution may be, my intent is to use my gift to illuminate, uplift, inspire and heal. When I keep this intent in mind, the creative act itself becomes enough.

Darkness/Getting Real/ Inner Focus/From Suffering to Freedom/Satisfaction

For most people, the tendency is to focus outside for ways to feel better. “If only I were a writer or an author, I would be someone.”

If only never works. This projection becomes a subtle addiction that temporarily relieves disappointment, rejection, fear and shame. The big lie is that worldly success, in terms of adulation, money, power, fame, makes people happy. If I am writing and enjoying the creative process, there is no need to look outward to distract myself. Satisfaction from creativity is a prize in itself; the pearl of great price.

For me, writing well temporarily eclipses the general unsatisfactoriness of life. Nothing on the outside lasts for long. I watch what happens when I get what I want. The victory is fleeting. It is never enough. Difficulties and dissatisfactions arise. The mind always wants more.

Outside is seductive. Turning within is hard work. The unexamined poison and pain of a lifetime can wreak havoc with writing. When I face and feel what hurts inside, it shifts the balance of power. I cannot lie to myself if I am being self-aware and acknowledging what is dark inside me. Things that used to frighten me don’t scare me anymore. Deep psycho-spiritual work re-wires the subconscious.

If I am not writing, or I am unhappy with my writing, my first step is to look within to see what is going on. Instead of turning away, I face whatever it is and feel it through. I don’t try to get rid of it. If I try to push it away, I am at war with myself and that hurts.

Self-examination is an ongoing process, so resolution may not happen right away. But, I keep reading the book of my own mind and heart, and continue to make conscious, my unconscious drives and secrets. I shine the light of awareness on them. This is what Jung called Shadow Work.

At its core, a faithful and ardent meditation practice can transform suffering and stress into release and freedom. Meditation builds deep spiritual happiness independent of outer circumstances. This kind of happiness creates a baseline of clarity with which to face any and all conditions. Meditation is not a quick fix, but it is the deepest fix there is, and nothing can ever take it away.

The pull from within has to be undeniable in order to have the motivation and staying-power to commit to writing. It took me decades to be able to say, “I am a writer” and feel it was the truth. I used to say, “Hi. My name is Judith. I’m a writer but I don’t write.” I’d laugh but it was true.

Over the years, writing has been a stop and start practice. I’d be alternately blocked and overflowing. I have called forth four books that begged for a voice. To invoke my latest book, I prayed, danced, made rituals and ceremony, and maintained the discipline to do an immense amount of work. I was propelled to write. I loved every moment, no matter what challenges arose. I was happy just to be writing.

Please visit www.deepscribejudith.com

 Copyright©2013-2016 Judith Handelsman Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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“I believe that the body knows something that intellectually, I can’t access.”  
—Patty Seyburn


Patty Seyburn has published three volumes of poetry. Her third book, Hilarity, won the Green Rose Prize given by New Issues Press (Western Michigan University, 2009). Her two previous books of poems are Mechanical Cluster (Ohio State University Press, 2002) and Diasporadic (Helicon Nine Editions, 1998) which won the 1997 Marianne Moore Poetry Prize and the American Library Association’s Notable Book Award for 2000. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals including The Paris Review, Poetry, New England Review, Field, Slate, Crazyhorse, Cutbank, Quarterly West, Bellingham Review, Boston Review, Cimarron Review, Third Coast, and Western Humanities Review. She won a 2011 Pushcart Prize for her poem “The Case for Free Will,” published in Arroyo Literary Review. She holds an MFA in Poetry from University of California, Irvine, and a Ph.D. in Poetry and Literature from the University of Houston. She is an Associate Professor at California State University, Long Beach. Patty Seyburn’s official website: click here.

[Note: bolded text is my emphasis; these passages really spoke to me {m}]

Meredith: I was trained as a therapist and as a result was trained to strike a delicate balance of letting the client guide the session but also encouraging growth and change. There are, however, times when the therapist, in order to help the client move forward (or deeper), must raise issues to keep the process from stagnating. How do you see this playing out for the creator/writer? For you?

PATTY: My first instinct is to question whether the poem is the therapist or the client…

Frost wrote, “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own melting.” For a while, early in the poem’s life, it rides on its own melting. And then, it stops, and it’s not always evident what is next. Is it done? Possibly. To stay with Frost – is it a fork in the road, “two roads diverged”? Probably. At that point, I try to look at what the poem wants to say. Some people will tell you that they never do that, that in the course of writing, they never think about ideas, like William Carlos Williams: “No ideas but in things.” I grant that the consideration of meaning (that’s an obscenity for some poets) must come later in the process, or you end up guiding thUnknowne poem to “say something,” though it’s probably more like “say anything.” I don’t really want my poems to say anything. They represent me out in the world. They are often not autobiographical in terms of narrative details, but they certainly speak to how I think. They don’t have to say whatever is “the right thing” (not that I know), but they can’t lie.

Of course, the poem can’t say: here’s what I want to talk about, but I don’t know how, or, are you still mad at your mother? In a way, however, it does just that, if you ask nicely. The way to do so, for me, is by scrutinizing each line, and trusting that when the language merits attention in the mouth and body, the content has something to offer. I trust the ear. I trust that catch in the stomach when I hear a C major 7th chord (think of the song, “Misty”). ”). I believe that the body knows something that intellectually, I can’t access.  When I manage to craft a strong line, then I have to take seriously what it says, though I’m not always happy with that, because it reveals something about me to myself that I may not know (and like), or may not know (and not like), or may know (and not want to admit). I think a good therapist does not let you lie to her or yourself – or that’s the goal. When you write a poem you are proud of, it does the same: it reveals you to yourself, and also, to others. Though, ultimately, it’s a less private affair than therapy, if you publish.I beli

Meredith: Homeostasis is a concept I learned on my first day of graduate school. It means the desire to revert back to the familiar, for things to remain the same. As a writer, how do you remedy this type of stagnation which can thwart creativity? Or, do you believe there’s a time for it?

PATTY: If the familiar is defined as a poem that I already know how to write, which is to say, I have already written, then I have limited interest in returning to that technique or strategy. What thwarts the seeming ease of this response is that, to some degree, once I have written a poem, I no long know how to write it. Each poem makes different demands, and just because two poems may seem to share a form, or a rhetorical approach, does not mean that they have anything else in common. I can read Phil Levine’s What Work Is (the collection, and the poem, itself), over and over, and though many of the poems are visually similar, their internal moves continue to surprise me. As well, once I have a little more distance from a poem, I truly don’t know how I did what I did.

I’ll admit, I have a few poems that I wrote recently and am wondering how I could employ that strategy again, because I like these poems and think their approach to the subjects worked. If I go back farther, for example, to my third book, wDSC_0916-1ritten from about 2001-2005, I have no idea how to write these weird little semi-surrealist, image-driven sort-of lyrics. If I go back to my first book and look at personae poems written in the voices of unnamed or unsung women from the Hebrew bible, I think, wow, how did you do that? Then I was working with Richard Howard, one of the great poets/critics/translators of the 20th-21st century, and he championed those poems, which, no doubt, inspired me. I truly have no idea how to write those, anymore. Not a clue. So, for me, while the familiar has no theoretical attraction, in practical terms, I don’t even know how to get back there. “You can’t go home again,” wrote Thomas Wolfe. One’s poems each provide a temporary home, and you can’t go back to any of them. Sigh. A lot of lonely wandering with clouds for company.

Meredith: I once heard Ira Glass, host of This American Life, say:  “Keep following the thread where instinct takes you. Force yourself to wait things out.” Does your writing require a lot of waiting?

PATTY: Whereas I value patience in the writing of poems, and in life, as well, I am less interested in waiting for “the muse,” and I try to teach my students not to value that idea. “Instinct” is a tough word, in relation to poems. Actually, I don’t really understand it, in relation to poems. I trust my instincts (sometimes) about people, about situations. When I write a poem, it’s not instinct at play. It’s language, which contains music, idea and image. It’s not a guessing game. I don’t “wait” for something to happen, in order to write a poem. I observe the world; I take in, ingest, inhale as much as possible, and I trust that what I take in has some resonance, in on the same frequency as something else that matters to me. I don’t wait for inspiration, or for the mood. Having a family and a job precludes what could be interpreted as the passivity of waiting. I think the idea of “forcing – waiting” is an interesting dichotomy. When I have time to write, I write. If I can’t write, I read. Sometimes I’ll read first. I imagine he’d say I was being ornery, but I’ll admit, I cherish urgency more than patience. I don’t do much yoga.

Meredith: How do you not hold on so tight to a piece of writing that isn’t working (that you wish would work) and let go so you might discover what will work?

PATTY: I have had to school myself in editorial brutality and trusting in the editing wisdom that comes with time. Generally, when I revise a poem into oblivion (as I did just the other day), and it’s taken up a great deal of my time (of which I do not have much, being a mom and a professor at Cal State Long Beach), I know that all I can do is put it away, put it away, put it away. Sometimes I will tape or pushpin it above my desk, so there is a constant passing flirtation with the poem. But since I am the being with consciousness and agency, I can choose to not walk by, and sometimes, I will do that, too.

I was watching that movie about Stephen Hawking last night, and it occurred to me that I should try to reread A Brief History of Time, though I remember finding it impenetrable when I first bought it. Now I think, if 10 million people bought it, and at least some percentage of that managed to get through it, I should give it another swat. I say this because in my own life, the relation of poetry to time maintains a strong attraction and equal elusivity, and I constantly address the issue of time in my poems. It is the only entity that can give you a completely honest assessment of your work. A friend can’t. A critic can’t.  Both may want to be candid, but their own proclivities in large and small terms inhibit that possibility, well-intended or purposeful as it may be. Allowing the poem to brew, to stew in its own juices, invariably calls attention to what demands to be changed. And sometimes, the result it: get rid of me. But keep a few good lines – and those germinate a poem that has not entered that futile realm. I should not even say “futile,” because if that enterprise generated a few good lines, or helped me understand language a little better, then time was not wasted. But the truth is: you have to be willing to “waste time.” Many people think writing poems is a waste of time, anyway. May as well indulge them.

As for the brutality of editing one’s own work – Australian poet Les Murray was the first to say to me: “Sometimes you must kill your darlings.” (Apparently, this quote has many possible sources – Oscar Wilde, Eudora Welty, G.K. Chesterton, Chekhov, and Arthur Quiller-Couch in his Cambridge lectures “On the Art of Writing.”) Whoever said it first – it made sense to me. I recognize that sometimes what I feel is the best line in a poem might be the worst. On the other hand: don’t be a fool. Maybe it is the best, and the rest of the poem needs to step up.

In order to access the cruel inner-editor, I read the poem aloud. I ask it questions – usually when driving, alone. I pretend that I’m interviewing the poem, or (how narcissistic will this sound?) interviewing myself, about this particular poem. On the radio. No one wants to sound like an idiot on the radio, and I’ll usually end up talking to myself about where the poem wants to go and should go, but is not going, and making self-demeaning comments that, fortunately, no one is there to agree with. Then I go home and try to make the poem behave. I love the tension of the editing process. It’s a struggle, a wrestling match, a prize-fight with each poem. I don’t always win, but then, you could say, who is the winner? Is it better if I win or the poem wins? Does the poem want to write itself out of existence? Am I holding on too tight? Ultimately, I am the judge of the poem’s success. The poem cannot say: I’m done. Put a fork in me and send me to The New Yorker.

Meredith: The artist, Juan Gris, said, “You are lost the instant you know what the result will be.” Many would find this counterintuitive, believing it’s actually better to know where you are headed. You?*

PATTY: Poetry distances itself from expository writing by not being goal-oriented. In a piece of persuasive writing, for example, to be effective, clear logic must be in place, and contribute to the result, the summative moment. In contrast, each line of a poem must strive to surprise the reader, while, at the same time, not seem utterly random. One of the many fashions in modern poetry is what Tony Hoagland calls the “skittery poem of our moment.” In a smart essay examining this trend (yes, poetry has trends! It’s just that no one makes any money off of them), he writes, “Systematic development is out; obliquity, fracture, and discontinuity are in.” The skittery poems don’t come naturally to me, but I have written some, particularly when I feel my mind working in perhaps too linear a fashion. Who determines the boundaries of “too”? Me. I love a good narrative poem, and that must move through time with some sense. I don’t want to herald discontinuity to excess, which I see in poems where I feel the writer does not bother to wonder why certain images or moments that seem to have no relation to one another belong near each other in the poem. I think those poems lack rigor, and I think the poet should work hard for the reader’s time and attention.

I never know where a poem is headed when I’m working on it. Never. I do not have a point to make, ax to grind, etc. It’s not that I don’t like points. Did you see that movie, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”? Steve Martin says to John Candy, a character whose stories never seem to go anywhere: “And another thing: have a point!” I could relate to that. But that’s different than knowing where the poem is going. My poems usually swerve a few times and end up concerning themselves with a completely different issue, or focused on an image or piece of language that I did not see as vital, earlier in the poem’s development.

I grew up in Detroit. I like driving. I like the swerves. And as I get older, I trust the swerves. I used to fear them more – would the poem resume its course? Did the poem need a course? As the poem strays farther and farther from “the interior” (I always think of Joseph Conrad when I use or read that term), and the connection between the initial impulse to write the poem becomes more and more attenuated, it’s easy to get nervous. I think of that Dave Matthews band song that I listen to as I run: “Where are you going?” We are conditioned to desire and maintain direction, and in life, that seems to be, for the most part, how one makes headway. In a poem, it’s the opposite: trusting that there will be a result, but not writing toward that result, and even keeping yourself from knowledge or suspicion of that result. You don’t want to see a light at the end of the tunnel. You want to catch one of those peripheral lights, like the ones in that vision test (that increasingly, I fail. I invent them).

When I asked Patty what she doesn’t usually get to squeeze into a conversation she said: Let’s see: well, I have a strong affection for kitsch, which probably contributes to the “soup” of my poems, but when they enter the realm of cliché, I drop them like the worst old boyfriend. I even had to look up kitsch to explain this: “art, objects or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way.” I am exhausted of the snarkiness of irony, but it remains part of my personality. A good example of kitsch is the lava lamp. I love lava lamps. Some people like them ironically, but I like them genuinely.

One more thing: I am incessantly moved by displays of genuine effort – remember that Olympics commercial in the ‘70s when you see Olga Korbut’s face as she pulls her body, against laws of gravity, up over her head on the balance beam? That made me cry. If I saw it now, I would weep. Finally: I am unmoved by children’s talent shows, though I have children, adore my children, and am fond of talent. I think they should be called “variety shows.” There should be a bar. If I go on more about this, I will sound mean, and I think mean people are tedious, so I’ll stop there. Also: I hate Ron Howard movies.

[Thanks, Patty!]

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