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.
The screenwriter, author and therapist talks about writing what you love, building a tolerance to rejection and inviting in the shadow side.
Dennis Palumbo is the author of Writing from the Inside Out: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within—one of my absolute favorite books on writing (I have an autographed copy). He is also a licensed psychotherapist in Los Angeles specializing in creative issues. Dennis was a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter and more,) before changing careers and becoming a licensed psychotherapist. When I asked for an interesting, quirky, something-different fact about his life he told me this: “I guess an interesting fact is that I lived and trekked in the Himalayas in Nepal for three months. I did this at the time I was wrestling with the idea of a career change, and, though it’s a cliche, when I returned from that spiritual experience, I knew I wanted to change my life.”
Meredith: Does rejection have a purpose, as far as creativity is concerned?
DENNIS: Tough question. The truth is, rejection’s main purpose is to help the writer build up a tolerance for rejection. Sometimes, if the writer’s lucky, an editor’s or agent’s rejection letter contains valuable information about what’s working and what isn’t, but it’s still up to the writer to decide how much to accept of these opinions. The hardest thing for a writer to understand is that, while rejection is experienced personally, it usually isn’t intended as personal. Writing is either rejected or accepted based on the (sometimes fickle) whims of the marketplace. We all know stories about manuscripts that were rejected all over town, and then finally sold, and then go on to be huge successes. So even while dealing with the pain of rejection, writers need to remember, in the words of screenwriter William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything.” So toss those rejection slips and keep writing!
Meredith: Writing—or the dream of calling oneself an author or writer—seems, for many, to have this highly addictive, seductiveness about it. Like: I’d really be someone if I could write. Or be a writer, author, etc. But it’s not writing that imbues itself with these characteristics, it’s the person. Why, do you think, it’s such a seductive slope? Have you ever been seduced?
DENNIS: Of course I’ve been seduced by this. I don’t know any writers that haven’t been. Remember, when writing, you’re putting the deepest, most personal aspects of your heart, soul and imagination out into the world, and asking the world to take notice. It’s a remarkably brave, and dangerous, thing to do. In addition, few of us have the strength of character to retain good feelings about ourselves without some kind of external validation. Writers are especially vulnerable to this, since the raw materials of our craft is how we think and feel.
Meredith: Might there be something to be said about setting a place for the shadow side of ourselves, the part riddled with fear and anxiety, when we sit down to write? Kind of like, inviting it in?
DENNIS: “Inviting in the shadow side” is the only way to write. I once had a writer patient say, “If only I could take all my doubts, fears and anxieties and just shove them out of the room—then I could write.” To which I answered, “Write about what? Those very feelings are the stuff from which good writing emerges.” As Jung reminds us, it’s only by accepting and integrating our shadow side into our consciousness that we become whole. The same is true for our writing. We have within us everything we need to get into the heads of any character we conceive, from nun to serial killer. As writers, it’s our job to access those feelings and use them to create vivid narrative.
Meredith: Ira Glass, host of This American Life said something about stories a long time ago: “Keep following the thread where instinct takes you. Force yourself to wait things out.” Is this how you write?
DENNIS:More or less. I always say, I write to find out what I’m thinking. When I was a Hollywood screenwriter, I always resisted using outlines and treatments. I much preferred writing a terrible first draft, and then building up from there. I like what Doctorow said about writing: he said it was like driving on a winding road at night. Your headlights only throw light about ten feet ahead of you, but sooner or later you get home.
Meredith: You have a quote at the very end of Writing from the Inside Out, from Shunryu Suzuki: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many
possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.” There is this collective sense that experts are better, but perhaps, in a roundabout way, what it suggests is that more power comes to the beginner, because the beginner sees hope. Like, if you’re going to be an expert, be an expert in being a beginner/newcomer. What’s your take?
DENNIS: I love that quote because it reminds us that everything is possible to someone who’s open to his or her own experience and impulse. People are always so willing to tell writers what they can’t or can do, what readers are buying, what the market is looking for, etc., and this “conventional wisdom” can drive a stake in the heart of creativity and imagination.My feeling is, write what you love, and if it’s your time, and the stars align, others will love it, too. There are no formulas for success, just as there’s no “solution” to life. Most innovators, in every field, usually end up proving the experts wrong about something. If possible, always be a beginner.
Visit Dennis’s website and check out the other books he’s written. Then take a look at his “Hollywood on the Couch” blog at The Huffington Post . Oh, and click here to see his favorite writing quotes.