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.
It’s okay. You can stop.
Stop resisting failure and stop fighting failure and stop fighting your resistance to failure. All this fighting that adds a whole level of energy-sucking, mood-killing and creativity-busting when you’re trying to express something.
Thinking about failure is a distraction.
So is trying to think positive.
Therefore, you can also stop trying to think positive.
Two sides of the same coin.
You can also forget about star-reaching or being-like ________.
It’s hard to let go of these things, I know that from experience.
You—we—can, however, hold a goal very loosely (or forget it completely).
We can write because we love it. Because it connects us to ourselves—first and foremost.
The words we first write are fertile, but they are also like raw data. Some things are obvious and others need interpreting. So with this raw data of sorts, with the words we have, we can read them and feel them in our bodies. And when we do that we begin to know what fits and what’s uncomfortable and needs to stay, and what’s uncomfortable and needs to go.
Editing from there is a different process altogether.
When we edit we need distance from the work, but not distance from ourselves. We need to be very connected to ourselves during the editing process, and every bit as supportive of ourselves as we are when the words first come pouring out. Carve away the excess that hides the real story—the authentic, the truth–can be so frightening. It’s why so many of us get caught up in how to structure, and thinking we have to have the structure to pour the story into.
No, the story will find its structure and, as you edit, you will refine it.
Being objective doesn’t mean cutting yourself off from yourself. It means not being influenced by personal feelings about what you’ve written—or personal attachments to it.
It’s hard work to have those feelings and judgements, to tolerate them and use them rather than to think someone else, a so-called expert, will tell you how to do it. Getting help is fine, but it’s best done when you are dedicated to honoring your true self first and foremost.
Hard work, but the kind of hard work that is driven from one’s interior. The interior can feel overwhelming at times, and diving in can be consuming, but the process of writing is not only about writing, but the processing of all of this. Which is what writing is also about.
Who: Jennifer Haigh, New York Times Best Selling author
Talks about: doubt
In life there are choices we have to make that, in hindsight, don’t seem like choices at all. We might say that the situation found us, or the decision made itself. But at the time we worried, were anxious, filled with doubt because what if we picked the wrong thing? Since the writing life is like any other aspect of life, can you share how you’ve moved through periods of doubt? How you used the doubt to enhance your process? Did you welcome it, so to speak, to go from being stuck to unstuck? How does it, each time, eventually resolve?
JENNIFER: “Like most writers, I live in a nearly constant state of doubt. This is particularly true in the first year of a project, the conjuring phase, in which I am making something out of nothing. My initial enthusiasm is interrupted again and again by troublesome flashes of common sense, in which I recognize the unlikeliness of success, the better-than-outside chance that the fragile thing I’m fashioning will turn to dust in my hands. This is no idle fear. It’s happened to me more than once, and will doubtless happen again. The only way to guarantee it won’t happen is to write the same book and over again, something I’ve chosen not to do. This summer I finished my first-ever short story collection, NEWS FROM HEAVEN, and found myself as nervous as when I delivered MRS. KIMBLE ten years ago. I’ve written short stories my whole adult life, and yet this project felt very much like writing a book in a foreign language.
“Unless you’re willing to risk a giant pratfall, it’s impossible to write anything of value. It’s a question of writing through the doubt. I’m now working on my sixth book, paralyzed by uncertainty, and the answer is the same as it ever was. I get up and go to work.”
Jennifer Haigh is the author of the widely acclaimed Heat and Light, and three New York Times bestselling novels, Baker Towers, The Condition, and Faith. Her first novel, Mrs. Kimble, won the PEN/Hemingway award for debut fiction, and Baker Towers won the L.L. Winship/PEN award. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic and Granta, Best American Short Stories.
In life, we are destined, it seems, to repeat certain experiences until the meaning or lesson of the experience is conscious. Since the writing life is not separate from life-life, can you share how you’ve moved through a certain block that had always influenced (hampered) your writing process? How did you enter, tolerate, remain with the internal conflict you were dealing with, how did it show up in your writing, and how did it, eventually, resolve?*
*This was the question I had the opportunity to ask some of the contributors to The anthology Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience† sometime back. Here is the first, from author Lidia Yuknavitch, whose memoir The Chronology of Water, was the winner of a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, and a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. She is also the author of three works of short fiction: Her Other Mouths, Liberty’s Excess, and Real to Reel, as well as a book of literary criticism, Allegories of Violence.
This question has haunted me since the moment I read it. Then again, writing The Chronology of Water was always a haunting…or better yet, a crucible I had to move through both artistically and emotionally. Possibly physically.
In order to write THROUGH the story, I had to relive it. And in my case that meant reliving these specific things:
- the death of my daughter
- the abuse I suffered from my father
- the self destructions I inflicted on my self
- the longing for a mother drowned by alcoholism
It took me nearly two years to write The Chronology of Water. I had no idea what would happen to me while writing it. In fact if someone had told me what would happen, I might have run away. I didn’t sleep. I drank too much. I ate a great many medications. I had nightmares of epic proportions. I experienced auditory and visual hallucinations. My moods were their own country. My rage was nearly uncontainable. My sorrow nearly killed me.
And yet, every word I managed to bring forth from my insides and relocate to the outside, onto the great white expanse of the page, brought me closer to the possibility of a self that might, MIGHT, be able to swim back to the surface after diving down to the bottom. With something meaningful in her hands.
I found what all artists found. I found that the process of writing, the deep process, the turn yourself inside out experientially but also in terms of form, could give me a self and a life back.
More specifically, for me personally, I’d lived my whole life sort of believing that my primary wound was the abuse I suffered at the hands of my father. Psychologically and sexually. All of my rage and acting out through my twenties and thirties was based on a kind of premise — a rage I invented based on a father story — a rage I carried out on the bodies of others in relationships and life experiences.
What I learned from writing into the deeper layers of my own story is that there was a wound underneath that one that was what was in my way. A wound about motherhood — about my mother and about the death of my daughter the day she was born — that had I not written this book, I might never have found.
There is a scene in the book and in my life where my father drowns in the ocean, and I, his daughter, lifelong swimmer, pull him out and resuscitate him. Turns out that was the second most important resuscitation I performed in my lifetime.
You could say that writing The Chronology of Water was the more important resuscitation. The resuscitation of a self.
†Thank you to Gina Frangello for all your help in coordinating. You are truly a writer’s writer, and editor, and friend.
Just like I can’t control what other people do, sometimes I can’t control which direction my writing is headed. I feel so powerless, no—impotent. Though I shouldn’t. Because I have no business trying to control.
Just like living beings, my words have their own footprints and fingerprints. If I respect that then my words, once on the page, allow me to shape and finesse them. The story arc, the words, the themes are already there, waiting for me to listen, to receive them, write them down and consider them. And, when the time is right, let others connect with them, too.
I work well with a deadline because it gives my mind little time to get involved all on its own, to set up camp and start cooking up “smart” reasons why I shouldn’t say it this way or that way–or why I should say it at all. Know what I mean? For some reason, the deadline keeps my mind joined with my heart, and vice versa. This is simply another way of saying I’ve managed to slip into a kind of flow.
The controlling writer in me is not a disciplined writer, though it would like to think it is (ha) and it would like me to think it is (double ha [ha]). It would have me believe it is oh so disciplined, principled even. It’s not. The surrendered writer in me is, though it is not concerned with being called that. It intuitively knows what to do. It’s is open and willing. Mostly, willingness is enough. It doesn’t mind if I write on a scrap of paper, on my computer, in a Mead notebook, in the margins of the newspaper, or tap them into my phone. It doesn’t care if I write when I’m sitting at a stop light in the car or if I’m standing in the library or at Starbucks or if it’s noon or three in the morning. The surrendered writer in me is always ready and willing to release the words and allow them to be shaped and sculpted. And when the words aren’t there, the surrendered writer knows they will come. The controlling writer is, um, how shall I put it? Oh, here’s the word that best describes it: constipated…and very untrusting.
For today, I’m willing to be that surrendered writer. I mean, I can always resort to being the controlling one, right?