by Carol Grannick
Chiaroscuro (kiːˈɑːrə.ˈskʊroʊ, –ˈskjʊroʊ, Italian for light-dark) in art is characterized by strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition. It is also a technical term used by artists and art historians for using contrasts of light to achieve a sense of volume in modeling three-dimensional objects such as the human body. (from Wikipedia)
A Caravaggio painting can take my breath away. A lunar eclipse, when the shadow cuts the light, entrances me.
Consider, though, the dark without the light, the shadow crossing the moon and staying. Many who think and write about the inner creative experience believe that the “shadow” part of the artist’s life is normal. That, specifically, in our writing lives, our anxieties, fears, doubts, need to be welcomed in order to deepen and enrich our characters, stories and plots.
I would agree. In part. Because all feelings, including the negative, “shadow” feelings, pass.
Unless they don’t. What about writers who struggle with the shadow that threatens to control them? What are the options for those writers who feel depleted and distracted by negativity, and for whom all-too-frequent negative thinking diminishes energy, productivity and creativity? What happens, then, to the resilience that is so essential for a writer’s perseverance?
At these times all the statements in the world about how important it is to “stay resilient” can feel like just another failure.
Because “just do it” doesn’t work if you don’t know how.
I believe without question that acceptance and welcoming of negative emotion is integral to the creative life, indeed to life itself. Negative emotions flow naturally from experiences like loss, hurt, disappointment. But unnecessary and prolonged negativity – self-doubt, fear, disappointment, jealousy based on irrational thought – diminishes the brain’s capacity to be open, creative, curious and productive.
The heart-heaviness that spews unproductive negative self-talk and even depression is not beneficial to our writing or the quality and meaning of our lives.
Learning how to reduce that negativity and seed more heartfelt positive emotions (not smiley-faced affirmations) into our writing lives increases energy and creativity, and builds and maintains the resilience essential to perseverence. Serious learned and practiced positivity gives greater meaning to our lives in general – and that’s not bad.
The writing life is not only for the naturally resilient, or for those who live the myth of the tortured but persistent artist. Substantial research in the field of Positive Psychology (POSITIVITY, Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., Crown Books 2009) provides a growing number of tools to diminish the excess negativity that, rather than enhancing our work, keeps us from it.
We should, by all means, welcome the darkness as natural and normal. But we should also remember how breathtaking, in contrast, is the light.
Carol Grannick is a writer and clinical social worker in private practice. She blogs at The Irrepressible Writer about learning and maintaining resilience for the writing life.
Photo credit: chris.bryant
For a nonfiction writer, particularly one who writes memoir, shame can be a blessing and a curse. Amy Friedman knows. Her most recent book Desperado’s Wife, is the story of her marriage to a prisoner sentenced to life for the murder of another drug dealer. Her essay “Kept Together By The Bars Between Us” appeared in the New York Times Modern Love column. She is the creator of the syndicated and long-running Tell Me a Story series. She is a contributor to Dancing at the Shame Prom.
I asked Amy to respond to this:
Shame is kind of sticky – as a concept and as something that we live with in our lives. The more we try to shake it, the more we’re reminded of it, and how we feel it, and that that we don’t like it. And then feeling stuck in it. However, much depth can come in writing from being with feelings that make us feel out of control–like shame. So how do we hold that close, while writing, and how do we tolerate the feelings we’ve so often tried to avoid? Because doing so can enable us to not only create, but to heal.
“I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination.”
A long time ago—nearly 30 years now—I began writing a newspaper column. In essence this meant that I was called upon each week to write a personal essay. Everything began with me—not that I mattered in the story, but the story depended upon my point of view. One day, several years into this job, I walked into a prison. I went to prison knowing I would not like what I found. I sensed that prison, like slavery, was a blot on the national psyche (and though this was Canada, I’m talking north American psyche—Americans and Canadians have different histories but we share this fact: We incarcerate more men and women than do any other western nations, and we incarcerate minorities in shameful numbers.)
I felt proud of myself walking in—proud that I was going to look closely at a system that everyone had an opinion about but few people beyond those directly affected (prisoners, guards, their families) seemed to understand or know.
What I did not expect was that I would fall in love with a man who was serving a life-13 sentence for murder. I did not expect that I would marry him. I did not expect to suddenly become not the well-known, comfortable newspaper columnist living a life of some privilege and leisure to becoming the wife of a prisoner, living amongst those who suffer deep shame by our association with (and love for) those who have committed crimes. Our shame, I realized, came from others—most people perceive prisoners’ wives and children and husbands and mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers to be somehow untoward, if not criminal.
I fought that shame. I fought on my own behalf and on behalf of others. And the way I fought was by writing about it, by writing and writing and writing all the truths I could, by speaking out, by not being quiet and sitting in a corner pretending I was someone I was not. I shouted out my truth: I love a man who committed murder.
But I was so busy writing that truth, that I failed to write other truths—about what had led me to prison in the first place, what had drawn me to my husband and what I didn’t love about him. We were married for seven years. I visited many prisons, many prison visiting rooms, many trailers (for conjugal visits behind prison walls, chains, gates and towers). I raised my husband’s daughters. I fought the ignorance and brutality that is the prison system. And when my husband was released on parole, I had to face something that washed me in shame. When he and I no longer had prison as our common enemy to overcome, all the flaws in our connection to each other became too glaring to ignore any longer.
For half a year, as I remember that time, I sat on my sofa in my little bungalow on the St. Lawrence River wrapped in blankets and weeping and trying to understand what had happened, trying to find a way back to me, trying to find a way to climb out of the shame I felt at having “failed.” And I did it by sitting in it and meditating and writing, and at the end of six months I could stand again, and walk again and talk again, and I began to date, and I got a new job (having lost most of my work and contacts when we first married), and I began to write the story of that marriage.
Nearly 15 years later, long after I had remarried and moved to Los Angeles, I was at a spa in Mexico where I met Jonathan Fast, an author and sociologist whose primary focus in his work is on shame and its connection to violence. Naturally Fast and I talked about shame and prison, and our conversation moved to a discussion of the fact that Amy Ferris and Hollye Dexter had invited me to write for their anthology, Dancing at the Shame Prom. I told him I had spent months fretting over my inability to figure out what shamed me, and how. As I told him, sometimes I feel ashamed of my body—I’ve always wished I were thinner and more fit (and once I moved to LA that became an obsession as it is for most everyone else in this city). But that didn’t feel right. Most of the time I’m fine with my body—so long as I’m not surrounded by anorexics and models. And my marriage to a man who had committed murder? I knew that ought to fill me with shame, but I kept circling back to the lack of shame I felt about that.
“You’re not a highly shame-sensitive person,” Fast said. And I liked that. But I also wasn’t sure that was true, precisely, and as I thought about the subject, I came to understand—and I’m still coming to understand—that while I have felt shame about many things—bodies and love, not having given birth to children, never having or making enough money, misbehaving in the face of others’ troubles, not being there for people who are ill, being so white and privileged in the face of those who are not—despite all that, I write about almost everything I experience. And writing takes me to meditation, and meditation takes me to writing. And both lead me back, always deeply, to my center where I think shame simply does not exist.
“Everything happening is a lesson, a message,” says Yogi Bhajan, religious, community and business leader and creator of the Kundalini Yoga movement. And this reminds me of a favorite line. When I was a newspaper columnist, a fellow columnist, Alexander Scala, and I often talked about the difficulty of coming up, week after week, with a new, fresh, story, something that would inspire and/or enlighten and/or at least entertain our readers. One day he wrote a column that began like this:
“Last Saturday, early in the afternoon, I was kicked in the head by a horse. In the instant after I was kicked, I had two thoughts. Was I killed? Could I get an essay out of this?”
I think that is how I have come to live my life—when I am metaphorically kicked in the head by a horse (and sometimes that kick is followed by an ocean of shame rushing through me), I wonder, “Can I get a column out of this?” That is, is there something here that can lead me to deeper understanding, to knowing something I do not yet know I usually begin by trying to write about it, and the only way to do that is to let the truth wash over me, to let tears flow again, to allow the pain, to stay in that place that is the story I don’t yet understand or fully know.
I think by doing that so regularly, so often, for so many years, in many ways what has felt shameful to me has become, rather, what is most strong.
I don’t have a recipe for how to hold shame close, but like meditation, practice, I believe, leads us closer.
by Meredith Resnick
A few years ago I was stuck. And stumped.
I had a manuscript and an agent and editors who were, supposedly, interested in a book I’d written.
But then editors rejected it. Though they couldn’t put their finger on what was wrong with the manuscript. In fact, nothing was really wrong with the manuscript. It was a fine manuscript. “Such beautiful writing!” they said. “Wow, what a story!” This kind of feedback is a writer’s dream. Unless it’s a recurring dream — the kind that, unfortunately, goes nowhere.
As a writer, at the time, I felt the same could be said of me.
Growing up I was raised with the mixed signals of “do only what you love” and “it better be something you can get a job with.”
Dutiful, diligent; I held a license in clinical social work and a degree in communications—both of which, faithfully, led me to jobs that offered a certain degree of both freedom and stability. I had time to write, to create.
But soon anxiety loomed. Being raised to value that which could pay the bills — I was, thankfully, doing that — creating for the sheer joy of it seemed like an indulgence I could ill afford.
That’s what fear will do to you.
I thought about this a lot: Was it worse—or better—to follow one’s dreams at the expense of meeting financial obligations? Was it wrong — or right — to believe that the only creative pursuits that counted had to be tied to a paycheck? I’d had essays published in national magazines and prestigious literary journals. I’d written hundreds of pages from which to glean the publishable gold. So why was I miserably unhappy?
Why was my writing world so black and white?
I thought it was because my manuscript wasn’t selling. I mean, who wouldn’t be upset about that — right?
One idea that kept getting thrown at me from editors, agents was one of “platform.”
For those who are not writers, a platform is one way of showing potential investors (agents, editors, for example) that you already have a foothold in the marketplace, a built-in readership and buyer-ship of your products or, for the writer, books.
If you don’t have a platform, you’re told to get one. And then, when you do get one, you’re likely to be told it’s not quite big/sturdy/wide/deep/relatable enough.
Might you land a column at a national paper? Can you get a movie star to endorse you? How about a talk show, even as a guest host? Yet more suggestions to keep the focus outside of oneself, not on the creative process.
For the record, platform in and of itself is neither good nor bad; it just is. Some writers have them, some don’t. For better or worse I’ve come to view platform as an interconnection of relationships, but mostly — for me — a connection with one’s own process as a creative. If the connection truly sparks inside it naturally extends outward by virtue of our ability to honor it. Then we see it grow, and marvel at its expansion.
But back to the manuscript. Months passed. It was rejected. Again.
My husband, a CPA with a big-picture view and lots of patience, had been encouraging me to start a blog, not as a way to build a platform, or to make myself a household name, but as a way to connect with other writers, and to give my own voice a place to thrive.
Before the whole manuscript-rejection saga, I’d loved to create mosaics, make jewelry, collage and lots of other right-brained activities. But now I could only focus on my writing — writing that was not getting published, mind you; writing I was not getting paid for.
My husband could see that I needed to reconnect, somehow, to myself.
He was right.
And I was so miserable I was willing to listen.
I’m not sure how I came up with the idea, but I created the kind of blog I needed most for myself, a place to come and read about how another writer’s process was completely different from my own. I was exhausted and depleted from trying to conform with what a fickle marketplace wanted (and my success, modest at best, helped me to understand the stress true celebrities likely encounter if they are not following their own hearts).
At my core I did not believe there was one right way to write. I knew this much: By reading how others create I was going to discover that everyone did it differently. And that was going to be a great relief. To me.
And, it turned out, it was for many other people as well.
Some wrote everyday; some didn’t. Some outlined; others didn’t. Some had writing groups while others shunned them. And some wrote for money, while others wrote because they couldn’t not write.
The Writer’s [Inner] Journey 5-Question Author Interview was the magical tool I developed early after I launched the blog. It was designed to help authors translate complex, abstract ideas into creative insights the rest of us can relate to — and benefit from.
I hypothesized that if I asked each author or creative the same question, I would receive entirely different answers. There would be no how-to or one “right way.” The fact that the answers were so different, often diametrically opposed to one another, was an important clue that despite what many books, articles, how-to sites and alleged experts will tell you and me, there is no one path to becoming a writer, a creative.
And that manuscript?
I can happily report that I’ve let it go. And by that I mean dissecting parts of it and turning it into essays, and using chunks of it to transform into a novel. Creativity, like intuition, takes on different forms, and is always developing.
Starting The Writer’s [Inner] Journey was the ultimate surrender to my creative process.
This essay first appeared in The Orange County Register.