All posts in "The Recovering Creative"

stuck/unstuck: shame of self and writing anyway

In this series of stuck/unstuck, contributors from Dancing at the Shame Prom on being ashamed, and how it connects to writing.

Victoria Zackheim is a creative across many genres: fiction, nonfiction, plays, television. She is a writer, teacher, editor and a 2010 San Francisco Library Laureate. Her book – as author or editor – include: The Bone Weaver, He Said What?: Women Write About Moments When Everything Changed, The Other Woman: Twenty-one Wives, Lovers, and Others Talk Openly About Sex, Deception, Love, and Betrayal, For Keeps: Women Tell the Truth About Their Bodies, Growing Older, and Acceptance, The Face in the Mirror: Writers Reflect on Their Dreams of Youth and the Reality of Age, and Exit Laughing: How We Use Humor to Take the Sting Out of Death.

I said/asked: Shame is kind of sticky – as a concept and a 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.

by Victoria Zackheim

Shame is one of those profound emotions that picks us up by the skin and shakes us until we bleed. In the case of writers, we bleed onto the page. In my writing courses, I tell my students that writing about that which we’ve spent a lifetime avoiding takes more than scratching the surface. Sure, we can get dirt under our nails, but isn’t that almost the same as avoiding the subject, with a glance in its direction? I urge my students to scratch…and then dig, using a sturdy shovel. When the ground is broken and a scattering of bones and sinew is exposed, it’s time to hop onto the five-ton excavator and exhume our history.

How do we hold emotions close while writing? Perhaps the question is: how do we not? I can’t recall the experience of writing about something painful, moving, traumatic without feeling absolutely overwhelmed by the weight of those emotions. Difficult? Yes. Necessary? You bet. For me, writing what I fear most, what I’ve avoided the longest, softens those  encapsulated stones in my heart, releases them, and allows them to feed my creativity and heal my soul.   When I was asked to write for Dancing at the Shame Prom, I decided to explore an experience I suffered at age ten, at the hands of a particularly sadistic teacher. What she said, what she had the other students do, devastated me…and stayed with me for decades. The decision to tell my story was terrifying. The process of writing that scene—one that I’d never even shared with my parents—resulted in a weight gain and more than a few sleep-deprived nights. When the piece was finished, however, when I realized that I was going to make public one of my most painful moments, I was reminded yet again that digging into our pain and sharing it with others is a powerful step toward freedom. The fact that I exposed the bitch responsible for my shame only added to that sense of liberation.

stuck/unstuck: Samantha Dunn

In this series of stuck/unstuck, contributors from Dancing at the Shame Prom on being ashamed, and how it connects to writing.

First, I asked Samantha Dunn, author of Failing Paris, and the memoirs, Not By Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life, and Faith in Carlos Gomez: A Memoir of Salsa, Sex and Salvation. She’s written for the Los Angeles Times, “O” The Oprah Magazine, Ms., Shape, InStyle, Glamour, SELF and Men’s Health and is a Maggie Award winner for the personal essay.

I said/asked: Shame is kind of sticky – as a concept and a 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.


by Samantha Dunn

I’m not the best example. I wish I could think of something enlightened to share, but here’s the truth: Shame has been a kind of nuclear reactor in my life, the toxic fuel for everything. It was the reason my mom and grandmother ended up raising me where they did, “beyond the pale,” way out West, away from the small Pennsylvania town our family had called home for a couple hundred years. It’s the reason that I used to practically glow with ambition, with an incandescence caused by the unholy desire to be SOMEBODY.

How I tolerated it and held it close was that I didn’t tolerate it or hold it close. I used to fight a lot. I liked to yell at people. Humiliate when I could. Punching things felt good. I didn’t drink much but when I did I obliterated my consciousness. Then, for a while, I found opiates and pills. That helped until it didn’t help. I tried therapy, yoga, and Zen Buddhism, but eventually that all made me want to punch things again, so there you go. Relationships died, or were outright killed by me.

I don’t feel like that now. Writing did remove that shame. What I mean is, writing evaporated it. Writing disappeared it. But I don’t know when, exactly, or how. It just suddenly was no more. I couldn’t conjure shame now if I tried. I can maybe still throw a punch, but not like before.Let me tell you though, the process of writing it dead wasn’t pretty. It has for years involved crying, hysterical laughter, much insomnia, and all the activity mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Let me add too that not just writing killed it, but publishing. Writing the worst, most painful thing I have suffered under and then having random people not recoil but say, “Thank you, I know exactly that feeling. Exactly.” Even if it is only one other person, that recognition is liberating. Liberating, truly.

stuck/unstuck: fear and awareness

This issue of stuck/unstuck was inspired by my re-listening to a book by Eckhart Tolle. This is the email I sent to Alisa Bowman, asking if she might reflect:

I was I was recently listening to Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth for the second time, and heard him say (paraphrasing) not to try to get rid of the ego, or fear, etc. That the key is to notice it, to be aware of it. That the awareness in and of itself has the effect of transmuting the fear. It makes me wonder about our focus on fear and how awareness of it is somehow different than focusing on fixing it. In writing, what does awareness look like, or might it look like? Let’s ponder aloud here.

Continuing our stuck/unstuck series is author Alisa Bowman. Alisa is the author of the memoir Project: Happily Ever After, and author or co-author of more than 30 books—7 of which have become New York Times best sellers. Her most recent project is Be Fearless, co-written with Jonathan Alpert. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Better Homes & Gardens, American Baby and others. She teaches Buddhist meditation in Bethlehem, PA, and is working on a memoir about karma.

by Alisa Bowman

This is similar to the Buddha’s teaching on suffering. The Buddha taught that we cause and intensify suffering by trying to avoid that which we find unpleasurable (pain, separation, overstimulation, noise, aging, illness, bad weather, parting with the people and possessions we love) and trying to hold onto that which we find dear (sexual bliss, infatuation, material possessions, moments of bliss, beautiful experiences, and so on).

In reality, we have little control over most of what we find pleasurable or unpleasurable. As much as we try to manipulate and control our outer world, we still catch colds, unexpectedly find that our refrigerators no longer work, develop back pain, and find long stray hairs growing out of our chins. As the saying goes, suffering happens, and it happens to everyone.

Fear is the same. It’s a built-in survival mechanism designed to keep us safe from threats. The problem is that our brains cause us to fear many things that truly are not all that threatening. For writers, these fears come in the form of criticism, rejection, obscurity, typos, and mistakes. We are terrified of missing deadlines, of our mothers falling asleep while they read our work, or of book singings attended only by the local homeless person who showed up for the free coffee. Yet I don’t know of any writer who ever died or even got a nose bleed from a typo or any of these other outcomes. More important, many incredibly gifted writers had to face all of these dreaded problems at one time or another in order to become successful. A writer who attempts to get through a career without facing a single unpleasurable outcome is a writer who courts anxiety and ultimately creates the very outcome he or she fears. Fear follows such a writer everywhere, leading to writer’s block, procrastination, self-sabotage, missed opportunities, and, ultimately, failure.

I learned this first hand while trying to promote my memoir Project: Happily Ever After. I didn’t allow myself to see failure as an option—that’s how much I feared it. I bet my happiness on that book becoming a wild success. As a result, I was an emotional wreck. The evening of the book’s release, I was prone on my couch, with intermittent pain in my chest. Talk about anxiety!

Well, you know what? The book didn’t become a wild success. It sold fewer than 10,000 copies, and I spent more money promoting it than I made from my advance. I showed up to give a speech and faced a nearly empty room. The only two attendees were the organizers who set up the event. Reviewers criticized me of being selfish, self-centered, kooky, arrogant, overly dramatic, and out-of-touch. The final blow? My publisher decided not to bother publishing the book in paperback.

In the end, everything that I tried to avoid ended up happening anyway, but that was all quite fortunate. I learned a wonderful lesson: failure, ridicule and rejection are not big deals. They really aren’t. We fear these things because we’re conditioned to fear them. They are harmless, but our minds make them scary, just as a child’s mind turns a bedroom shadow into a monster.

Eventually I was able to, much like that fearful child, flip on a light and see that the monsters that I feared were merely creations of my own mind. It was then that I was finally able to see and cherish the beauty that was all around me but, until then, had been hidden by my own emotional darkness. There was the mother who whispered to me as we waited for our children after school, “I read your book. I loved your book.” There were the emails from people all over the world who thanked me for making them laugh, for normalizing their situation, for helping them to save their marriages, and for giving them hope. There was the well-known author who didn’t blurb the book because she was too busy, but eventually read it two years after the fact and then wrote a glowing review on Amazon and then befriended me because she was so moved by what she had read.

More important than all of that, though, was what I learned from failing. Now when other authors tell me about their anxiety over book release, I know exactly how they feel. As a result, I know how to comfort them. I can flip on that light and help them make their own monsters disappear.

Now that I know that the monsters aren’t real, I’m a different writer. When I feel myself avoiding an outcome, I can now laugh at myself, sit with the emotion, study it, and make peace with it. Then I can fixate less on the end result and enjoy the journey. So what if no one ever reads them? So what if someone calls my creation “pointless drivel”? So what if I can’t sell what I write? I don’t need recognition to be happy. I don’t need awards, praise, or crowded book signings, either.

All I need to write happily is this: the intention of benefiting others. When I write to inspire, to comfort, and to delight the reader, the fear dissipates and, in its place, there’s bliss.

stuck/unstuck: inner conflict

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?

Continuing our stuck/unstuck series with contributors from the anthology Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience, is Gina Frangello, whose co-edited and contributed to the collection. Gina is the author of the critically acclaimed novel My Sister’s Continent. She is the executive editor and co-founder of Other Voices Books and the editor of the fiction section at The Nervous Breakdown. She is the weekend fiction editor of The Rumpus.


by Gina Frangello

I recently sold my third book of fiction . . . but like many writers, this is merely the third book I’ve sold, not the third book I’ve written.  It’s actually the fifth: four novels and one short story collection.  Two of the novels remain unpublished–one was slotted for publication a couple of years ago but the publisher went bankrupt, and the other has never really made very serious submission rounds.  My (former) agent sent to a few places, but we quickly took it off the market due to my uncertainty that it was really “ready.”  I thought that novel might still need a lot of reworking, though I was soon onto another project and have yet to return to figure out what such reworking might entail.  Anyway, that’s a long preamble to indicate that–like many writers who are now forty-something–I’ve produced rather a lot of work, only some of which has made it into book form . . .

What I realized, however, only recently, is that the work I focused on from my early twenties until selling my latest novel in July (shortly after my forty-third birthday), is that all of my fiction has been, to date, variations on a particular kind of dynamic between two women.  Through four novels and many (though not all) of my short stories, I have worked and re-worked, reinvented and attempted to exorcise the same old story that once played in my own life: that of two young women who are intensely–even passionately–connected to and intimate with one another, who ultimately suffer a rift.  The similarities go deeper than that, too.  In each project, one of the women (and they range in my fiction from age 13 to their early 30s) makes a heroic, though ultimately misguided, effort to “save” the other from an outward danger, real or imagined, and some fairly terrible things happen as a result, ultimately setting the rift on its course.  In two of the novels, one of the two girls ends up dead; in two others, the severing is so extreme that it might be fair to say one of the two is “missing” by the novel’s end.  In other words, the attempts to rescue are radically unsuccessful–even calamitous and a burden–despite coming from places of love.  Heroism doesn’t pay off for these characters.  Girls, in some places–the dark places I tend to write about–are simply too easy to “erase,” either by violence or by their own self-destructive hands.  Or so it seems on the surface . . .

Many writers, of course, revisit the same psychological themes or demons over and over again.  Milan Kundera, one of my favorite authors, could surely be accused of this.  But upon this realization about my own fiction, I had the urge, I guess you could say, to  . . . be done with this conceit.  To move on, conceptually and in terms of character dynamics.  All the plots of my novels differ radically.  One is based on a Freud case study; one is a literary thriller set in the traveler’s subculture of London in the late 1980s; one follows a terminally ill woman traveler around the world as she collects lovers and tries to outrun death; and finally–the one I never really tried hard to publish–is about two young girls, cousins, who come of age in an Italian-American neighborhood in the early 1980s, amidst a culture of rabid misogyny and abuse and gangs and petty Mob crimes, and who try desperately and valiantly to hold on to one another in a world that doesn’t prioritize relationships between young women–that doesn’t prioritize them–and in which they both ultimately become different kinds of prey.  In other words, this final novel–while there are elements of “me” in everything I write–is the “autobiographical” one, and the emotional template for the others.  It focuses on two characters extremely similar to myself and my same-age cousin, growing up, and all the ways we needed, loved, worshipped, saved, sabotaged, betrayed and lost one another on the way to adulthood, and in my struggle to leave my neighborhood behind.

I think I kept reworking this concept/relationship in numerous other projects because I didn’t feel I had done it “right” in the early novel I tried to write, autobiographically, about my own youth.  Ironically (and cathartically), I ended up doing a much fuller job of it in its other–more fictional–incarnations.  Only lately, examining all this, and the threads buried through all my novels like a map to some central hidden place where the treasure or the demons are hidden, did I realize that I think I’m finally . . . done.  That I’ve explored this dynamic enough; that I understand what I can understand about it–that my characters and plots and fictional worlds are straining to break beyond into new terrain.

I still may, someday, revise that early novel, for its own sake.  There are still things l love about it.  But I doubt that its echoes will continue to follow other, new characters into their fictional worlds the way they used to.  I feel I have finally done them some kind of justice, and honored them enough–and now I can let them go.

stuck/unstuck: writing with baby/kids in the house

In this installment of stuck/unstuck, I wanted to find out how a novelist and professional writer got back to writing after a baby arrived while there were already a couple of little ones in the house. Camille Noe Pagán is the author of The Art of Forgetting (just rereleased in paperback), and her work has appeared in national publications and websites including Allure, Cooking Light, Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine, Reader’s Digest, SELF and Women’s Health. I told Camille: “The issue to write to would be about how you moved forward when you faced whatever it was you faced after your children were born – overwhelm, priorities, tiredness, etc etc.”

by Camille Noe Pagán

I’m on record as not believing in writer’s block. But as I learned after having my second child a year ago, sometimes you just can’t rush the fiction process, no matter how many hours you spend in front of your computer.
I’m a novelist, independent journalist and mom to two children, a three-and-a-half-year-old girl and a fourteen-month old boy. I didn’t take a real maternity leave with either child; both births were uncomplicated and my recoveries were easy, so I eased back in with a limited number of magazine projects and worked while my babies were napping. By the time both kids were about four months, I was back to business as usual, with the help of a sitter and my husband (who, like me, works from home). I wrote my first novel, The Art of Forgetting, around the time my daughter turned a year old. I’d been hit with a sudden streak of creativity and productivity, and I wrote the book in about four months, mostly at night and on the weekends while she was asleep or with my husband.
I attempted to start my second novel shortly after my son was born last December. I’d made several other false starts, but I was sure about the topic this time and was itching for a creative outlet—something other than journalism and dirty diapers. Besides, I assumed it would be a relatively straight-forward process. Not easy, per se, but I knew how to write a novel and had already done it while juggling a “real job”, play dates and night feedings.
The only thing straight-forward about the whole thing was that I couldn’t “push through it”. I was exhausted from having a newborn, launching a book (the novel I’d written while my daughter was a baby came out last May, six months after my son was born) and transitioning from one child to two. The few brain cells I had left were apparently being used up by book publicity and journalism, and I couldn’t seem to write a single chapter of fiction that was not, frankly, horrible.
So I gave up for a while. I took naps and played with my kids. I drank wine and read books, often at the same time. During the time that I should have been working on fiction, I did research, reading everything I could about the topic of my next novel. Then one balmy day last August, I sat down and began to write … and this time, I kept going. I’m now a few thousand words shy of my first draft, and while it needs work, I’m actually happy with it. Like many moms, I have a hard time ignoring the “you should”s that dance around in my head. But in the end, giving myself permission to take a break was the best thing I could have done for my productivity … and my family.

Why “keeping up” can hold us back

The subject of this article, by Julie Bosman, in the New York Times:

Writer’s Cramp: In the E-Reader Era, a Book a Year Is Slacking

made me itchy and anxious—particularly this quote: “Everybody’s doing a little more,” said Mr. [Lee] Child (a British author), who is published by Delacorte Press, part of Random House. “It seems like we’re all running faster to stay in the same place.”

Itchy and anxious, this is, until I remembered that trying to “keep up” (no matter what I’m trying to do) had always make me itchy and nervous. I had momentarily been seduced by the idea that if I do something formulaic, trendy, in, popular, I can “get to” where I “need to be” and “then everything will work out.”

Where I need to be has never, I don’t think, turned out to be where I thought I needed to be.

I am not talking about following a creative path, or doing what a writer (or any creative or professional, for that matter) needs to do to foster their creations and bring their words and work into the world. But it’s when I start listening to “how it is right now” and “what authors need to do” and “everyone needs to do it this way, but not too much this way” that I shut down.

“How it is right now” may be how it is, but why do I have to keep (over and over) regarding that “how it is-ness” as the only thing that is?

I don’t. Nor do you.