All posts in "The Recovering Creative"

What we talk about [to ourselves] when we talk about writing*

Have you ever said any of these things to yourself?
“I did the revision which improved the tightness but muddled the arc.” “I loved the first draft but must say that even though this is painful, the soon-to-be finished product in the form of [fill in the blank: essay, article, story, poem, book, etc] will be at a level I never understood before or thought I was capable of writing.” “Maybe my piece is a combination of depth and commercial.” “It got accepted on the first try at my dream market.” “It got rejected. But I got a really positive rejection from the editor.” “I never heard back.” “Oh my God, s/he called/emailed/twittered me right back!” “I love writing; I can’t not write.” “I hate writing; I can’t not write.” “My baby finally found a home.” “That editor doesn’t understand my take; s/he’s been at their job too long and is probably a frustrated writer at heart.” “This is what I’m meant to do…no matter what: Write.” “I needed a Xanax before workshop.” “What’s wrong with writing in second person, or in present tense?” “I write at the same time every day.” “I write 2 pages a day.” “I write 500 words a day.” “I hate this fucking manuscript.” “I haven’t written in 3 weeks.” “He’s/she’s jealous.” “I’m jealous.” “I can’t believe I was ever a social worker/therapist [fill in your own blank].” “I think I should go back to being a social worker/therapist [fill in your own blank].”  “I was always meant to do this; it’s why I’m here.” “WTF?” “This is supposed to be fun–right?”
Some of these things I’ve said to myself and others I’ve heard said. I have had other careers but, to be honest, this writing involves the most self-talk I’ve ever heard of (no pun intended, at all). Is that just a personality thing, or what? What about you? What do you talk to yourself about when you talk about writing?
*Hat tip to one of my favorites, Raymond Carver.
First appeared in 2010.

stuck/unstuck: shame and writing

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.

by Amy Friedman

“I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination.”
—John Keats

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.

From stuck to unstuck

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.

Rejection (after rejection)

[From the vault]

One of the hidden gems I find most interesting about this blog is the fact that I get to see the search terms that drive people to The Writer’s [Inner] Journey. Once in a while something comes across that has nothing and everything to do with the inner journey of writing. That search term was this:

“i feel total inner terror and deep sadne[ss]”

Nothing about writing is mentioned in the search, and yet the reader clicked and found us. I hope he or she found what they were looking for.

I’ve felt those feeling of inner terror and deep sadness before. Sometimes about writing, sometimes not. The feelings are universal but when we’re feeling them they feel so, well, un-universal.

Since this search term intrigued me, I wanted to post something that I thought was in line with the search, but from a writer’s perspective. What evokes the most inner terror and deep sadness for writers? Rejection–or fear of it.

So, I’ve culled responses from two remarkable interviews I’ve done here with Dennis Palumbo and Amy Friedman who share their take on rejection. I hope reading their POVs make you think about your own, and help you feel less inner terror if you’re prone to that kind of thing.

Meredith: Does rejection have a purpose, as far as creativity is concerned?
DENNIS PALUMBO: 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: Does rejection have a purpose, as far as creativity is concerned? How about as far as your own personal process in creating?
AMY FRIEDMAN:
A most amazing question today since just before Christmas, I received the first three rejections on the memoir I just spent the last seven years writing; the rejections were unacceptable as Christmas gifts, but having been a working writer for more years than I like to remember, I know they’re just part of the process, and something all writers must build up a tolerance against. For years I worked as an editor and part of my job was to reject manuscripts; I hated it because in those cover letters I could feel the writer’s anticipation and longing. But I said “no,” for so many reasons, and “yes,” for so many.

I know acceptance and rejection have less to do with the work itself than with the marketplace, and that marketplace is a fluid and impossible-to-comprehend place. I’ve always followed this policy when sending out a manuscript for consideration: as I place it in the post (or hit SEND), I know where I’ll next be sending it. That way, if/when the rejection arrives, right away I send it out again. The despair that comes with rejection (forever) never goes away, but by sending it out again, hope arises anew, and it’s the hope that keeps me going.

*I’ve included the term as it showed up on my dashboard, but I think we can surmise the searcher meant sadness, so I’ve bracketed the extras letters.

[Originally aired 3/2010]

Meredith: Does rejection have a purpose, as far as creativity is concerned?
DENNIS PALUMBO: 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: Does rejection have a purpose, as far as creativity is concerned? How about as far as your own personal process in creating?
AMY FRIEDMAN:
A most amazing question today since just before Christmas, I received the first three rejections on the memoir I just spent the last seven years writing; the rejections were unacceptable as Christmas gifts, but having been a working writer for more years than I like to remember, I know they’re just part of the process, and something all writers must build up a tolerance against. For years I worked as an editor and part of my job was to reject manuscripts; I hated it because in those cover letters I could feel the writer’s anticipation and longing. But I said “no,” for so many reasons, and “yes,” for so many.

I know acceptance and rejection have less to do with the work itself than with the marketplace, and that marketplace is a fluid and impossible-to-comprehend place. I’ve always followed this policy when sending out a manuscript for consideration: as I place it in the post (or hit SEND), I know where I’ll next be sending it. That way, if/when the rejection arrives, right away I send it out again. The despair that comes with rejection (forever) never goes away, but by sending it out again, hope arises anew, and it’s the hope that keeps me going.

 

 

 

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. http://www.victoriazackheim.com/bio.htm

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. http://samanthadunn.net

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.