The Writer's Survival Guide: Chapter 2: The Big Emotions and States of MindPrevious chapter Next chapter Table of contents
Every writer who writes long enough will experience each of these emotions and states of mind. Sometimes they bedevil us; sometimes they inspire us. But there is no avoiding them, regardless of who we are.
This chapter describes how to recognize each emotion and state of mind. The next chapter suggests general approaches for handling the harder ones.
Competitiveness — A seething desire to best everyone else. Sometimes the competition pool is immediately around us: the people in our writing group or class. Sometimes it is as immense as the entire literary world. We believe that we are being rated by the same panel of judges as those in our imaginary pool, and so compare ourselves along the same scale, searching for the drooping smile or sloppy finish that will rate our competitors as less than a perfect 10. We write harder to prove we are better. On rare occasions, we consider sabotage, or delight when our primary rival screws up in the eyes of those we want to please.
An interviewer once told me that most writers are second born (as am I), or were, in some other way, raised in a position of competitiveness with others. Perhaps the rival was mom's boyfriend, and the prize mom's affection. Perhaps the rival was the other smartest kid in the class. In any event, we learned early that to get to the top, we had to win out over others during our climb up. And we so wanted to be on top, because that was the way, we believed, that we would finally feel good about ourselves, and earn attention, specialness, love.
Competitiveness is something we feel throughout our writing careers, and so we must decide whether to make it foe or friend. If it is allowed to run rampant, it will consume us with hatred for others. It will prod us toward bitterness and sarcasm, drain the words "Congratulations!" "Well-done!" and "you" from our vocabulary, shrivel us into the kind of person about whom others whisper, "She is not generous in spirit; we don't want to be like her." Competitiveness unchecked makes us ruthless and emotionally ugly, turning us from ourselves into literary Dorian Grays.
If, though, competitiveness is harnessed, we see others not as rivals but as examples of what we, too, can be. For instance, our friend's book sold one hundred thousand copies and ours only two thousand. We can snivel and gripe, or we can embark on a research project in which we try to understand why the public liked his book so much more than ours. Perhaps we find there is a greater difference between publishers than we had previously thought, and so we discover we need to become more alert to the strengths and goals of each house. Or perhaps we find that our friend wrote on a subject which, we now see, is enormously popular, and so we can explore whether we want to write about a similar, or equally popular, subject ourselves.
That is, competitiveness can spur us to work more diligently and become more resourceful. It can steer us toward determination and self-reliance, and, once we see that we can use it to develop not more rancor, but more insight, we can remember that the other person is an opportunity for an example — and that, just like us, he will want the same support and praise as we do. Hence, competitiveness properly appreciated can infuse our vocabulary with genuine expressions of praise for others, metamorphose us into the kind of person about whom others exclaim, "She is bighearted, a torch who lights our path." It can make us noble and emotionally attractive, transforming us as Scrooge was transformed after he awoke on Christmas day.
There is one danger in utilizing competitiveness, however, and that cannot be overlooked. Many is the apprentice writer who has turned his feelings of rivalry into a quest for self-improvement — but who does so by making his own work into an imitation of his competitor's. That is, he takes what made his work original and shovels it out the door, then warps and molds what remains into a form already created by someone else. He is not really pursuing self-improvement as much as he is avoiding fear.
I myself did this with several successful literary writers when I was younger, and wound up producing stories which were devoid of my own vision. I remember showing one such story to a teacher. "But it doesn't work," she said, holding the limp manuscript in her hand. I looked at her in defensiveness and sorrow. "It works for Alice Munro," I asserted. "Yes," she said, slapping down the pages. "But you're not Alice Munro. You're Rachel Simon."
In other words, we need to use competitiveness, but we must always remember that we are still ourselves: unique individuals. We cannot let competitiveness bully us into forgetting that. Sometimes it will tempt us to move in directions where we don't want to go — or where, given our writerly dispositions, we should not go. We must evaluate this, and so choose our lessons wisely. Be willing to venture into new realms and then return home if necessary. Establish whatever boundaries are required. Give ourselves the patience to experiment, and learn. (See "Boundaries" and "Patience" in Chapter 3.)
Competitiveness is a fine guide to lead us into adventure. We just need to parent ourselves a bit so we take risks without risking amnesia.
Confidence — A calm hum of faith in ourselves. Though we may have been confident about other aspects of our lives before we began writing, linguistic confidence comes only through experience: the short story finally worked to a revelatory climax, the novel painstakingly refined. Confidence is an emotion we acquire through the evidence — to ourselves — of our own unflagging competence. It arrives in dribbles at first, but eventually, after a long time of writing, solidifies into a consistent self-assurance which is virtually unshakable, and which transcends the hours at the desk to bolster us through all other aspects of our days.
Some people, when people start their writing careers, feel they need to affect a public persona of absolute confidence. Usually these people have done much more dreaming than writing, and so are quite unfamiliar with the hard work involved. Often they discuss their stories — and boast about the spectacular flight path of their soon-to-be careers — before they've ever written a word, trying to impress the world with their brilliance. Apprentice writers who are already in the trenches sometimes allow such seemingly confident people to deter them; "I'll never find it that easy," they mope, occasionally falling into writer's block. But in fact these boasters are cocky, not confident, more focused on what others think of them than on how hard they can push themselves. Sometimes, when they face the daily pondering and solitude, and realize that public adoration is only a minuscule part of writing, they shed their false confidence, achieve a level of humility, and get to work. Otherwise, they quit.
Confidence in writing takes years and a great deal of labor. It is earned, like wrinkles, or trust.
Confidence in writing also has less to do with external validation than we tend to believe. External validation certainly has its place — a teacher's hurrah can rouse us to write harder, an editor's acceptance letter can motivate us to submit more. But external validation inspires action and eagerness; external validation does not confidence make. A much published author may have little confidence, a barely published author may have a lot. My least confident student is the one who has won the most notable awards, whose stories have appeared in the most prestigious magazines. She continually falls into writer's block, so lacking in self-belief is she. My most confident student is the one who has never published, but who writes every day, growing more confident as he watches his work develop.
Confidence in writing comes from writing and writing and writing — while always striving consistently to improve. An acceptance from a publisher may be the maraschino cherry on our confidence, but it will not dollop out the entire treat. An acceptance gives a momentary, ultimately shallow high. Only hard work and betterment give the long-lasting, deep feeling of confidence.
Contemplativeness — A peaceful, prolonged, and leisurely musing. This is a slowing down of thought in which we retrain ourselves; instead of mentally careening toward our final destination, we let ourselves stroll, checking out all the cobwebbed alleys and crooked doorways and leaded windows on our way there, leaving ourselves open to taking new paths. Contemplativeness is a slow, midnight simmer in a luxurious bubble bath, not a zippy shower timed to end just as the coffee has brewed. It is a quiet meandering. An "Ah!" that feels like "Aaaaahhhhh." It is revelation by way of relaxation.
The Federal Express ads raise our pulse. MTV splices our concentration into nanoseconds. The remote control plays Tag with fifty storylines. We fax, we phone, we email. Our family says, "When are you going to get published already?" We think we should be further with our writing lives. When we sit down to write, a locomotive hurtles through our minds — Now! Fast! Faster, you procrastinating fool! It shouldn't take this long! Only numskulls take this long! Mach schnell! Mush! We rush through words and characters as if we have actual deadlines — "By June, I'll have five stories done" "By my fortieth birthday, I'll have sold a book" — and if we don't meet them, we expect some literary Judgment Day to shuttle us directly to Hell.
Contemplativeness comes only after we have dispensed with such high-speed expectations by realizing that the expectations themselves slow us down. Urgency zeroes in on the finish line — not on words and characters and structure and metaphors and secondary themes. So we get sloppy, empty stories, if we get any stories at all. Nothing we feel our way through, let alone feel good about. Consequently, we can't make our goals. In addition, we see writing as a chore, eliminating all possibility of fun.
Contemplativeness does not come in a first draft. It comes during revision, when we slide so deeply into the text that our breathing slows. It comes when we sit with an image, or character trait, or scene, and carefully sculpt it, taking as long to complete the task as is required — which is undoubtedly much longer than our urgent self would have allowed us to do. We don't rip a cake out of the oven just because we feel like eating it this very moment. We wait until it has cooked. We know baking takes time, and control our salivary glands accordingly.
One of the great benefits of writing, contemplativeness stays with us throughout the rest of our lives, enabling us to make calm, considered decisions about the real physical people around us as well as the imaginary people inside us. It gives a poise and groundedness to our personal style, replaces our impulsiveness with studied insight, endows our opinions with certainty. It makes others respect us, and it makes us feel good.
Ego — A rigid self-perception of supposed perfection. It is as stiff and stubborn as prison bars, with which — if we're lucky — we ultimately realize it has much in common. We must be perfect. We must ensure that others see us as perfect, too. We long for people to perceive us as notable, and dazzling, and original, and masterful because we fear that if they don't, they — and we — will realize that in fact we are not notable, dazzling, original, masterful. And if we realize that, then we fear that everything we believe will fall apart; we will crumble and blow away, a nothing suddenly exposed to the world as a nothing.
Ego is not self-esteem, though we often use the words synonymously. Self-esteem is a good opinion of oneself, a view of oneself as worthy, a consistent flow of self-respect; ego (in the non-Freudian way I am using it here) is more focused on self-importance, probably to the point of vanity. When our self-esteem is healthy, it is not punctured by others' comments about our work, but those same comments may make our ego boil. Self-esteem is necessary in writing and in life, because it enables us to dream and to try. Ego — that self-conscious sense that we are distinct and usually better than others — tends to get only in our way, because it focuses on us and the payback our work will give us, not on the process, and not on the work.
Most beginning and some advanced writers place a high value on ego. I can do it, no problem. I am special, so I don't need to work as hard as others. I wrote it; therefore, it's good. We get so caught up in how the writing reflects our personalities that we can't let our work be perceived as flawed. If it is flawed, we are flawed. Which means, in practice, that we receive critiques in one of two ways: either we lash out at the messenger for giving us such ill-conceived or (we think) malicious appraisals, or we flagellate ourselves for being so stupid, shoddy, and humanly impaired as to produce drek. Either way, we work no more on the piece. Instead we stew, dagger-eyed, or else sob our way to the trash can.
Ego rears its head most when we think a piece is complete and find out — whether through the comments of others or ourselves — that the piece still needs work. We become defensive. "I spent a whole week on that story, and if it's not done, well then I just don't care!" Or, "But it really happened that way!" Or, "Oh, stop being so nit-picky; I can get away with it." Our ego can't allow us to slow down and go back into the piece. It obstructs process with the steadfastness of a General Patton. If it doesn't, it suspects, its very existence will be threatened.
For assistance in countering the effects of ego, refer to "Humility" and "Patience" in Chapter 3. Also, bear in mind this most important of points: When we read books, our primary concern is to slip fully out of our own lives and get sucked into what novelist John Gardner called the fictional dream created by the writer. Our primary concern is not to dwell upon whether or not the writer is a genius. Certainly, the writer is important as the creator who hatched and nurtured this world. But if the writer's ego has prevented her from working as hard as she could — refining the language, discerning the best pacing — we will find ourselves yanked out of the fictional dream. Then we won't care about the writer, and perhaps even dislike her. Certainly we will be unlikely to read her again. All writers striving to reduce their ego must never forget this most essential fact.
Ego is one of the biggest enemies a writer ever encounters. It is a considerably more formidable adversary than the vagaries of the publishing industry. It is the parent of laziness, the sibling of pride, the spouse of shame. It makes us bitter about others' successes and too paralyzed to keep trying. We cannot fully enter the tournament of writing until we have stripped away our ego. If we don't, we will never persist long enough to achieve confidence or meaningfulness, much less euphoria.
Energy — A sustained capacity for and love of vigor. We feel energy when we've been writing so hard and feel the work is going so well that we forget lunch, the day of the week, our own names. We rise from the desk, mentally foggy — yet, almost perversely, charged up. The writing has excited all our molecules. We are bubbling inside. We are making associations and insights with electric ease. We have eaten our literary spinach, and our minds are more potent than ever.
But the expression of energy is seldom immediate. After a session of writing, we are often spent, our mouths unhinged droolingly, our eyes pooling. We stumble back to reality, our spoken sentences unraveling somewhere in the predicate. We apologize for being dull. Only when time has passed — a few hours, a night's sleep — does energy seize us. Then, it propels us far further than we would have been otherwise. We taste new colors and smell shifting hues. We understand the most secret of nuances. We had a workover and now we're ready for the party. We might even have physical strengths we've never had before.
In addition, energy is cumulative. While we may feel a noticeable surge of energy after a single session of writing, the amount we feel after months of consistent writing is astounding. We become pinballs, bouncing into everything, always excited, eyes sparkling. The world is our teacher, and we want to learn all. People ask, "What's happened to you? You seem so alive!" They wonder if we're in love, or on some new drug, or a diet.
Part of why writing leads to energy is that it reacquaints us with hope. Not only are we practicing the mental acrobatics we have studied at our desks, but we are reveling in the sense that things will work out — the story will come to a striking climax, the revisions will dilate whole unexplored areas of the text to reveal new ones, the piece will sell. And since we are clicking along on hope when we're facing the paper, we continue when we are facing our personnel director, or spouse, or children. Everything seems lit in a rosier light. We have faith. We want to dance.
Envy — A punch of rage when someone else has what you do not. Envy strikes suddenly, a flash reaction to some provocation. This could be the moment we realize, as a friend is reading us a story that is so much more skillfully composed than any we have ever considered writing, that she is more developed than we. Or it could be the second we hear the news that an acquaintance has placed a story in Harper's while we remain unpublished. Every writer skims interviews of new novelists to discern the author's age — and most suffer a blow if the New Star is younger than they.
"It's unjust!" we think, stomping our figurative feet. "I work harder/write better/am wiser than they!" We rail at the debilitating forces in our past, irate with them for leading us to be less competitive now. We sometimes wish others ill, secretly hoping their skill fades, or Harper's changes its mind, or the Young New Star's next book is a highly publicized pile of dung.
We hate ourselves for feeling envy. We shouldn't have it, we think; it is a vulgar emotion that other people have. How could we — generous, friendly, conscientious we — possess the frozen smile and stilted "Con-grat-u-la-tions" of some slimy egotist? It jars our self-image. We gnash our teeth on the outside, and grieve over our dead illusions on the inside.
One of my students found her own envy so intolerable, she learned to make it her ally. After a friend of hers brought a story to class that was breathtakingly imaginative and well-written, my student found herself fuming with envy. She drove home sweating and speechless. Her friend had talent! Her friend had the admiration of the class! My student ran to bed, too full of fury and self-hate to speak to her husband. But after a night of inner screaming, my student woke up into epiphany: she felt envy because she wanted — more badly than she had realized — to be a good writer. The extreme heat of her envy made her see just how much she wanted it. So she set herself to combating envy with harder work, and instead of seeing her friend as someone to revile, saw her friend as a trail guide leading the way. And so, she turned the object of her envy into an object of inspiration.
Left unaddressed, envy makes us feel alone and creatively clogged. We will become old before our time. We will intensify our impatience, thwart our contemplativeness, stunt all growth of confidence. We will forget that writing is something we do for us. We will feel at war with the world.
Euphoria — A gush of well-being and intense pleasure. Euphoria is writing afterglow, an unfurling of tranquility and happiness that follows the jangly tumult of writing, a time of radiance when all we want to do is breathe quietly and untangle ourselves from our pens and stare lovingly into the eyes of the world.
Euphoria comes when we have given our writing all we've got — and then given it still more. It comes after we have voyaged to themes we've never seen before and clambered through language combinations we've never heard before and unearthed bejeweled shadows of ourselves that were so buried we were startled to find they existed — and then, we walk back into real life. So awestruck are we at the magic of writing, and so pleased are we with our own writing powers, that we feel dizzy with contentment, pleased with ourselves, and charmed by life in general.
Unlike contemplativeness or nimble-mindedness, euphoria can purr through us at any point in the writing process, from the moment after we finish a single session to the year after we have written a book. Euphoria can also last forever, or be as fleeting as a heartbeat. But brief or not, it makes the non-writing part of life so sweet that we continue to strive for euphoria. Euphoria is what authors mean when they say they need writing to live. It is what rides them through the other hard emotions, and makes the writing life a sane and uplifting choice.
Feelings of Failure — A shudder of vast disappointment in ourselves. We expect ourselves to be successful in our endeavors, yet we come to believe that we are not and will never be successful in writing. We thought we would be published by now, and since we're not, we must be losers. Or we thought we would be able to write a competent story by now, but since we haven't, we must lack talent. Feelings of failure can pelt us at any moment for any reason and linger for any length of time. They make us sulk and despair, and want to conceal our demoted-to-wretched self-image from others.
Every writer, no matter what level, struggles with occasional feelings of failure. Award-winning authors may panic that their newest story will be their last; apprentice writers may drop a writing class after their first harsh critique. I myself felt like a failure the day I received my first rejections: a triple-whammy of no's from Harpers, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. I also felt like a failure the day I completed the draft of a new novel and stumbled out of the library, moaning to myself, "I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me."
Feelings of failure are not logical. They are based on the assumption that now is the only time that counts — or that, if there is a future, it will feel no better than the present. I believed when I received the three rejection slips in one day that I had ample proof that I was a dud. I believed when I finished the draft of the novel that I had so much rewriting before me, I would never pull it off.
Apprentice writers think that only they feel like failures. If they could get something published, they think, they would have validation and hence, no more feelings of failure. Experienced writers know that feelings of failure come cyclically. Sometimes they concern the marketplace, sometimes technical abilities, sometimes nothing they can determine. They also know that they need to wait these feelings out. Feelings of failure seize us like highway robbers and waylay us. Eventually, though, we must duke it out with them so we can get back onto the road. (See "Tenacity" in Chapter 3.)
A former teacher once gave me invaluable advice about feelings of failure. "Of course you have them," he told me when I returned to college for my ten-year reunion. "If you didn't have them from time to time, you wouldn't know you were trying. But the harder you try to succeed, the more often — and more spectacularly — you'll fail. All creative people cope with this. And if you don't find ways to work through those feelings and keep going, you will fail. Because you'll feel this way again and again, so you might as well learn to handle it now."
Or, as a student of mine once said, "The only difference between the successful and the failed is that when the successful fall down, they get back up."
Feelings of Inferiority — A shrinkage of our self-esteem. We think others are better. Smarter, wiser, faster, more likeable, more inventive, more talented, or just more. In our minds, we place ourselves beside them and they tower over us. In fact, we are barely visible. We slump, thinking of this. In the presence of those who are better than we, we may cower. We think there is so much we don't know and can't do. We think we are innately limited. We think we should melt away into gray, and let the capable take over the earth.
When we feel inferior, we often feel anger at the same time. This might be directed at ourselves — You dummy! Why didn't you work on that paragraph longer! Or, What made you think you were NEA material? Any peabrain could see you're too dumb. And you're going to stay that way until you stop reading Spiderman and start reading Tolstoy, you jerk. Sometimes, we direct the anger at those we deem superior — He's just good because he's rich and doesn't have to work in some crummy office job like I do. We feel anger toward editors who picked someone's work over ours, and toward the world in general for giving us such a bum deal in life that we will never overcome our childhood.
Sometimes we try to compensate. We boast about every success, not to win support but to see other people's faces grimace with feelings of inferiority. We overeat, or drink. We show people the one same successful story over and over, trying to prove that once, in some shining, magical parting of our flaws, we could indeed match up.
Feelings of inferiority are delusion. They are based on the belief that each human being is one flat character, easily summed up. If there is one thing we can't do like a maestro — and do right now — then every aspect of us must be less than it should be. We find it impossible to believe that we could improve, or be only average in one area of our lives while still being highly competent in others. We find it so impossible, we settle into feeling inferior. Inferiority becomes our default emotion. It underlines our name. It becomes our home.
Frustration — Wanting, constipated. We feel frustrated when we work and work and work on a piece and it just won't come together. We also feel frustration when we submit our most praised story and it's rejected, maybe even summarily. Frustration is when something or someone keeps us from achieving our desired goal — the replacement of our trusted magazine editor with a new guy with new tastes, the lack of research material in the library, the limitations of our own skills. Frustration makes us feel annoyed and entrapped and powerless. It is anger that is locked in a cage.
We cannot fight frustration. We can forget about it during moments of celebration, and we can work our way out of it with patience (for both, see Chapter 3). But when we are in the heat of frustration, we cannot kick or bite or scream our way out of it. Like a Chinese finger box, the harder we fight it, the more stuck we feel. Sending indignant or defensive letters to editors who rejected us will not make their opinions of us become positive. Railing at the library director for the underfunded collection will not make reference librarians in the future smile fondly upon us. And berating ourselves for our own limitations will only guarantee that we will stop trying.
Frustration comes when we partake too much of the It was meant to be school of philosophy and not enough of the Oh, well, shit happens one. If we acknowledge the latter, it's much easier to recognize that our path is being blocked and figure out an alternative path. If we're fixed on the former, we spiral from frustration into feelings of failure, and from there into complete inactivity with our pens.
Frustration can be a passing discouragement or a major downshift. It can be something we groan about with other writers, or our impetus to bail out. It can last for a minute or forever. It can make us resentful and embittered, and make all we love about life impossible to dredge out when we are writing.
Guilt — A parasitic gnawing of remorse. Guilt is chastisement we give ourselves; the most self-sufficient form of spanking ever devised by humankind. We feel guilt when our actions are in conflict with what we believe is the proper way for us to behave. Guilt tends to grip us subtly, vexing us long before we have identified it, and it lingers for ages, an uninvited guest with no intention of leaving.
In writing, guilt usually arises under two conditions. The first is when it contradicts other people's conceptions or expectations of us, and we have not yet fully given ourselves permission to go ahead anyway. Maybe our spouses think we should be spending our free time cleaning up the house or earning money at a second job, but we would rather write. So we write, but with guilt. Maybe our family has always been secretive about cousin Julie's jail term and uncle Lenny's drinking. Yet we find such topics stimulating fodder for a story, so we write the story — with guilt. Or we have trouble managing all our parenting tasks while still making the time to write. So we have no children, or never have additional children to give our first child a sibling. We may then get our writing done, but do so with parental guilt.
Fortunately, guilt isn't a virus and, except for making us sigh over all that our family — or we ourselves — know that we aren't doing, guilt cannot harm us creatively. Guilt is the hands of No, you shouldn't! closing around — but not squeezing — our imaginations. What hurts is the thought that maybe our imaginations should be smothered, not the actuality. Guilt cannot stop us; it just makes us think we ought to stop. But if we try to make use of it, guilt can trigger self-examination, leading us to understand why we aren't giving ourselves more permission, which in turn can cause us to confront what our priorities really are.
The other condition in which guilt occurs with writing is when we are not writing. We tell ourselves that we must finish the report for the boss instead, or take our friend out to dinner, or do laundry — so we don't ever get to the desk. We would if we had the time, of course, but alas, we cannot find the spare hour. We profess this, even though we suspect we are making up excuses, that we really do have the time, but are procrastinating. (Indeed, this form of guilt rarely occurs when we truly don't have the time.) We do not understand why we are making up excuses; we know it's from feelings of inferiority or loneliness or whatever, but we can't or don't want to face them. So we don't write. Guilt floods in, and because we feel so guilty, we go to the movies, or walk the dog — anything other than face the guilt, which means face the page and write.
As with the other kind of guilt, this affliction cannot hurt us. Sure, it might lead us to personify our computer, imagining that it whispers, "Pssst!" to us every time we pass our desks, but guilt cannot delete our writing abilities, or sentence us to fire and brimstone, or trumpet to the world that we are not-writers. Guilt, in this case, is only a secondary emotion. It rises up to notify us that we're not facing the real causes for our lethargy. If we let guilt become the main issue rather than merely the symptom, it will obstruct our understanding of why we procrastinate. If, though, we see it as the proverbial canary in the coal mine, we can get to work on excavating the root reasons behind our inaction. Only then can we take the final plunge away from guilt, and into a full commitment.
Insecurity — Conspicuous vulnerability. We don't hide insecurity, much as we want to. It trembles our smiles, ups our blowhard quotient, tilts our faces toward the dirt, wrests our pen away from the go-for-the-gold climax and handcuffs it into some soggy blah of an ending. When we feel insecurity, we hope we are straddling the fence between "I'm okay" and "I stink," but we know we are deep into "I stink." We are not unsure of ourselves; we are sure, and what we are sure of is that we are no good.
Insecurity is anti-confidence. In the alternate universe of insecurity, every comment and response to us triggers a wince, a further breaking down: confirmation of our worthlessness. We have heard the phrases I'll show THEM and I think I can I think I can, but we know they don't apply to us. Even praise from a teacher or acceptance by an editor might inflame our insecurity: we think, "Oh, no! What if I can't do that again!" Many is the author who ceased writing entirely after the first book was published. Insecurity engulfs us. We live in the belly of it, and probably have most of our lives. Hence, it seems impossible to smoke our way out, and instead we just let it grow larger.
Insecurity never exists without substantial nurturing, which, initially, we ourselves rarely provide. Our cultivators are others we trusted. Parents or spouses or friends who remind us that we're dense, a screw-up, not nearly as smart as our older brother, a mistake they regret, going to send them to their grave for all the misery we've caused. Maybe they even find comic relief in our failures. (An award-winning novelist has an early memory which surges up at her deepest moments of insecurity: she is eight, lying in bed one night sobbing, while her mother and sister sit in the next room, laughing at a paper she had written for school, reading aloud the lines they are ridiculing.) Nothing we can do elicits their good wishes or a hug.
So we try to figure out how to win them over. We are exceptionally well-behaved, or exceedingly delinquent. We follow their rules meticulously, or we don't listen to a word they say. Eventually, though, we come to teach ourselves that their approval will materialize — but only when we become their accomplice in putting ourselves down. And so we come to believe we are the oaf, the jerk, the crybaby, the nobody, the bossy bitch, the slug, the slut, the self-centered manipulate and demanding brat they think we are. Maybe we even act out those roles — or we act out their opposites, trying to prove ourselves wrong. But the longer we don't recognize we've absorbed these negative self-images, the more deeply we believe we stink.
Unlike feelings of inferiority, insecurity in its purest form is seldom accompanied by anger. But in fact anger toward those who pumped such self-doubt into us is one of the ways we can recognize that we are trying to kill our insecurity: when, instead of nodding compliantly as Dad thunders about the B on our report card, or our wife guffaws at our recounting of a compliment at work, we instead find ourselves glaring back, recognizing the cruelty and illogic of our loved one's response — then we know we are beginning to kick our insecurity habit.
Insecurity takes years to shake, and we can never be sure we won't fall under its power again. But we can try, especially by cultivating our inner voice, which is discussed in detail in the next chapter.
The more we question rather than acquiesce to our insecurity, the better a chance we have of succeeding.
Inquisitiveness — A continuous percolation of curiosity. We feel inquisitive when our writing gallops us into huge stretches of our own ignorance and we realize that the only way to press on is to outfit ourselves with knowledge. So we become more alert, read more widely, ask more questions. Each person on a bus, every conversation, all the billboards and bubble gum wrappers and skateboards glimpsed out of the corner of our eyes become source material. We want to know more. The superficial is not enough. We want to nose around into everything.
Inquisitiveness is one of most conspicuous and attractive advantages of writing. This is not because others see that our minds are hungry (after all, many people could care less about hungry minds). It is because when we are indulging in our inquisitiveness with others, asking them to explain what they do for a living, or to relate how certain milestones felt, or to describe a pivotal memory in detail, they see we are interested in them. "Oh," their eyes say, regaining some light they normally shutter out, "you want to know about me?" They are flattered. Inquisitiveness, any social scientist could tell us, is at the heart of successful mingling. Everyone gains: our subjects, because they are honored by our interest, and us, because we are exploring uncharted parts of life, and because inquisitiveness helps make us new friends.
But inquisitiveness can, like witches, be either good or bad. Good inquisitiveness recognizes the subject's need for privacy, and so steps carefully ahead, never aggressively, always with consideration. Bad inquisitiveness charges forward, even after discomfort has clearly arisen on the subject's face. The only time bad inquisitiveness is allowable in writing is during investigative reporting, when, for instance, the mayor's evasiveness is obviously a cover-up for gross mismanagement. But bad inquisitiveness is not allowable — or flattering — during tea with Aunt Betsy, or after the man on the bus has said, "I don't want to talk about that." If we persist, we may still acquire information, but we will harden ourselves to the feelings of others, and so some humanity will leak away from our writing, and our hearts, without us even noticing it.
At its best, inquisitiveness is a reaching forward with glee. It is an opening up, an enthusiasm for being students of life. The more inquisitive we are, the more stimulated we let ourselves be. It is a gift we give ourselves as well as others.
Laziness — A whine of inactivity. Laziness is not just idleness; it is always accompanied by the inner gripe of But I don't WANT to. While still children, we learned to associate laziness with tediousness: scrubbing the bathtub, writing thank you notes for presents we never retrieved after they rolled under the sofa. So when we feel lazy with our writing, we tell ourselves we simply have a natural recoiling from tasks that are dull — which means that we are viewing writing as dull. All that slogging through the alphabet over and over, lashing our sprightly imaginations to the heavy-jowled conventions of plot and character, suspending that interminable transition of a middle between the two shining towers of our beginning and our ending — and oh, don't even talk to us about revision! Writing is just inherently boring. Ask anyone. That's why we don't WANT to do it.
When we give in to laziness, we seldom ask ourselves the most fundamental question: If it's so boring, why do we want to do it? Instead, we seek reasons to explain our laziness. We are too busy grocery shopping to have time to switch that story into third person. We need to take our co-worker to her birthday dinner instead. We simply don't believe in plot. In other words, laziness is not us; it is the external forces of other obligations, or the constraints of literary expectations. It is nothing we can do anything about, so we respond by doing nothing.
Some writers feel lazy during first drafts, and almost all writers feel lazy during revision. We set a kind of alarm clock in ourselves, and when we can't come up with a new word or narrative development fast enough — within a minute or month or whatever time limit we tacitly established for ourselves — we want to move on, regardless of whether we have taken the piece to its next level of quality. Often we even know what to do, yet we don't want to spend the time doing it. An urgency to complete cries out in us; we skate the surface to the end of the piece, rather than diving in for as long as it takes.
Laziness occurs when absurd expectations are courted by fear. We should be done with this story by now; since we can't puzzle it out, and we've been working at it three whole weeks! we conclude not that we need to learn patience, but that we must not be legitimate writers. Or: we should be able to write the story of our summer camp experience — after all, we've described the bug juice and raccoon raids and group showers to people a thousand times — but our terror at not being able to make our writing match our ambition is so great that instead of hunkering down and living out our writing commitment, we drop our pens, feeling listless, fatigued, unwilling.
In fact, I am not convinced that laziness per se really exists. I see it as yet another form of fear. We are so caught up in shoulds and so fearful that we can't achieve them that we just don't try.
A friend once described this mindset to me. When she had been in school, she put off starting papers until the night before they were due. Then, of course, she had to grind until daybreak, inevitably producing work beneath her capabilities. But that was the point, she explained: pressuring herself with the clock enabled her to avoid testing herself. She could always tell herself, "I could have gotten an A if I'd had more time." She would never know what she could truly do, and could maintain her self-image without subjecting it to any challenges.
In writing fiction, we don't have a professor's deadline. Yet we nonetheless tell ourselves we must finish by a certain (if maybe ill-defined) time. This is so we never really see what we can do. It is so we can maintain our current construct of self. We justify, we blame, but really, we are simply too scared to find out that we might be less than we believe — even if that is at the expense of finding out that we might, in fact, be more.
Loneliness — A surge of desolation. Loneliness descends when we are sitting at the desk and we are seized by emptiness. Nobody loves me, we think. Or we worry, If a writer writes in a room and no one hears him, maybe he doesn't exist. We clench up; our pen seems to recede from us, leaving us focusing on the clumsy glove of our hand, or, if we're on a computer, we cease reading the words on the screen, and see only our reflection.
We tell ourselves this is because we are alone. We need officemates with whom we can shoot the breeze, an elevator operator who wants to hear about our date last night. We pick up the phone; we dwell on the film festival next week; we long for a more supportive spouse or, if we're single, any kind of spouse at all. Homo sapiens is a social animal, right? And we have it so hard. Other people who do their work around others, and who have someone wonderful to be with at night — they don't know what it's like. We know. Loneliness, we tell ourselves, is the price we pay for pursuing our literary dream.
Loneliness, however, only masquerades as the desire for company. It actually has little to do with whether or not others are accessible. Loneliness comes because we are inaccessible to ourselves. It is a misnomer, since the lone root makes us think it is about being alone. But loneliness is not about being alone. As therapists like to point out, we can be in the middle of Grand Central Station and feel lonely, and we can be in a shack at the South Pole and not feel lonely. This is because loneliness is not about whether or not we are existing in a social context. Loneliness is about how we feel in the company of our selves. And if our selves feel empty, we interpret that emptiness as loneliness.
The reason we erroneously associate loneliness with the lack of social interaction is because we imagine that the company of others will cure this emptiness. After all, we learned in the past that hanging out with loved ones helped us cope with trauma. Our emptiness, we think, must be treatable in the same way. We believe this even though we suspect that our loneliness is derived from a dislike of ourselves; that we are seeking distraction, not companionship. But admitting that would force us to reveal to ourselves that we are flawed. Thus we go on, yearning for others, wanting to escape the shell that we call ourselves.
So intent are we on the elixir of social life that we neglect the best cure for loneliness: keeping company with our characters. Our characters are fragments of ourselves, grown large and complicated. When we are with them, we can't be lonely. They dance at a firemen's ball to which we are, at all moments, invited — and every one of them wants to dance with us. But if all we see are the flesh and blood people around us, we'll never get to the ball. In fact, the dance hall will remain empty, boarded up; we'll rush right by, not even noticing it is there.
Love/Hate — Contradictory epiphanies about our work. Love/hate can occur at any point in the writing process, from the first glimmer of an idea through the scrawling out of a draft to the final read-through of a piece that took ten years to complete. We become inflamed with the ingeniousness, coherence, seductiveness of the work — until, maybe a second later, maybe a month, we become equally inflamed with its banality, sloppiness, inhospitality. It's genius! vies with It's a dud! We berate ourselves for overjudging, and then, when we pendulum to the other side, for underjudging. We cannot be in two places at once, so we question our perceptions, always thinking, NOW I see it clearly, until now passes and we realize that we were wrong then, too.
Love/hate implies binary thinking. It is the same kind of thinking we have when we ask, "How are you?" We want others to say, "Fine," or "Not so good," and are discomfited if they give both answers simultaneously, or qualify that "fine" applies to certain aspects of their lives, "not so good" to others. We don't like that. We are not a manic sea, changing tides and spewing shells, furious at the shore and calm near the horizon. Our self-concept does not admit paradox. No, we are a neat little swimming pool: contained, placid, the same forever.
A few years ago I rebelled against the usual responses to "How are you," which, I felt, forced me to deny the possibility of change. Instead, I began viewing my response in terms of a continuum: It sucks on one end, and It rocks on the other. I told people this is how I would answer "How are you?" from now on — with the qualifier that my answer would count only as an emotional snapshot of this one moment in time; after now, they should expect my position on the continuum to change.
Love/hate is not, as we believe, a cycle of seeing more clearly, reversing our previous opinions, and then seeing the opposite. Love/hate is the hermaphrodite of opinion. We can love many aspects of a piece of writing while we hate others. We can also love and hate the same aspects simultaneously.
The grander our aspirations and the longer we work on a piece, the more frequently and intensively we will experience love/hate. It then feeds itself, because the more we feel love/hate, the more we find we want to write: if we hate how we handled emotion, or dialogue, or whatever, in this one piece, maybe we can try to do better tomorrow, or with the next piece, trying always to tilt the balance toward love. Love/hate, then, can be well-utilized if combined with a strong commitment to writing. In addition, our ability to tolerate love/hate can teach us that we are indeed able to function — and function beautifully — when we accept the existence of our inner contradictions (a useful bit of knowledge to have throughout our lives).
The only disadvantage to love/hate is when it comes before or during the first draft. Then, we are so pushed and pulled that we often drop the story entirely. Then love/hate abandons its roles of guide and commentator. It becomes censor and executioner. We have seen our ally, and made it into our end.
Meaningfulness — A glow of dignity from engaging in purposeful activity. Meaningfulness can spring up suddenly while we are flying through the first draft of our story, or rise slowly after we have polished an entire novel. It can come at any moment when we know we have done ourselves, and maybe the world, good, that we set out to perform a task which we hoped would give our lives a greater sense of importance and value, and that, having accomplished the task, we indeed feel important and valued.
Many apprentice writers are drawn to writing because they feel that they live mundane lives of no significance, or what I, looking at myself, used to call a "small life." We think that no one but our friends will ever know or care that we lived. We look for ways to transcend our smallness. Perhaps we fancy being an inventor of culture-altering gadgets, or the discoverer of new laws of physics. I used to wish I could run a three-minute mile, and sing with four voices at once, and found a new calendar. We want to go beyond the wheres and whatfores of our lives — maybe not so people know us, but so we can feel we have done something significant for humanity and ourselves. Or, as I used to wish when I was in a long writer's block, so we can feel we are doing what we were put here to do.
We think writing is an ideal route to provide this meaning, and we are not mistaken. As writers throughout history have attested — and as we ourselves can learn over our writing years — writing does transform readers' lives, in big ways and small. It was books that taught my family how to raise a puppy. It was stories by Chekhov that encouraged one friend to be a doctor. It was a biography by C.S. Lewis that impelled another friend to become a Christian. It was George Orwell's 1984 that galvanized me to turn off my television, Grimm's Fairy Tales that prompted me to knead my imagination to life, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita that taught me to feel sympathy for the most odious of characters, Patrick Suskind's Perfume that made me remember the neglected organ of my nose.
Meaningfulness can also arise from the very process of writing. In this case, it is our lives, not readers', which then experiences meaning. Whether we are published or not, over time the act of sitting, pondering, eliminating our internal clock, following our instincts, and working hard can conspire to give us a sense of purpose. And this alone may be the meaning we seek.
Sometimes we forget about pursuing meaningfulness when we're writing. We may forget for twenty years. Then one morning, when we hit an exquisite metaphor, or one of our readers sends a letter swooning over our work, or someone tells us that our story made him take care of an emotional act which he had long put off doing, we feel as if some kind of sun has risen inside us: Aha! we think, grinning, NOW I know why I do this!
Meaningfulness cannot be planned for or pursued. But when it emerges, it stretches us tall, infuses us with confidence, makes us work all the harder. It connects us to all people with missions, from artists to scientists to revolutionaries. It makes every day count, life forever worth living. It inspires us as much as it rewards. It is our bar mitzvah into continuing.
Nimble-mindedness — Dancing fandangos in the mind. Nimble-mindedness means we are thinking swiftly and lightly, speeding over and through multiple thoughts like a pollinating Mercury, all the while maintaining the wit and spiritedness of a Pan. When we are nimble-minded, every word, idea, character trait, narrative development — everything — becomes our mental playground to leap and slide through, to crawl and limbo under, to twist and juggle around. The world feels fully elastic to us; nothing seems formidable, let alone frightful, because everything is malleable, and everything is play.
Nimble-mindedness first sprouts in us soon after we have begun writing for the first time, and begin to see that writing entails knocking down all the Do Not Trespass signs and skipping, tentatively and then wildly, across everywhere we have been afraid to go before. We realize we can vandalize every social convention, hot-wire sleeping thoughts, challenge language to a chicken race, let all our most secret voices dare to roar. Soon our minds get a taste of this delinquency, and we like it. We like it so much, we want more of it. And so the longer we write over the years, and the more wayward we find our minds becoming, the more we forget the rules about how to treat language and story, and the more nimble our minds grow to be.
Nimble-minded people make rapid connections between seemingly disparate elements. They think original thoughts. They admit what they do not know because they are confident that they can learn. They are not afraid.
Paranoia — A chronic tic of looking over one's shoulder. Paranoia tells us that the worst case scenario will always happen so we'd better watch out — even though our vigilance won't prevent the disaster, nor will it lighten the damage. The magazine will plagiarize us and win a major award for our story, the family will stop speaking to us and omit us from all future Sunday barbecues, the FBI will root out a Most Wanted person from our acknowledgments and lock him up for twenty years, the friends will see themselves behaving unbecomingly in our infidelity-on-the-beach scene and sue us into homelessness. We will offend or provoke. We will be on our way, and then they will make us fail.
Paranoia is no more about the machinations of nefarious others than loneliness is about the absence of social stimulation. Paranoia is about our fear of giving writing our all. We use paranoia as a handy mental device when we have been striving and sweating and drawing together and just as we begin actually getting somewhere, we stop. We tell ourselves that if we finish this story, we will fall prey to law suits or ostracism, but in truth, we are simply afraid of going on.
This is not to say that the chop-shop boss won't send out thugs if he reads the story based on our spying at his garage, or that our next-door neighbor won't burst out sobbing when she comes across her husband's put-downs in our dialogue. These things may still occur. But paranoia is what we feel when we dread the worst before it shows any hint of occurring, and then we curtail our ambitions so we never have to encounter what isn't yet there.
Paranoia is a form of fear that is based on a grandiose sense of our own importance. We think that when we publish a story, the world will notice. Indeed, the world will notice so dramatically that they will come after us — or, indeed, that they will plagiarize us. We will attend a movie two years hence and see our story — the same one we couldn't sell to anyone — on the screen! A world-famous author will come across our book proposal, write the book we wanted to write, and make ten million dollars! This is considerably more conceivable to us than the possibility that no one will notice our work at all.
We forget that other people are so caught up in their own lives, they seldom care what we are doing. We forget that, as passionately as some people read, very few carry that passion into action — especially action against the author. And very few would need or want to filch our ideas. Hollywood, and big-name authors, and anyone else whose plagiarism of our work would lead to great financial loss for us — these people have no scarcity of ideas. They don't need us. We forget that the big battle is just to get people to recognize our work exists, not to cringe from the ramifications of their recognition.
Or, as I tell myself whenever paranoia seeps into my thoughts, "Someone cares that much about your work and thinks others will care, too? Thumbs up, Simon. You should always be so lucky."
Passion — Enthusiastic and enduring literary libido. We love writing so much, we want to do it whenever we can. At the desk, on the train, in the bath, walking. We feel best when writing; it calms and expands us, connects us to the world and ourselves, makes us thrill to mess and humanness, nudges us into commitment. We see it as a lover, giving and forgiving, cerebral and sensuous, its face always before our eyes, its embrace the one we want most. If we have actual lovers or spouses, sometimes we feel we're cheating on them, given our passion for our linguistic paramour. Our real-life lovers might even feel threatened; possessive ones may interrupt our writing to ask us to join them on the porch for a pitcher of lemonade, or make love. They may want us to limit our rendezvous time; they may boycott all mention of their rival. They may even, if they are deeply insecure, read our creations only to mock them.
Other people do not understand our passion, especially if we are apprentice writers. They see it as a transient fancy, like the way we were with Thai cooking a year ago, or our five childhood classes in the clarinet. They are amused and often supportive, yet do not hesitate to try to lure us away from our desk. "We're having brunch, and it won't be complete without you." "You mean you won't be available for weeks? But I'm dying to tell you about my daughter's graduation!" They call on the phone and launch instantly into conversation, neglecting to ask if we're free. They act like the drinking mates of alcoholics who are trying to go sober: "Come on, one little drink won't hurt you." Except that alcoholism is a behavioral disorder. Writing is a behavioral order. Social temptations won't wrest it completely out of our lives but, if indulged in often and without thought, they will make us see writing as a ball and chain rather than as wings. Passion is one of the only ways to resist temptation.
Every concern that a writer has about writing ultimately comes down to passion. How do I find the time? and How can I do it when my family doesn't support me? and How could lowly, little me feel important enough to write? — all those questions are intimately connected to If you really want to write, you'll find a way. The same applies to technical matters. Don't know how to handle suspense? Sentence variety? Shifting time periods? If you really want to write, you'll find a way. You'll be resourceful. You'll put yourself in a mental school where all the pupils are yourself, toss out all the lesson plans that have been passed on to you, and dream up innovative lesson plans of your own. And if that doesn't work, you'll try and try until you hit on something that does.
Although we often feel heady eruptions of passion while writing any one story, we know we are passionate about writing when our desire to write refuses to die over many years. It may fade — when we first begin absorbing the shock of rejection slips, simply can't make a story come together, are newly in love with a sweetheart or job or infant — but if it is truly passion, it will never go away. A year after the rejection slips, when we're washing our hands in the restroom at work: Yes! I've got to get back! The newborn child takes a nap, and we snatch up the pen instead of a mop. Two decades after a teacher brandished our story during a lecture on bad metaphors, we still want to write.
Passion is both the chicken and the egg. We must have passion if we persist, and we must persist if we have passion. It ebbs and flows, like passion in a marriage. But if it is true passion, it remains with us until death do us part, our appreciation for it only deepening as we age.
Pride — Ego in a contest with others. Whereas ego is about our own sense of perfection, pride is about our sense that others are not as perfect as we. We gaze down on them from above, eagle-eyed, searching their work for the desiccated, the unweeded, the fallow, the overtilled. If we pick out flaws, we are pleased, because then we know once again that we are king of the mountain. If we don't pick out flaws, we tell ourselves that all we need is more information about this other writer — her sexual history, his relationship with his mother — so that we can tell ourselves, Yeah, he may be a good writer, but he's not a nice person, and give ourselves one more reason to dismiss anyone who is not us.
Pride is faith in our superiority. We are not slipshod or slothful, the way others are. We get our stories right. We know how to do it. What a pity for others that they don't have our brain and experience. Everything they tell us is a pock-marked reflection of something we have done better, or worked at harder, or suffered with longer. No one is in our league. We let others know that, perhaps subtly; even when we're responding to their concerns, we begin most of our sentences with I.
Of course, when we coronate ourselves and use our vaulted position to judge others, we also sentence ourselves to perfection. We must be right, and if we're not, well . . . we must be right. Consequently, we dam off the possibility of learning. No teacher, or fellow writer, or even quiet doubt in our own heads can tell us we need to make changes in a piece, or work harder. This is how we do it, period. If we ask to hear opinions, it is because we're hoping to be applauded, even celebrated, for our flawlessness. Should the opinions lean toward More work, please, we snarl and walk away. Other people may need more work. Other people make mistakes. Not us. We are fully formed. And anyone who can't see that is as flawed as those whose work is less than our own.
Pride kills writers. It chains them onto a single plateau of development and keeps them there till they starve to dust. They could break away before that fate, but pride insists that this one plateau is all. They need only take a swig of humility and imperfection to loosen those chains and climb to the next plateau, but to do that they must admit they are no better than others, and pride tells them that they mustn't.
Pride is actually its own opposite. Instead of being about superiority, it is about inferiority: we are so concerned that we don't match up that, in fact, all we do is match ourselves. We also imagine that others are doing the same, and because we must come out as Number One, we separate ourselves from the rest of humanity, wedging us off from the universality of emotions and experience, corralling ourselves into the narcissistic.
When I meet with students for the first time, I ask them to admit to their own imperfection. "I'm imperfect," I tell them, "and I expect no more of you." But we all begin writing with a great deal of pride, and it takes a long time and a lot of effort before we can fully erode it.
Shame — The panic of having others realize we are a fraud. Shame ambushes us when we are unable to sell the story everyone loved, or we write a climax that the teacher tells the class is "beneath you," or we publish a book that goes out of print within a year. We recognize that people who previously saw us as special might defrock us down to merely mediocre. And we are afraid this will lead to their liking us less — perhaps not liking us at all.
Shame necessitates myth. We have created a myth of ourselves (or not dissuaded others from creating a myth of us) as capable, a golden girl or boy, a natural writer, a success-in-the-making. We believe that other people need myths so they can keep going themselves: mythical stories of triumph and fame make them feel that the world is not such a bad place after all, that there is justice and perhaps a grand plan, that good things happen to those who deserve it, that maybe they can become something themselves. We allow ourselves to be other people's models, the fuel they need to persevere or, at least, to maintain optimism. And so we cringe and grow nauseous at the thought of others seeing our failures; we know that if their myth of us goes into a nosedive, their disappointment will be vast, having implications far beyond their opinion of us.
Or so we tell ourselves. In reality, we feel shame because we want to be liked. We use our writing talents and successes to draw people to us, be our morale boosters, our friends; if, we fear, we are perceived as a failure, we will lose all those smiling faces, and be left with nothing but our own frown.
Shame roots itself in our tendency to seek ourselves in the eyes of others. If they like us, we like us. If they walk away from us, we must be unlikable. So we guard the way others see us because we need to guard the way we see us. And since we want to see ourselves as perfect, we want others to know only that which will ensure that they see us as perfect, too.
Some years ago, when I was in a crisis, a friend gave me the single most helpful advice I could tell myself. She was in a Twelve Step program, which I credit with giving her this clarity. "What other people think about you," she said, "is none of your business." And she was right: my return to emotional stability relied on my remembering the boundary between my self-image and others' thoughts (real or imagined) about me. (See "Boundaries," Chapter 3.) To focus on what others think of us is to de-emphasize, forget, or negate what we think of us. Their opinions of us are unimportant. Only our opinions of us are important. We may sometimes disappoint ourselves, but if we do so without shame, we can learn from our mistakes that much more effectively.
Spiritual Connectedness — An apprehension of human or cosmic Oneness. This can take the form of an anthropological revelation, i.e., pain is pain and joy is joy, no matter our age or ethnic group or background; or it can take the form of a mystical, almost religious experience, i.e., all experience and time and matter is interrelated, expressions of the same larger, perhaps god-like, phenomenon. Spiritual connectedness can occur in a single, blinding moment, a Tah-dah! when some heretofore unconceived unity becomes quite apparent. It can also rise up slowly, subtly, an Oh, I get it now of clarity that can persist for years. However it arrives, spiritual connectedness tends to wait until the writer has been writing a long, long time. Apprentice writers almost never feel it; they look at experienced writers who seem to have a sense of tranquility and understanding, and they shudder, believing that their own low self-esteem will prevent them from ever feeling this. They don't realize that it is a state of being which writers work up to, and which no one plans for or thinks about until it happens.
Spiritual connectedness is perhaps the most monumental reward of writing. It grows out of the setting aside of pride and ego; the admitting of imperfection; the nurturing of contemplativeness, euphoria, inquisitiveness, and meaningfulness; and the deeply felt acknowledgment that we are all just as fearful and hopeful and struggling and loving as everyone else. Spiritual connectedness leads to an extreme comfort with the world that transcends writing and publishing. It does not make us cozy up to everyone — we know, since we have seen our own shadow so closely, that everyone has a dark side, and that some dark sides should be avoided. But it makes us look into the faces of others and see ourselves, and look into our own face and see others. It enables us to write from many points of view and demographic profiles, to walk up to strangers and quickly find something we have in common, to live our lives without fear of being found a fraud, to experiment in our work without aching for acceptance. We accept ourselves as we accept others, and when others don't accept us, we no longer doubt ourselves as a result.
I felt the anthropological form of spiritual connectedness when I was writing my first book, but not until I was hammering out the revision of my second book did I feel a cosmic form as well. I am not a religious person; most of my life I have questioned, or maybe even scoffed at, the concept of God. Yet the more deeply I wrote, and the more I lowered myself through the layers of character and narrative and language, the more I felt I'd come into contact with something divine. It was as though my book already existed in some great cosmic library, and I was just groping my way through some haze to make a copy of it. For several months I felt as if I was in a writing trance so deep that I'd entered the world of dreams, and then, after some more months, that I was dreaming so fluidly that I had passed into the collective unconscious. There I was, swimming in some great All, unhampered by self-consciousness or time, patient, free of fear, enjoying it.
The result was that I lost a lot of the angst that had depleted me for much of my life. All my anger toward other people subsided; I came to regard their failings as being on a par with my own, and so found myself feeling compassion for them, no longer oppressed by their past errors. I was also able to let go of several relationships that had weighed me down; I saw I could like people without necessarily wanting to be friends with them. I lost my paranoia and shame, my reliance on external validation to accept myself. I acquired a tremendous comfort with my own solitude, and a sense of inner calmness in all my social interactions. I learned I could change my mind and not hate myself; peek behind facts and see the contradictions lurking there. I could tolerate paradox, continually challenge who I am. Start embracing. Stop fretting.
In the year or two after I finished that book, people would often ask me how I became like this. After seminars and classes, or even overhearing me in a coffee shop: "You have such a groundedness," they'd remark. "The peace of someone who's a lot older than you. How did you manage that? How did you get so wise?" I'd pause and mull it over; wisdom was not a trait I'd ever applied to myself.
I'd cast about for a profound response but when I opened my mouth, I'd give the only answer that made any sense to me. "Writing," I'd say. "That about sums it up." And then if they wanted to know more, I'd try to explain what that meant.Previous chapter Next chapter Table of contents
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