The perceived inability to write leads to an obvious contradiction -- and an existential crisis.
I got the most arresting letter yesterday. At first I thought it was ripping me a new one. But its initial sharpness broadened into something compassionate and insightful. Harsh perfectionism as a kind of literary anorexia, indeed!
Here is the letter. If you don’t mind, I’d like to share it with you.
I read your advice to the frustrated artist lamenting his/her emotional quandary over rejection and I was stunned by your delusion in regards to how much value you place on being critical and the kinds of hoops you require for others as well as yourself. I was struck by how amazingly egotistical this kind of superficially constructed thinking can become and where it takes one … from my point of view, the softer and gentler we are in regards to our inner process, the more we have to give and receive from others and actually be able to relate to our humanity and others in a meaningful way. There is something quite emotionally anorexic about this inner critic experience, if you think about it … the limitations imposed and the managing aspect of it and its menacing power over allowing oneself freedom … not only from suffering but from imposing needless constraints in our creative experience. We have to learn to trust this process and find it meaningful totally for its own regard without judging ourselves by media, commercially hyped realities or gifted writers who are different than ourselves. It’s great to be inspired but not sunk by our ego attachment from envy. Remind yourself to treat yourself with kindness rather than black-and-white pronouncements that put you in a box of negative cycling.
It had meaning for me, and perhaps it will have meaning for the following letter writer as well. (My apologies if it seems that we are stuck on the creative process. There seems to be more here than I realized.) –CT
I’m not looking for a cure so much as an assessment, I guess. Here’s the “problem”: I used to love to write. I wrote for my own enjoyment, all the time, starting pretty much from the moment I’d gotten the hang of the alphabet. Mostly I considered this separate from school interests and career ambitions, although more recently I’d been contemplating a career that would involve writing.
But I had a few bad “life experiences” that left me more cynical about other people and about my own instincts. And then I stopped writing. This seemed fine for a little while: I had more pressing concerns, and I figured I needed some time to recover anyway. The thing is, I’ve had time to catch my breath; my life is on track now, after it took a sharp left a ways back, and yet I can’t start writing again.
I don’t want to be a writer anymore, and that’s cool, I don’t see it as a problem. What worries me is that I can’t write for the hell of it, just to myself. A couple of people connected with those disillusioning experiences were “writers” — aspiring, not professional, writers, and not very good ones, but it was my source of introduction and main point of connection with each of them. I’ve known plenty of people who were decent human beings and decent writers, yet now I find myself associating writing with the sleazy narcissism of those few bad apples. Then again, maybe it’s not really about them so much as the fact that I haven’t written since that series of unpleasant experiences; maybe the bigger problem is that I lived so much of my life alongside the parallel narrative in my notebooks, and I don’t know how to resume that narrative now that there’s been a break in it.
It may be for the best. I’ve changed from the person I was before, and I’m heading off on a different path now — maybe this is just one more old habit I ought to leave in the past. But I also wonder if I’ll need it anyway, so as not to grow blinkered or unreflective. I’m not into therapy, and I’m more circumspect than I used to be about opening up to other people, so I worry a little about how I’ll process the world without writing. Still, every time I sit down to write just for myself, I feel either total blankness or an overwhelming disgust that makes me want to get rid of everything I’ve ever written (which I’ve already done anyway).
Should I embrace the extra free time and channel it into more productive habits? Should I try to replace writing with something else? (Though I should add, I make a pretty lousy musician and I can’t afford a lot of fancy art supplies.) Perhaps I’m just too accustomed to navel-gazing, and doing less of it would actually be more healthy. What do you make of this?
Not a Writer
Dear Not a Writer,
I wonder how you managed to write this letter.
I don’t mean to be facile. I mean, really, how did you manage it? You found yourself with a problem. You found yourself in pain. You had a reason to write. You knew how to write. So you wrote.
So, in a compassionate way, as the letter writer above referred to my delusion, so must I refer to your delusion. I join you, of course, in entertaining delusions of vast and absurd proportions. I am sitting next to you in the lifeboat as we row and row and row, complaining the whole time about how we cannot row at all.
Perhaps we cannot row for enjoyment anymore. But this is not about enjoyment. This is an act of desperate rescue. This is life-and-death rowing. This we can do!
“Exactly,” says the sage sitting in the bow, lazily observing our strenuous efforts. “Exactly.”
Writing is a life-and-death act of consciousness. It must be or we cannot continue. It brings us face-to-face with who we are. Hence the disgust and nausea. Hence the need for compassion. Hence the need for understanding. Hence the need for honesty. And so the cycle goes. Note the above letter writer’s use of the word “cycle.” Say we write something and as a result we are hurt. We seek to avoid hurt. So we stop writing in order to avoid the hurt. But writing is also a way to heal the hurt. So when we stop writing we fail to heal. So the wound festers. It gets worse and worse. That is the cycle of destruction. Where we once castigated ourselves for writing poorly, now we castigate ourselves for not writing at all. It gets worse and worse and worse until we put the shotgun in our mouth. That is one cycle — of fear and paralysis and eventual suicide.
But here is the other cycle: We write to find out who we are. We look at what we have written and we are stunned. We experience perhaps a moment of revulsion, of disgust: This is who I am!? Somebody shoot me! But then we think, what’s wrong with that?
And we come to the fork in the road: Do we hide, then? Do we hide the identity that has emerged? That is the route of anorexia. We starve ourselves of being in order to hide what we are. OK, you could do that. But you’re killing yourself. Why are you killing yourself? Because you don’t deserve to exist? Because you don’t deserve to be who you are in front of others? Do others have so much power over you? Why? Who gave them such power? The king? Who is the king? Is there a king? Is there a judge? Then we must be revolutionary and destroy the kings and the judges so we can be who we are without fear.
Why not be revolutionary and claim the right to exist as we are — to exist as we have revealed ourselves to be, in all our flawed majesty and brilliant failure? Why not step forward and say yes, this is who I am, fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke. After all, we must remember that we are not entirely responsible for who we are. We did not create ourselves. We’d like to be better, maybe, but this is who we are. Must we apologize? To whom? To what king? To what judge?
Why not celebrate ourselves instead? For soon we will be gone! Now at least we exist. Our “mere” existence, as far as I can tell, is some kind of miracle.
So writing, even bad writing, becomes an act of revolutionary assertion: I am who I am. Deal with it.
My suggestion to you, my friend, is to forget all about using writing to get over. And forget about becoming a so-called good writer. Forget judgment and failure. Forget using writing for anything but revelation, however boring, however ugly, however mundane, however true.
What? You want more?
Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory. See what others are saying and/or join the conversation in the Table Talk forum. Ask for advice or make a comment to Cary Tennis. Send a letter to Salon’s editors not for publication.
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