The Most Important Critic is You: Thoughts on the Nature of Criticism

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“I have spent a good many years since―too many, I think―being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction or poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.”

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

“[A] writer’s most powerful weapon, his true strength, was his intuition, and regardless of whether he had any talent, if the critics combined to discredit an author’s nose for things, he would be reduced to a fearful creature who took a mistakenly guarded, absurdly cautious approach to his work, which would end up stifling his latent genius.”

Félix J. Palma, The Map of Time

“Still the voices of your critics. Listen intently to your own voice, to the person who knows you best. Then answer these questions: Do you think you should move ahead? How will you feel if you quit pursuing this thing you want to do? And what does your best self advise? What you hear may change your life.”

Steve Goodier


I used Goya’s painting of “Saturn devouring his sons” to symbolize the adverse effects of toxic criticism on the creative process.  In an earlier post on this subject, I used the image of a Dementor from the Harry Potter books, but the message is similar: certain kinds of criticism devour rather than inform or inspire.  While some criticism is necessary and valuable, even crucial to our development as writers, how does one differentiate between helpful and toxic criticism?

While the following provides a few general thoughts, I know there are more.  Please share some of your own in the comments below. I would love to hear what you all think on this subject.  I have been surprised at how many of us struggle with this area. There is also the truth that sometimes we can be our own worst critic, too.

  • Constructive criticism gives specific, practical advice about how to improve your writing, while honoring the creative process itself and the ideas you are trying to convey (even when the critic disagrees with your ideas).  There is a sincere, or at least objective desire to help you become a better writer, while providing possible alternative viewpoints.
  • Non-constructive criticism on the other hand, often comes in the form of a general, non-specific, or blanket rejection of your writing and your ideas.  This form of criticism confuses rejection of your ideas with your writing style or technique. There is no intent to help you improve as a writer, but rather to belittle or discourage.

I don’t mean to imply that tough criticism always has such a negative intent, of course.  If I want to improve, I have to be willing to receive feedback and constructive criticism. However, the main thing to discern is, “Why is this person saying this to me?  What is their intent?  Is there anything I can take from these comments that serves me?”  While I always prefer constructive criticism over the negative kind, there is usually something I can learn from any type of criticism.

For one thing, it has taught me to detach, toughen up, and use criticism more effectively.  I learned to ignore it in some cases, and in other instances to stop being so defensive and at least hear what my critics had to say.  I even learned to ask them questions and find out why they felt the way that they did. Conversely, I also learned to balance that openness with the importance of being true to myself first. I learned that while I can always improve my technical skills or how I communicate my ideas, I won’t change the bedrock of what I believe or write just to please other people.  As Raymond Carver once said about what his favorite professor taught him (who also was a tough but caring critic):  “If the words and sentiments [of a writer] are dishonest, the author is faking it, writing about things he or she does not care about or believe in, and the result is that nobody else will ever care anything about it either.”  This is what the best of my writing teachers and critics taught me as well.

Graphic though the above Goya painting may be, I think it is a good illustration of what happens to our self-confidence and to the creative process when we allow negative criticism to affect us adversely.  That is when criticism turns toxic.  As Eleanor Roosevelt once advised:  “No one can make you inferior without your consent.”   As writers and artists, we must always refuse to give our consent. Instead, to choose to believe in who we are and what we are moved to voice or create.  If we don’t, no one else will.  And, at the end of the day, isn’t our opinion about who we are and what we want to say the most important one anyway?

Question:  How many critics do we remember?  Mostly likely none.  How many great and innovative thinkers, writers, and artists do we remember?  And the latter always had more than their fair share of critics.  We are the richer that those great minds being criticized weren’t afraid to shake things up and neither should we.

Art, Literature, Poetry, and Connectedness

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“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”   – James Baldwin

When I read a book, hear a poem, or write — I feel connected to a world where things make sense.  Real life, on the other hand, can sometimes seem the opposite.  In addition to its other gifts of beauty, literature, art, and music help me better understand life.  Like James Baldwin, I don’t feel alone, yet it also puts my one small life into perspective.  Regardless of whether we are one voice among many, it doesn’t mean that the one voice is any less valuable or meaningful to the whole.  Reading or observing any art form is like hearing another human being’s cry in the wilderness as it mingles with our own.  Art connects us — not only to ourselves– but to each other.

I get a similar feeling when I look up and see a starlit sky, painted with an endless stretch of tiny brilliant sparkling lights, thousands of miles away, seemingly unreachable.  But then I find myself focusing only on one tiny speck of light–one unique star amongst a galaxy of trillions. Yet that one star doesn’t seem any less miraculous because it is only one in a billion trillion others.  We are like those tiny individual stars, each of us but one in the eons of other human beings who have lived on this Planet.  Yet each one is individual and unique, suspended in the common sky we call the human condition. If that seems paradoxical, it is; because that is the nature of being human: reconciling all these aspects of ourselves with life and finding our place in it.

While such an awareness only increases my awe, it also keeps me from taking myself too seriously in the vast “Scheme of Things.” I am aware that I am not alone and that I matter, and so does everyone else.  People–past and present–have experienced all that I have or most likely ever will.  The circumstances may be different, but we are equal and one in the larger and continually evolving mosaic of what it means to be human.  When we read, create, play, listen, love — we connect ourselves to all that has ever been and all that will ever be, and find our spot in the ancient constellation of life.

Death, Anger, Grief and Acceptance

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Anger and grief often go together. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about the five stages of grief, and one of the first ones she lists is the anger stage. She is quick to point out, however, that the stages don’t always appear in the order she prescribed.  Rather, it is simply a roadmap for what we experience in grieving our own death or the death of someone we love.  These stages can also be applied to other types of losses:  divorce, loss of a job or a business, etc.  If we look at anger as one the stages, experts often say that anger is usually not the primary emotion.  What underlies anger is most often fear.  As C.S. Lewis once wrote after the death of his wife, “No one told me that grief would feel so much like fear.”

Along that line of reasoning, what do we fear about grief and loss?  What makes us angry about it?  The first thing I think of is the pain of it:  the pain of separation and the  irrevocable loss of someone we love and have built our life around.  Anger can also arise from a sense of injustice – when something seems wrong or senseless.  The latter occurs most often when someone is young, or otherwise dies “before their time.”  It also hits home when someone is a victim of an act of violence or as a result of some other wrongdoing or error.  Regardless, however, I am not sure if death is something that we readily “accept,” but rather we just learn to live with it.  As my cousin said after losing a beloved family member:  “I just learn to live around this gaping hole in my life.”

It is this latter approach that Edna St. Vincent Millay takes in her excellent poem entitled “Dirge Without Music” (reproduced below).  She wrote this poem as a relatively young woman, and I have often wondered whether she came to any kind of resolution to the questions she raises in her poem before she herself died.  I don’t know, but wish I did.  What I do know is that she took the subject on unflinchingly, covering the gamut of emotion in the verses: grief certainly, but also anger, and definitely not acceptance.  There is also just a tinge of despair at what she perceives is death’s meaninglessness and finality; yet she never fully gives in to it.

It is these honest feelings that strike at the heart of what it means to be human.  How we make sense of it is what we all must do, in one way or another.  As a writer, I don’t want to shy away from any of this, even though I really don’t know how to always answer these questions.  As another poet, Rainier Marie Rilke wrote:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

And so I do – writing through the questions in hopes of finding an answer to what it means to be human: in loving, living, and yes – dying.  Isn’t that what all artists do, in one way or another?   Millay certainly did.  And while I believe there is life beyond the finality of what she calls “the shutting away of loving hearts into the hard ground,” I can still understand her feelings about the senselessness of it, of wanting to fight against the loss of someone I love.   Perhaps that very instinct — that awareness — is why we find death so hard to accept.  It is proof of what lasts, what lives on, and what gives our lives meaning.  It is what we live for, we often fight for, and in some cases even die for.  In light of that, acceptance never really has a place.

What are your thoughts?   I would love to hear from you.

Dirge Without Music
BY EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Dirge Without Music” from Collected Poems © 1928, 1955 by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Norma Millay Ellis. Source: Collected Poems (HarperCollins, 1958)

Image:  © Copyright Miss Steel and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licencehttp://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2314150

The Writing Oasis

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I never realized how difficult it is to blog regularly.  I know that we bloggers are advised to write regularly and often–all for very smart reasons.  For me, though, it is more a “quality rather than quantity” equation:  I just don’t feel I have anything of import to say that merits posting so frequently.  My mind is constantly thinking, of course, so it isn’t the problem of having nothing to think on or ponder about. Life certainly supplies a fresh batch of ideas every day even if my internal reflections aren’t exactly acting the muse.

On the face of it, that’s nothing to worry about.  There is a lot of life to live, and if a writer is out experiencing it rather than chained to their laptop, I think it makes us happier and healthier, or at least more balanced.  On the other hand (as I’ve written here before), if there are too many distractions taking you away from writing, that’s an imbalance too.  A writer who is not consistently writing is an unhappy person.  There’s also the discipline of it — a workout to your soul that is similar to the benefits brought to your body by physical workouts.

I need to remind myself about this by analogy – just as a walk around the block is better than nothing at all when it comes to physical exercise, writing something, no matter how small, has the same benefits to my mind and heart.  This daily writing exercise is something that most successful writers say they had to train themselves to do. Perhaps if I did that, I would open up the floodgates and brilliant pieces of writing would rush out … okay, maybe not.  But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t experience some benefit.

However, this post is not just about repeating advice that most writers have heard a dozen times.  I wanted to add another take on this subject.  It is not simply that I have avoided the discipline of daily writing because I don’t want to write or embrace my ADD and refuse to focus on anything for more than two minutes.  The main reason I inexplicably avoid something I really love to do is: I run.   I run from writing because I am not ready to go that deep into what I am thinking.  It essentially is running from myself.

It isn’t that I am frightened of what I will find, but because it is just a bad habit.  Writing takes up a lot of time, and while I love it —  it requires me to open up my heart, my mind, my life, and my soul.  It requires me sacrificing other things I would rather do so that I don’t have to dig deep.  It requires that I discipline myself to step away from all the things I worry and think about on a regular basis.  It is much easier to switch on the TV, watch a movie, or find a million other distractions.  But all that is a substitute for thinking and creating, and not nearly as satisfying.  You would think the choice would be a “no-brainer,” but it is not that easy for me.

So the point I am trying to make throughout all of this is … there are times to get out and experience all that life has to offer, to be with the people we love, and to feel the sun on our face and move our bodies out in the wilds of nature, or the urban jungle, wherever your playground is.  But there is a time to quiet the distractions and come home to your writer-self.  There’s an oasis there that is just as important to find as anything else we seek.  In fact, wandering aimlessly in the desert of distraction can run your soul and heart dry.  It’s time to replenish and find out what the waters of the writer-self has in mind — and it never fails to surprise me how little I know about me.   It’s time to stop running and start writing.

Image credit (royalty free): http://www.dreamtime.com

Abraham Lincoln

“Air held his breath; trees with the spell,

Seemed sorrowing angels round,

Whose swelling tears in dew-drops fell

Upon the listening ground.”

~ An excerpt of a poem written by Abraham Lincoln 

I have always been a fan of President Lincoln.  While I admire him for the great statesman and brilliant leader he was, I love him for his humanity.  He is also one of the greatest writers ever to grace the craft: a poet and a philosopher with the ability to shape the consciousness of a nation.  As strange as the following may sound, every time I visit the Lincoln Memorial I feel as if I am dropping in on an old friend. He has this pathos of fatherly gentleness that once led my 10 year old brother to remark (when seeing the Lincoln Memorial for the first time):  “I wish I could climb up there and sit on his knee.”

Joshua Wolf Shenk writes about this same connection–a connection so profound it led him to do the years of research behind his book, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. Here is how he describes it:

 What drew me to the story of Lincoln’s melancholy at the start was a sense of connection to him as a person. This man whom I had grown up to think of as a marble statue came alive for me when I first learned about how he suffered, and how he talked about it. I wanted to learn the full story and share it with other people. [1]

Unknown Like him, I find Lincoln’s greatness all the more remarkable precisely because of his struggles, and the fact that his life began so unremarkably. While his gifts are extraordinary—even legendary–Lincoln never saw himself as, well, Lincoln. Joshua Shenk tackles this fact head-on, telling us that Lincoln actually suffered from a lifelong melancholia that at times erupted into debilitating bouts of depression. His most severe struggles with it occurred in his late twenties and early thirties as a young lawyer first building his career. His despair was then so deep and unrelenting he was driven to the brink of suicide.  His closest friends recalled this time as one in which they all watched him closely for fear he would take his own life.

During that time, Lincoln wrote his law partner a letter wherein he said:

I am now the most miserable man living.  If what I felt were distributed to the whole human family there would not be one happy face on the earth.  I must die or be better it appears to me.  I awfully forebode I shall not.  The matter you speak of on my account you may attend to as you see fit, as I fear I shall be unable to attend to business.  If I could be myself, I would rather stay here with Judge Logan.  I can write no more.

Far from a histrionic sentiment (he was never prone to that), the above was a very realistic statement as to his state of mind in pondering his life up to that point. He was contemplating very rationally the meaning of life in the face of unrelenting suffering, and at the time, no one knew what his conclusion would be.

There were other factors contributing to Lincoln’s despair during this time of his life, some of which Shenk poses as possible contributing factors.  One was the documented tendency to depression that ran in Lincoln family, and the deaths of several key people in his life.  But the book tackles bigger questions than identifiable causes to a momentary struggle.  Rather, he overarching point Shenk makes is that Lincoln’s melancholy–this “fearful gift,” (see below)–though at times severely testing him (and something that continued to be a part of his nature his entire life) also held the seeds of his greatness.

The book begins this discussion by comparing what we call “depression” today and what was called “melancholia” in the nineteenth-century:

The big difference is that today we often hear the disease of depression is entirely distinct from the ordinary experience of being sad or in the dumps. But in the nineteenth-century conception of melancholy, these were part of the same overall picture. A person with a melancholy temperament had been fated with both an awful burden and what Byron called ‘a fearful gift.’ The burden was a sadness and despair that could tip into a state of disease. But the gift was a capacity for depth, wisdom—even genius.[2]

Lincoln did eventually come through that time of despair and made the choice to live, but live for something that would, as he said “redound to the benefit of my fellow man.”  He somehow found meaning in that time of darkness and came out the other side with a renewed purpose. I think what is so remarkable about this is that his story is not merely a mythic re-telling or a calculated political spin we have too much of these days.  Rather, it is the bedrock truth of an iconic man with a fragile humanity, who experienced a despair so profound he contemplated death.  Despite this (and Shenk argues that even because of it) Lincoln came out the other side of that personal abyss and rose to greatness, just when his country sorely needed him.

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I find this all so comforting, so touching and inspiring that I am drawn to him, human to human: seeing him as a friend, so intimately imbedded in my personal consciousness that I feel as I if I know him.  Perhaps this is what it means to share the human condition, bound as we are to each other by the same life decisions we must all make.

While there is much more to say on this book and Lincoln’s life, I conclude with those of Joshua Wolf Shenk:

A key feature of Lincoln’s story is that in this middle stage [of choosing to move forward in spite of his depression and despair] while his labors were picayune, he kept sight of a grand potential. “It is much for the young to know,” he said in his eulogy to Zachary Taylor in 1850, “that treading the hard path of duty, as he trod it, will be noticed, and will lead to high places.”  Lincoln said this at a time when his own faith had been sorely tested—for all he knew, his dreams would come to nothing. But the faith itself led him to tread the hard path with a sense of purpose, adjusting to reality but never quite settling. He feared that he would not, but trusted that he would, finally find his way. When he did, everything he had lived through had its purpose. [3]

[1] Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln’s Melancholia, pp. 211-212.

[2] Ibid, p. 27.

[3] Ibid, p. 215.

Photo Sources (In order of appearance):

Photographer: Unknown. http://www.upi.com/News_Photos/Features/Abraham-Lincoln-Artifacts/fp/1518/

Book Cover, Lincoln’s Melancholyhttp://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/readers_guides/shenk_lincoln.shtml

Photographer: Mike Thomas. https://www.flickr/com/phohtos/mthomas/6785379

Photographer: Gage Skidmore. https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore

A Story From My Own Shadow

When I was twelve years old, I wrote my first story.  It was about a girl named Sherry who had a crazy mother.  It was autobiographical of course.  I loved writing that story.  I created a world where I could escape to but at the same time manage what was going on around me.  I still recall some of the words I wrote:

“Sherry looked outside the window of her house at their perfect green lawn, the rain running soft currents down the glass as if the house were crying.  Outside the world went by, but it didn’t see what was going on inside.”

Sherry’s best friend was an old maple tree that sat on the corner of the high school lawn, a few blocks from her house.  Its huge branches were like arms, holding her small body as she looked down through the thick leaves at the high school students walking by.  She felt loved by the giant old tree, and she often wondered as she put her ear to the bark if she could hear it speaking to her.”

I wrote in my story every day, looking forward to it much like a coveted appointment with a best friend.  I carefully hid it where I thought it wouldn’t be found.  But it was.  I came home from school one day and found it ripped up in the downstairs bathroom waste can.

My mother was home ill from work that day (something that almost never happened).  I heard her voice calling me sharply from her upstairs bedroom.  I felt a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I ran up the stairs to find her.  I only remember stammering somewhat incoherently: “The story isn’t about you!  The story isn’t about you!”  (This was a lie, but I was doing a preemptive strike to ward off what I was sure would be the usual retribution when displeasing or irritating her in any way; her moods were unpredictable).  I simply recall her snapping back in that cold, barely constrained rage that was so characteristic of her at the time:  “I don’t know what the hell you are talking about.  Now go clean your room.”

On one hand, I was relieved that I had apparently escaped a beating (usually by a belt or the hard plastic of the vacuum cleaner wand; or sometimes just her hands: slapping me or pulling clumps of my hair until I screamed; but what I hated the most were her vicious verbal tirades).  However, my story being destroyed and her cold dismissal of my concern felt in some ways worse than those things.  Her response left me reeling, as if I had just gotten off a spinning carnival ride and everything was a bit off kilter.  There was no solid point of reference to help me understand any of it.  If she hadn’t ripped it up, then who?  (I hadn’t really gotten to the “why” yet).  Of course, I knew logically there couldn’t be anyone else.  I doubted one of my siblings could have done it.  And so I internalized all of it, because that’s what writers do–especially when they are children with a crazy mother.

After that, I still wrote–but never as freely; and I almost always destroyed everything I wrote.  Although I did keep a childhood diary, a Christmas gift from my Grandmother.  It was one of those pre-printed types with a page for each day of the year.  I would write a few lines of what I did during the day, such as: “I went to school today and we learned about polar bears,” or “today I went to the bookmobile and checked out two books.”  It was the writing equivalent to coloring within the lines. It is very telling in what I left out:  I didn’t want to go too deep.

As a teenager, I rebelled and fought back.  And as much as I paid emotionally and physically for that needed defiance, I was just trying to survive.  That survival effort also had an additional price: my writing went increasingly underground, and my shadow was hidden (like everything else) behind the 1970s suburban image we were expected to uphold.

It took me years later when I had children of my own to fully understand what had happened to me as a child and the destruction of my childhood creative work. I couldn’t imagine doing that to any of my children — ever.  I treasure everything they have created and still have boxes of those creations from their childhood years that I guard like the precious and priceless gold it is. While I realize with adult compassion that my mother was sick and suffering from her own unvoiced shadow, the damage was done.  While my resulting denial was a needed survival mechanism then, it adversely affected my writing for years to come.  So much of that was unconscious of course, but in those days I felt as if I was fighting myself every time I tried to put words on paper–and of course, I was.

As a result of my crazy childhood, I spent years in and out of depression.  The shadow within was making itself known, and as counterintuitive as this may be, acknowledgement of the shadow is the pathway to light and healing.  As I wrote about in a prior post, The Inner Critic, I recovered my writing when I was hospitalized in my early 30s for depression.  It was during this time that I finally let myself feel the shadow emotions I had so long ago repressed and had once tried so faithfully to express as a 12 year old.  I finally gave my bruised and battered childhood a voice and a lot came pouring out.  From that point forward, I have kept almost everything I have ever written, two decades worth in several boxes and on a variety of old computer media.  It doesn’t even matter if any of it is any good– just that it lives.

In closing, here’s a note to my childhood alter-ego Sherry:  You wrote from the shadow and you did it beautifully.  Now put on a red dress and dance: there’s nothing there to stop you now.  :)

Photo Source: 

Photographer: Wendy Cutler.  http://www.fotopedia.com/items/flickr-2577188984

The Work at Hand

“I find myself most drawn to art that has arisen from a deeply personal conversation between the artist and the work at hand. It is art that walks perilously close to the Edge, that crosses the river of blood into the Faerie, that flies so high it is scorched by the sun, and then returns to tell the tale to us.  It is art that needed to be written, or painted, or sung, or woven, or otherwise shaped.  It is art gifted by the Mystery to the maker, and then in turn, gifted to us.”

— Terri Winding

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. Writing is nothing.  You just sit at the typewriter and bleed.”

— Ernest Hemingway

Using Hemingway’s metaphor, we know that open wounds bleed and so do open souls:  creating works of art that flow from the deepest parts of ourselves and of life.  Whether our creating begins with “writing the truest sentence we know,” as Hemingway so brilliantly instructs us to do,”or walking over the river of blood” as Winding describes in her beautiful metaphors, we write our truth.

There have been times in my life when I wrote from those places of despair.  As I have said before, they could also be portals of inspiration and healing despite their rigor.  Other times I wrote from the opposite end of the spectrum: happy, joyous, celebratory times, which also inspired me to write.  There were also rare and special times when inspiration would seemingly come from nowhere, like the rush of an incoming tide, leaving in its wake a flood of words on paper that flowed easily and almost effortlessly.

These are the times when, as mystical as it may seem, I feel as if I am being guided from a Source outside myself: yet its voice and medium are my own experience and understanding, like the liturgical metaphor of the connection between bone and marrow.  During these times I feel as if the creative process is almost like an act of worship, but not in the traditional sense of the word.  Rather, it is a journey, where I travel the outermost reaches of my soul and find God there waiting. Others will call their creative experience something entirely different, and it is right that they do: there is no single definition for the creative process, unique as it is to each writer or artist.  Perhaps we all draw from the same Source, I don’t know; but each time we create we give ourselves a glimpse of what is possible.

I wish I could have these mystical experiences every day, but of course I don’t.  Those times are wonderful, absolutely, but much more common is the simple day-to-day discipline of writing, the choice to create as an act of will and heart.  I struggle a lot — writing this particular post being one of those times.  I felt like I couldn’t put two cohesive thoughts together.  My Inner Bitch was urging me to skip writing this week and “apologize to the entire Blogosphere for having the audacity to post this piece of crap.”  :)   Life is messy; writing sometimes is too.  And so I write from this particular part of my own shadow, stare that Bitch down and write … anyway.  As Jack London once said, “You can’t always wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.”

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Many bestselling authors admit they still struggle with self doubt despite their success.  I found that comforting. In his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King mentions how he will work feverishly for as long as it takes to get everything out that he wants to say before he will go back and edit.  He said if he stops before he gets all of it out, his self-doubt will kick in and he then finds it hard to finish.  In the closing paragraph of his book, he wrote of the hope that what he wrote will give his readers the “permission slip” to go out there and just do it:

“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art.  The water is free.  So drink.  Drink and be filled up.”  

Stephen King’s encouragement reminded me of a similar quote from Goethe, written over two hundred years ago:

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

As writers and artists, we can wait for those splendid divine moments or we can write our way into them.  Either way is a gift.  Hemingway’s timelessly beautiful advice on “writing the truest sentence we know,” is a writer’s best first step.  That truest thought begins the conversation that Winding says is “between the artist and the work at hand.”  Begin: write from the shadow, “walk the Edge,” “cross over the river of blood into the Faerie,” or “fly so high you are scorched by the sun;” –but however you do it,  just begin.  And wherever that first step of truth may take you, please “return to tell the story” of that Divine conversation you found along the way.  We are as hungry to participate in that conversation as you are to create it.

Photo Sources (in order of appearance):

Photographer: Glores.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Computer_keyboard.gif

Photographer: Zaui/Scott Catron.  http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaui/4455991107/in/photostream/

Photographer: Weinstock.  http://pixabay.com/en/hand-child-paint-play-colorful-93168/

Artist:  Winslow Homer. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Incoming_Tide,_Scarboro_Maine_by_Winslow_Homer,_1883.png

Photographer: Katara. katara1439.deviantart.com

Artist: Sarah Klockers-Clauser. https://www.flickr.com/photos/sarabbit/4549185468/

Photographer: Chandra Spitzer. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:M82_Chandra_HST_Spitzer.jpg

 

Viktor Frankl

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What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.  – Viktor Frankl

Victor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and neurosurgeon who had barely begun his professional career when he was condemned to die, along with millions of other Jews at the onset of World War II.  During that time, Dr. Frankl was imprisoned in no less than four Nazi concentration camps, one of which was the most horrific and notorious: Auschwitz, where over 1,500,000 people alone died in its gas chambers.

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WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  WORLD WAR II/WAR IN THE WEST/THE HOLOCAUST

During the War, Dr. Frankl also lost his wife, his parents, and most of his family.  He miraculously survived this horror and afterward wrote a book about his experience (written in just under 9 days), entitled Man’s Search for Meaning.  To date, this influential book has sold over 14,000,000 copies and has been translated into twenty-four languages.  By many accounts it is one of the most important books of our time, and I agree.  This book was completely life changing for me and continues to deeply influence me.

In the forward to the 1992 edition of his book, Dr. Frankl reveals what drove him to write his book in the first place:

I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of a concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones.  And I thought that if the point were demonstrated in a situation as extreme as that in a concentration camp, my book might gain a hearing.  I therefore felt responsible for writing down what I had gone through, for I thought it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair.

In summary, Dr. Frankl believed this search for meaning and purpose is the most important task we have in life and described three primary ways in which we find it:  (1) by creating a body of work or doing something we feel is important or relevant; (2) through love (a deep connection to someone or something other than ourselves); and 3) by finding meaning in our suffering.  While Dr. Frankl is quick to point out that suffering in and of itself is meaningless (and to be avoided if possible), if we do find we cannot escape our suffering, we attempt to find meaning in it. He writes that this act of choice will not only help transform the experience, but ultimately will give us the courage and strength to rise above it.

So how does this specifically apply to the act of writing?   Undoubtedly, Dr. Frankl was a brilliant doctor and clinician, and while he wrote many books from this point of view, his most powerful and influential book came from his own personal experience. Through the act of writing about his suffering, he exemplified for us his own guidance in how we find meaning in our own lives:  (1) he found meaning in his suffering (in his case, to help others, which also was an act of love); (2) through love (one example of which he relates in the book: how during a particularly terrible time in his imprisonment, his despair made him want to give up; but he found a mystical yet very real and present strength when recalling the love of his wife); and (3) he wrote a seminal book and created a professional practice and school of psychotherapy around what he learned from his experiences[1].

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There is so much more to Dr. Frankl’s book and life’s work than I can adequately relate here, so please try and read Man’s Search for Meaning if you can.  It is an inspiring and beautifully written book, and one that I can promise you will touch, inspire, and encourage you no matter what your background or circumstance.  And of course, do “give voice and effort” to your own quest for meaning, whatever path yours may take.  Perhaps you will find that a life or two (or more) gets changed in the process: most notably, of course, your own.

With that, I will close with Dr. Frankl’s own closing words at the end of his book:

A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining.  What he becomes—within the limits of his endowment and environment—he has made out of himself.  In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints.  Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.

Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is.  After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.

For those who have read the book, please leave your own thoughts and reflections in the comments.  I would love your help in honoring this beautiful man and his work.


[1] One Note: Dr. Frankl emphasized that even prior to his experiences in the concentration camps he deeply believed in these ideas.  His experiences in the camps only strengthened his original core beliefs and thereafter crucially shaped his clinical practice for the rest of his life.

Photo Sources (in order of appearance):

Photo by Dr. Franz Vesely. http://tr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dosya:Viktor_Frankl2.jpg

Photo by Mariusz Cieszewski.  https://www.flickr.com/photos/polandmfa/8736839849/

Photo by Private Ralph Forney (Army). http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:At_the_German_concentration_camp_at_Wobbelin.jpg

Book Cover. Galicia Musuem Publications. http://www.shop.galiciajewishmuseum.org//produkty/mans-search-for-meaning.html

Photo by Michael Schaffner. https://www.flickr.com/photos/

Photo by Travis Forsyth. https://www.flickr.com/photos/forsytht/5844157752

Photographer unknown.  Viktor Frankl Institute. www.viktorfrankl.org/

Photographer “CAHairyBear.”  https://www.flickr.com/photos/91173606@N00/5766331983/

The Artistic Temperament

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“The artistic temperament sometimes seems a battleground, a dark angel of destruction and a bright angel of creativity wrestling.”   ~ Madeline L’Engle

Depression or some other related mood disorder afflicts about 1 in 10 Americans.[1]  While this is worth noting statistically to show that it is a growing and common problem in our culture, there has always been a disproportionate number of writers and artists who suffer from some type of mood disorder.  There are many theories that are still being debated as to why this might be, but the cause is still not completely understood.

Some say there is a genetic or biological predisposition to mood disorders, which can also produce an extraordinary creative talent or genius.  Others debate that the same sensitivity and awareness required to produce great works of imagination also make one sensitive to the shadow side of life, inflicting a higher tendency toward melancholy, depression, anxiety, or addictions.  Others conclude that abuse or other trauma is the cause, while others claim a more utilitarian approach: art is often simply the result of individuals trying to express or create meaning out of their experiences, whether celebrating life or simply trying to rise above its wounds.  Perhaps it is a combination of some or all of these factors: an alchemy unique to each individual, and therefore not easily defined.  This latter position is the one I prefer to take.

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In her book, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament[2], Kay Redfield Jamison (a physician who also writes from personal experience) explores a more clinical approach to this subject.  She writes:

 The fiery aspects of thought and feeling that initially compel the artistic voyage—fierce energy, high mood, and quick intelligence; a sense of the visionary and the grand; a restless and feverish temperament—commonly carry with them the capacity for vastly darker moods and grimmer energies, and occasionally, bouts of “madness.”  These opposite moods and energies, often interlaced, can appear to the world as mercurial, intemperate, volatile, brooding, troubled, or stormy.  In short, they form the common view of the artistic temperament, and, as we shall see, they also form the basis of the manic-depressive temperament.  Poetic or artistic genius, when infused with these fitful and constant moods, can become a powerful crucible for imagination and experience.

Dr. Jamison also makes the point that there is much more to the artistic temperament than that which falls into a “biological or diagnostic grid.”  Obviously, not all writers and artists suffer from the effects of a mood disorder or other mental illness.  I mention her work here as but one factor of the shadow experience.  Whether we as writers and artists fall within her grid of experience or not, the focus of this blog is how to harness our shadow experiences– in whatever form, substance, or circumstance–into an act of creation and healing.

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Next week I will post about an extraordinary man, Victor Frankl, who has much to say on this subject from a slightly different perspective.  For those of you not familiar, Dr. Frankl was a Jewish neurologist and psychiatrist in Vienna during the 1930s, and was eventually condemned to die in Auschwitz during World War II.   He miraculously survived the notorious death camp and afterward wrote a book about his experience:  Man’s Search for Meaning.  One of the three primary ways Dr. Frankl believes human beings find meaning is through the act of creation–whether artistic or some other body of work.  He believes that finding such meaning is essential to our mental, emotional, and spiritual health.  Please tune in next week for that discussion.


[1] Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2011 Statistics)

[2] Jamison, Kay Redfield. Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 1993 (pp. 2-3)

Photo Sources (in order of appearance):

Shesterrni. http://shesterrni.deviantart.com/art/Light-and-Darkness-fight-194881981

Lucio Torre, Photographer. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bright_Darkness.JPG

Raven Raith.  http://www.deviantart.com/art/A-Spirit-s-Bond-Light-and-Darkness-269164755

The Spectre of the Inner Critic

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We all have an inner critic, and if that critic helps us improve as writers, so much the better.  But when does the internal critic become toxic?  There are times when my inner critic is the first kind:  a rather exacting professor who can be difficult and even irritating, but at the end of the day, I improve as a writer under its oversight.  Far more common, however, is the other kind: coming at me more like the dementors do in the Harry Potter stories, sucking all the creative life out of me.  (For those not familiar, the dementors are terrifying spirits who literally take out all the good in the world, including the souls of people, which ultimately drives their victims insane.)  All humorous dramatization aside, this is the kind of toxic inner critic I am talking about.

In her classic book, If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland devotes much of her instruction on managing criticism, both internal and external, and how the wrong kind of criticism actually hinders rather than helps.  According to Ueland, criticism taken too far actually destroys “the fire of imagination and inspiration,” and if not managed well, can keep someone from writing altogether.   Ueland feels that writing is crucial to our well-being, and when we write, we are happier and healthier people.  In her words:

All people who try to write (and all people long to, which is natural and right) become anxious, timid, contracted, become perfectionists, so terribly afraid that they may put something down that is not as good as Shakespeare.  And so no wonder you don’t write and put it off month after month, decade after decade.  For when you write, if it is to be any good at all, you must feel free,–free and not anxious.

Ueland goes on to say that the remedy for such anxiety is as follows:

The best teachers for you are those friends who love you, who think you are interesting, or very important, or wonderfully funny; whose attitude is:  ‘Tell me more.  Tell me all you can.  I want to understand more about everything you feel and know and all the changes inside and out of you.  Let more come out.” And if you have no such friend,–and you want to write,–well then you must imagine one.

While I agree with Ueland — her book is one of my favorite books on writing — I want to expand on her concept of the importance of love and self-trust as qualities that are crucial to the writer.  I found out much later in life the importance of self-acceptance as a key piece of the equation.  While some might think they are one and the same thing,  let me explain what I don’t mean:  I am not talking about the warm and fuzzy world of positive affirmations but something much deeper and grittier than that.  What I do mean is the act of embracing your shadow, which is essentially accepting the parts of yourself you don’t like and not just the parts that you do.  The truth is, the parts we don’t like and often repress have a lot to say and teach us  if we allow them a voice.  There is a lot of creativity and inspiration that comes only when we unify these disparate parts of ourselves.  Paradoxically, writing is often how we do that:  the end is also the means.

Let me illustrate what I mean by that from my own experience.  In my younger years, I was diagnosed with clinical depression.  While I had suffered from depression off and on for most of my life at the time, in my early 30s I had to be hospitalized.  I wrote a lot in that time, volumes and volumes. Some things were very dark, but for the first time, I allowed myself to write without later destroying what I had written (a common occurrence before then).  Without my inner critic running the show, I simply wrote.  In tunneling through all of my shadow (as much as I was aware of at the time, since it is an ongoing process), I paradoxically found the light and goodness in me as well.  Rather than being separate, it was all one.

After I was released from the hospital, I shoved all those painful experiences deep down in my psyche and eventually felt I had finally moved on from the past, and in many ways, I had.  I raised my family and built a successful career negotiating and writing contracts.  Life had its ups and downs as it always does, but the debilitating depression was in the past.  However, an interesting fact emerged:  my best writing came from those dark and painful years.

I didn’t make the connection as to why until recently, that my toxic inner critic was still at play, but in more subtle ways. It would still bully my shadow-self when it would crop up, but it was no longer as successful as it had once been in keeping it all at bay. Our soul is wise, and it knows when we are ready to face certain things and grow. I began to realize my shadow-self was not something to be ashamed of or that needed to be excised like some cancerous tumor, but that it — all of it — was me, and it had something important to say.

The first step was seeing myself outside the familiar lens of judgment. Any act of creating (writing or otherwise) involves making the invisible, visible. The invisible is our imagination, our soul, or our spirit: the purest and deepest truth of who we are, and showing that takes courage.  Bottom line:  If I can’t be fully visible to myself, how can I ever be to anyone else?  From a half-hidden state, my writing is thus reduced to a carefully edited mask rather than something viable and alive.

As James Baldwin said, “We must learn to make love with whatever it is that frightens us.”  It may seem counter-intuitive, but the shadow is only “tamed” or “transformed” through love, through art, through finding our voice.  At the bottom of the feared abyss is who we really are, which is the true source of our genius and inspiration.  In short, there really is no separation between what we don’t like about ourselves and what we do, but rather it is a chiaroscuro effect.  As every painter knows from the use of that term, light and shadow play together and are actually inseparable: we would have no shadow without light, and no depth without shadow.

In conclusion, we may not have a magic wand like Harry Potter did to vanquish his dementors, but as we know from the story his true weapons were actually courage and love, the same things we need to vanquish our own.

Please share anything you have to add; I’d love to hear from you.……………

Image Source:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/chocoholiccynic/12354948094/