On writing, anxiety, and love

If you have never read Brain Pickings, I highly recommend this thoughtful, well-done, search for “interestingness” spear-headed by Maria Popova (@brainpicker) and the occasional guest writer. The writing at first glance often appears outside my comfort zone, but I’m usually drawn in to subjects that I might naturally toss aside as too lofty or inapplicable to my daily life (i.e. too daunting/time-consuming/intellectual for moi). I love Popova’s style; she can take a subject that is over my head and make it tangible and fascinating.  Many times I find that these subjects intertwine with my own life, as a therapist and a person, more than I would have imagined upon reading the title.

Cue my interest in F. Scott Fitzgerald on the Secret of Great Writing, a.k.a. ‘how to be a great writer by one of the most famous writers of all time,’ as my self-valuation interprets.  I love to write, I aspire to reach other and connect through writing, so naturally this title both titillates and terrifies me.  It triggers the immediate, vulnerable, knee-jerk, “am I good enough?” reaction that is the inevitable cost of putting ourselves “out there” for the world to see.  Popova references a letter written by Fitzgerald to a young woman, a college sophomore, and family friend who sent her writing to him, presumably for critique and guidance. I don’t know if this young person, Frances, was expecting honesty or fluff… but she got honesty. In Fitzgerald’s response he references the “price of admission,” or the cost of great writing quite harshly to an aspiring young writer. An excerpt:

“November 9, 1938

Dear Frances:

I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.

This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories ‘In Our Time’ went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile…

That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is ‘nice’ is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the ‘works.’ You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.

In the light of this, it doesn’t seem worth while to analyze why this story isn’t saleable but I am too fond of you to kid you along about it, as one tends to do at my age. If you ever decide to tell your stories, no one would be more interested than,

Your old friend,

F. Scott Fitzgerald

P.S. I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent — which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.”

Ouch, Frances.  Ouch.

You may be wondering, as was I, why I felt as we may say in the therapy world over-identified with the recipient of this letter. Why would I focus on the potential hurt feelings of a stranger who aspired to write over seventy years ago and was given such a harsh critique? The obvious answer is that I’m focused on emotions in general. I did not accidentally arrive in the field of social work and therapy.  A natural draw toward and affinity for emotional care and compassion led me here. The not-so-obvious answer is that I too fear judgment, harsh criticism, and critique as a writer, as a therapist, and as a person.

The vulnerability of writing, especially about matters of the heart weighs on me as much as it enriches my life. I write because it allows me to make sense of the pain, elation, and all feelings in between in the human experience.  Rarely do I write of my own feelings because it is challenging, less comfortable, and scary.  I could blame some lofty principles of maintaining my role as a therapist (which is a very important and entirely different discussion), but it is the feelings of vulnerability that usually hold me back.  When I do share parts of myself and write about things that are subversive, I feel exposed, anxious, and at times, irrelevant.  I worry that I’ve said ‘too much,’ gone ‘too far,’ or have been ‘self-indulgent,’ all judgments that I have made up in my head based on my own anxiety, experiences, and elaborations…

Writing can be a gut-wrenching process of displaying your inner-world, word by word, and opening oneself to strangers much like the courageous work of therapy participants. In many ways, I write to experience this vulnerability, risk, and potential benefit of exposure as a constant reminder of the risks that clients take. It is a reminder of the emotional cost paid by the brave people who sit in the chair and share their inner-selves and the respect, kindness, and admiration that is deserved for such an endeavor. There is a monetary investment for therapy as well which is a valuable topic of exploration, but they also pay with their honesty, their fear, their vulnerability, and the spoken or unspoken hopes and disappointments. At times, this is a high cost, more so than money.

Without hiding behind principles of “being a therapist,” I’ll share a specific fear that edits my writing, words, and thoughts.  It is the fear of not being liked. There are variations of this fear, such as not being nice, agreeable, palatable, competent, or pleasant. Talking about things that are hard to talk about, uncomfortable, opinionated, or divisive also scare me. These fears are all bi-products of my upbringing and training as a woman, a social worker, and a therapist but to what end? These are questions that my clients ask of themselves and usually end up with a resounding sense of entitlement to feel, express, and be who they are. Undoubtedly being yourself is hard, and I’m not immune.

Lately, my reflections on this topic have turned toward a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunity to share myself with others and receive the kindness, accolades, and positive feedback that I’ve received as a result of writing, speaking, and being myself.  In hindsight, when I am met with “negative” emotions from someone – disagreement, anger, and even contempt at times – the hurt feelings and vulnerabilities that I’m forced to acknowledge are far outweighed by the learning, the growth, the opportunity to practice compassion toward myself and others, and the disarming of my own defenses. These are valuable and sometimes priceless experiences.

As always, take care of yourself (while also stretching and growing when the time is right.)

Anaïs Nin on Love by Debbie Millman

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Anaïs Nin on Love by Debbie Millman