Writer Heal Thyself:  My Shame Confession

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I have been meaning to send out this notice about what’s coming up in the next few months for the last 60 days – ever since we got home from Italy.  Every day when I get up I promise myself that I am going to get it out TODAY.  And then the work I have promised to other people somehow jostles itself to the front of the line, and by evening I think, “Oh well, I’ll do it tomorrow.”

What is it about many writers (and self-employed business people) that makes it so difficult to put ourselves first? (at least some of the time)  What makes it so difficult to get to our own writing, or to promote ourselves?

In a word?  Anxiety – probably the least acknowledged and most prevalent human emotion.

I know so many of my colleagues who, like me, support others in achieving their goals, but rarely get around to sending out their own work to contests, or to finish their books.  I’m one of the worst examples of this. Case in point: months ago someone who heard my poetry feature at the ArtBar suggested I query my poetry manuscript to a prestigious literary publisher here in Canada.  After much hemming and hawing, and months of delay, I did so.

This is really a huge good news/bad news story.  The good news is that within 15 days, the editor got back to me and asked to see the rest of the manuscript. Right away. The bad news is that my manuscript is not ready.  I have about 40 poems polished and ready to go.  The rest are still in long-hand in my journals, interspersed with the writing of my two memoirs and two novels.

For weeks I felt a bit sick about it.  I spend so much time helping, editing and encouraging other writers (and that is work that I adore and find immensely satisfying).  But what is wrong with me that I don’t do a better job of balancing my own artistic output with my mentoring others? Why haven’t I been taking my own writing seriously enough to have my manuscript ready to go?

Two weeks ago I co-led a workshop in Amherst with the magnificent Pat Schneider, author of How the Light Gets In:  Writing as a Spiritual Practice.  I left for Amherst carrying the weight of this with me.  While I was down there, I created a SoulCollage card about the whole situation and wrote about it.  (you can see it and read about it here if you’re interested.)

As someone who works with many, many writers, I know that wrestling with artistic resistance is common.  But I do a lot of teaching; I facilitate a lot of writing groups and classes.  When I confess how hard all of this is for me every day, the writers who write with me often express their astonishment.  “You?  It’s hard for YOU?”

Yes.  It’s agonizing.  And I feel incredibly vulnerable writing about it.

I’ve been reading Dr. Brene Brown’s work on Shame and how we createShame Resilience. I highly recommend her book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t). Dr. Brown cites 4 different ways we can ameliorate the negative outcomes of shame and promote shame resilience, and this post encompasses two of them:  Reaching Out and Speaking Shame.

I know I’m not the only one.  So:

  • If you flush with shame every time someone asks “How’s your writing going?”

  • if you’re one of those writers who thinks you don’t measure up because you “don’t write every day”

  • if you’re one of those writers who hears the sound of deadlines whooshing by your ears far too often

  • or if you’re one of those writers who is so overwhelmed by your day to day existence, trying to get your “real” work done and fulfill your obligations to family and friends, that you rarely find the time to cuddle your Muse

… I’m standing in solidarity with you and telling you, you are a real writer, and you’re absolutely not alone.

And, having had this wake-up call from the publisher about my own art, I’ve developed several strategies to combat my artistic anxiety and get my work as a writer and a teacher out there more steadily.  Some of these strategies are listed in my upcoming events, workshops, etc.

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In the summer of 2013 I was invited to do a TEDtalk on “Shining the light on our Changing Communities”. I talked about the therapeutic writing program I do with incarcerated women. You can view the talk here.

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