When I suddenly found myself with both time and money enough to be able to relax and indulge a lifelong fantasy – to write The GAN (Great American Novel) – I enrolled in a writing workshop at the Green Gulch Zen Center offered by Natalie Goldberg. She’d just hit it big with her book on a Zen approach to writing called Writing Down the Bones, and I thought it would be a good idea to get some of her juju in person (Recall The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience?).
I took two things away from that week with Natalie: 1. It’s important to give myself permission to write the worst crap in the world. This, I have come to find out in my subsequent studies of the brain is a really important directive for writers. Without that genuine, authoritative permission to write crap, the bully Language Brain will constantly be delivering me the message both loudly and softly that my work sucks, in an unrelenting stream of sneaky, dispiriting invective. If I have permission to write crap, then my bully Language Brain really has little lethal ammunition to fire at me. “Your writing’s crap.” “Yeah. I know. And? Your point?” Inevitably though, interwoven through the crap I will find shiny golden nuggets to extract and polish (through editing) for possible joyous weaving into a larger, integrated whole.
Writing Wisdom Two
The second nugget I took away from my Zen week with Natalie is the Enantiodromic Directive (look it up) of “writing about what disturbs me.” The things that disturb me, move me emotionally. When I’m emotionally upset, most often what I’m activating are neural tendrils connected to traumatic memories buried in the unconscious root cellars of my brain. By allowing the “still small voice” of these tiny disturbances to kindle other neurons in the neighborhood, soon I will find myself fanning the flames of a full-blown emotional conflagration. Such conflagrations, polished and edited in accord with the learnable skills of dramatic structure, are what hold great promise for memorable, engaging writing. Simultaneously, they also hold great potential to make me sick and crazy.
My first effort following that week with Natalie – The Icing of the Shooter – took two years to complete and ended up winning me The Jack London Award for new fiction that year. It also took five therapist friends to rally around me for support during the writing. The emotional drain involved with that effort brought me to the full realization that my Great American Novel needs were not at all well-matched with the narrow limits of my emotional bandwidth (nor were they well-matched with me becoming a competent clinical psychologist, I later discovered). An observation attributed alternately to the great sportswriter, Red Smith and to Ernest Hemingway is that great writing is easy, “All you need do is sit down at your typewriter (computer) and open a vein.” This was clearly true in my experience, and … not something I had the emotional constitution nor the requisite strength of heart to be unwaveringly true to.
Healing Failing to Happen
Several years after he published the novel, Sophie’s Choice, the writer William Styron found himself in a suicidal depression which he was unable to shake off. He finally sought psychiatric help, receiving mostly medications for his trust. Here’s an excerpt from the “memoir of madness” he later published detailing the experience as Darkness Visible:
One psychological element (concerning depression) has been established beyond reasonable doubt … loss in all its manifestations is the touchstone of depression – in the progress of the disease and, most likely, in its origin. At a later date I would gradually be persuaded that devastating loss in childhood figured as a probable genesis of my own disorder; meanwhile, as I monitored my retrograde condition, I felt loss at every hand. The loss of self-esteem is a celebrated symptom, and my own sense of self had all but disappeared, along with any self-reliance. This loss can quickly degenerate into dependence, and from dependence into infantile dread. One dreads the loss of all things, all people close and dear. There is an acute fear of abandonment. Being alone in the house, even for a moment, caused me exquisite panic and trepidation.
Trauma is Embodied
Here’s my take on Styron’s account: healing was trying to happen over and over again, reenacted through his creative writing; and over and over again, it failed to come to full healing fruition. His novels, Lie Down in Darkness, The Confessions of Nat Turner (recounted by a slave in jail just before he’s about to be executed), Set This House on Fire and The Clap Shack (about life on a VD ward) all present attempts at healing redemption that failed to redeem Styron. The main reason for that repeated failure, in my estimation: only his head and not his body was engaged in the creative, healing integration process.
Loss and trauma are almost always embodied experiences. My own adventures in creative writing (in addition to 25+ years as a volunteer grief counselor) have convinced me that loss and trauma need to be physically worked out of the body. If I were Styron writing his novels, I would have padded a room in my house with a heavy punching bag suspended from the ceiling. I would have painted the faces of my novel’s antagonists on that bag as each appeared in the story (and presumably in neurons propagating action potentials in my brain). As each appeared, I would have proceeded to beat the crap out of that bag/image with every means at my disposal. My suspicion is that each novel would have seen me go through several heavy Everlast bags – a small cost for doing the business of writing-healing. I would have eventually emerged, through “triumphant action” – as the happy hero of my own life story. Fuck depression.
Note: The Writer’s Brain: Creative Writing as Narrative Medicine online seminar took place on February 15th to very complimentary reviews. If you’re interested in being notified the next time I offer the seminar simply click this link – Yes, please notify me of the next Writer’s Brain seminar.