This is my first effort at a blog post so I am a bit anxious. Noting that, and being a clinical psychologist, I thought I would reflect a bit on anxiety and the writing process. Anxiety often results from fears of being exposed as foolish, untalented, presumptuous or having some other flaw of character or performance. We may not identify what’s making us anxious but if we do and it’s something about us that might not look okay when seen by others, it’s a straight shot from such exposure to shame, a topic I’ve written quite a lot about in two psychology books, The Shame Experience and Shame in Context. Shame can be resolved in a variety of ways, for example, through reassurance by others or self-reassurance or by recognition of some of its less-than-rational elements. If the uncomfortable shame persists, some people will quickly move from shame to anger and will begin to blame others for their exposed state, or they may skip past shame altogether and take a frantic leap into anger. For example, I might be eager to blame a lousy review on the reviewer and might spare my book from any criticism and myself from any shame. Anger at others may bring us momentary comfort but it may also lead on to guilt over attacking another with hostility. And that guilt may circle us right back to shame since we feel we have behaved badly. Our emotions are structured so that one feeling tends to lead on to another like a rolling wheel unless we stop and ponder where we are on that wheel. Instead of taking sustained refuge in anger, I might pause on the anger and ask ‘What am I so darn angry about? Is this anger really justified?’ For most, pausing for self-reflection is a learned, hard-won ability unless one is fortunate enough to be taught self-observation in childhood.
Given so much anxiety circling around self-exposure, you might think people would just avoid self-revelation, and some people do that. But more often, the fear of exposure does battle with the desire for recognition, another well-traveled path for humans. We want to reveal ourselves and garner approval, but don’t know for certain whether the spotlight we court will bring the sought-after approval or the dreaded shame.
People with the most maturity, perhaps the most wisdom, move outside this shame-pride system—at least partially—and stop depending so much on others’ opinions and approval. Self-approval becomes more important, as does time spent outside this universe of praise-seeking altogether. Time just being is most valued, whether that is time watching your kids play, reading, painting a picture or a wall, or solving a puzzle. It can be hard for people to reach this space. We all start out as kids cajoling the adults around us to “look at me.” Nevertheless, it’s worth the journey to the more self-reliant zone.
What I like most about writing is the time immersed in the activity or—better stated—in one of the many activities that comprise the writing of a book (or any creative effort). Time is devoted to opening one’s inner cabinet and searching for ideas, or taking an empty basket out into the world and seeing what might fill it. Time is spent wrestling actively with ideas, images and budding characters in order to assemble a complex structure and give it the many elements of cohesion, forward motion, significance and excitement that constitute a successful story. There is the time engaged in editing, too, which means looking at what has been set out on the page in order to find broadly impactful imperfections of plot or character or minute instances of falling short with a word choice or a comma. Editing is getting dressed to go out but first taking a hard look look in the mirror in order to consider whether a different necktie or bracelet might work best with the shirt and pants that are the basic elements of the outfit.
So what is a blog post? At the moment, I think of it like tossing a ball as far as you can, until it is out of sight, and wondering where it might land. Maybe, on occasion, it comes flying back in your direction and you can see that it returned with a nice red leaf sticking to it or a dusting of pollen, a splash of pond water. Or it might come back in a tear and knock you over, so you have to get up, shake yourself off, and try again.
My writing friend Ann Pearlman, author of Infidelity and Inside the Crips, suggested 1000 words for a blog post, but I’ve only reached 784. Still, I’m going to thank you for reading post #1 and stop here. In another post, I will offer thoughts more specific to A Beautiful Land, including meditations about the issue of cultural appropriation. I’ll borrow a passage from Toni Morrison in that discussion, since she is one of the writers who knock my socks off. After I read Beloved, I drafted a letter to her (which I didn’t send) in which I avowed that if she spent the rest of her life sitting on her bed painting her toenails, she would have contributed more to the world than the vast majority of us.
If you would like to hear more of my thoughts about writing and psychology, through conversation with a wonderful interviewer, psychologist Doug Wheeler, you can listen to our podcast at