I rocked up to Angela Slatter’s place for Write Club earlier today, went through the usual process of getting buzzed into her apartment block and climbing upstairs. When I finally reached the front door, Angela pointed out that I didn’t really sound like me when I talked into the intercom.
“Huh,” I said. “It’s probably because I was cheerful.”
I spend a lot of time thinking about shame these days, particularly in the last few weeks. I ran out of money back in late June, for certain definitions of running out of money that triggered all sorts of bad instincts that built up during my three years of unemployment.
This means I immediately went into the same coping mechanisms that got me through that period, counter-productive as they were: I cancelled social engagements; I hid from the world; I avoided any activity that could potentially draw attention my way, including writing (If you want to trace exactly when all this started, go back and look at the point where the novella diary stopped being posted).
This is a pretty natural response to feeling shame. It’s an emotion that’s predicated on the desire to cover yourself, to turn away from things, to hide.
When we blush, our own body works to obscure us, throwing a scarlet camouflage across the face to protect us from prying eyes.
The worst thing about shame is the way it betrays you, revealing the gap between who you are and who you believe you should be.
Shame highlights different levels of interest. Shame goes to the heart of who we think we are. In this sense, shame puts one’s self-esteem on the line and questions our value system…once I’ve felt that hot flush, I’m reminded of what it is I hold dear.
Blush: Faces of Shame, Elspeth Probyn
The most destructive thing about shame lies in its ability to tear you down with the things you hold most dear.
Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging
Daring Greatly, Brene Brown
The most terrifying part thing about shame is that it’s easier to embrace the impulse to retreat than it is to become the person you most dearly want to be.
In 2010 I had a moment of lucidity amid the crushing self-loathing that dominated my life, and I wrote a blog post about shame and money as it pertains to writers. It examined my own habit of spending money to cover my secret fear about money, and talked about the steps I needed to take in order to get out of debt.
It’s telling that my first impulse, upon emerging from last month’s cash-flow crisis, was buying a shiny new Android tablet within twenty-four hours of receiving money.
I spent 2010 trying to keep my internal monologue, driven by self-loathing, from seeping into the outside world.
It would be nice to say that things have changed, but I’m still that exact same guy. True, there is nothing like prolonged unemployment to bring on crushing ’bouts of shame, but in my case it merely punctuated a proclivity towards such personal censure. In high-school I blushed at the merest provocation; as an adult I blush less, but I’m better equipped to hide myself in a multitude of disguises. I still carry a list of things I do not do, for the simple fact that I’m still ill-equipped to deal with the shame they inspire. .
I do not love. I dare not belong. These are reflex responses, safe places to hide.
The are so many things I want that simply seem too big, and my first impulse is always to hide or apologise for those desires
Writers need to equip themselves with tactics to deal with shame. It’s a career that puts you in direct opposition to a multitude of cultural assumptions, based on gender and social worth and your economic status.
It seems like an easy thing to shrug off, but I’m still haunted by a litany of moments that I bet many writers will echo in some ways:
- There is shame in telling your parents or family that you’re going to be a writer, only to have them suggest alternate careers “for while you’re breaking in,” or explain the astronomical odds against writers making a full-time living.
- There is shame in having no regular paycheque, especially if you’re being supported by a partner. This lingers long after the relationship is done, especially if you believe this is a contributing factor to your break-up.
- There is shame in telling someone you write, only to have them set the bar higher than you’ve achieved by asking “can I find your book in stores?” How dare you presume to such lofty heights, when all you’ve achieved is some unpublished scraps?
We’re similarly haunted by the things we learn about craft, all the helpful advice and career guidance that does more damage than good. In a career where you’re already battling shame because you’ve internalised all sorts of social expectations, it’s so easy to grasp simple advice and use it as a bludgeon to keep yourself from working.
They may be little hits, the kind of thing you barely notice, but sooner or later those little hits add up.
My personal tactics for dealing with shame is this:
- learn to recognise it and embrace shame for what it is – a reminder of what I think is important, or a thing I’ve inherited from the world without thinking’
- Make a decision about whether or not it’s something I really want to engage with., then ditch the stuff you’ve inherited from other people and chase the stuff that’s mine.
- Having recognised the gap between where I am and where I want to be, figure out the next steps I need to take in order to get me where I’m going (I work small and take it bit by bit, tackling the things that matter most to me. I carry a lot of shame around, and I’m not going to eliminate it all in one go).
A simple set of tactics, but like most simple things, its not really easy to do. In fact, it’s hard as hell. I consistently get ambushed by things I thought I was over. Or I get busy and stop noticing shame as it seeps into my life. That’s when I turn to easier ways of coping with what’s happening: telling myself that things aren’t fair; telling myself things aren’t important; making fun of something I dearly want, simply because I think I can’t have it.
So yeah, I’m kinda cheerful this week, ’cause I’ve bridged a gap between me and my idea of me as writer that’s been getting wider for quite a while. It’s got nothing to do with getting words down, or even getting things published.
It’s got everything to do with not sending work out, which has bothered me for a while.
In my head I’ve always been a prolific writer, even in the periods when I’m not. I went from submitting dozens of stories a year to submitting, at most, three.
More important, I’d gone from seeing myself as a writer with momentum to seeing myself as a writer whose career had been hideously derailed. I’d spent so much time hiding from the world while unemployed that I didn’t want to let work out, not unless it was perfect and going to get me back-on-track.
I spent a lot of time chasing that story, over the last twelve months. Which is pretty goddamn stupid, ’cause it doesn’t really exist, and all I set myself up for was new round of shame regarding the stories I’d written that weren’t up to snuff.
In my head, a writer writes, but they also submit.
When I’m not sending work out, the internal dialogue starts: you call yourself a writer, huh? Well, look at you, you’re just a fuck-up. Sacrificed any real chance of a life for this shit, and you can’t even be arsed putting effort into it. Now you’re going to die all alone and unloved….
The funny thing about submitting all those stories? The ones I’ve been telling myself weren’t good enough to go out? It doesn’t really matter if I was right or wrong on that front. They may never be published, but they’re still doing their job.
They’re fighting back the shame, freeing up the mental space to devote to other stuff. Which, in this case, seems to be finishing more stories, ’cause a whole bunch of things I’ve been stuck on for the last few years have started working themselves out.
It’s not going to fix everything, ’cause dammit, there’s been some cowboys knocking about around inside my head, but I’m tackling the things that bother me one thing at a time, and every time it frees up a little more energy to tackle the next step.
Someone smart is going to come along and point out the logical correlation between this post and my post about Stephen King’s writing advice.
Let me save you some time: you’re perfectly right. I dearly wish I could be the kind of writer who wrote 2,500 words a day. In my head I’m a shining paragon of productivity, capable of churning out brilliant stories and supporting myself with my writing.
And every day I not doing that, I have the chance to beat myself up with the knowledge. Some days I do. Most days I do not.
…This is a story about how I learned something and I’m not saying this thing is true or not, I’m just saying it’s what I learned. I told you something. It was just for you and you told everybody. So I learned cut out the middle man, make it all for everybody, always. Everybody can’t turn around and tell everybody, everybody already knows, I told them. But this means there isn’t a place in my life for you or someone like you. Is it sad? Sure. But it’s a sadness I chose.
So yeah, we’re swerving into a non sequitur ending for this blog post, but this flashed into my head as I started going back-and-forth on the issue of making this live. How much of this is important to know? How much is just me trying to cope with things by over sharing? How much is useful and how much me trying feeling sorry for myself?
I’ll admit there’s a fundamental connection between shame and writing, at least in my practice. Everything I write is just a source of shame writ large, an attempt to transform myself into a person I’d really like to be and the world into a place I’d really like to live. Even this blog is a persona that’s put forward, a moderated version of myself that’s shaped for the consumption of the outside world.
But then, most blogs are. It doesn’t help. I still second-guess myself, my reasons for writing this up. I go back-and-forth on various sections, wondering if they should be cut out.
In the end I’m erring on the side of posting it in full, ’cause I honest do believe that managing shame matters, particularly when it comes to writing. Shame is at it’s best when we don’t talk about it. It’s one of those negative emotions we reject as a polite topic for conversation, for the very reasons it’s a powerful means of tearing yourself apart.
Then I’m going to go hang-out with the Spokesbear for a stretch. At least until the flutter of nerves dies down.