On not writing
Alexis Johnson, PhD
How do I know what I think until I see what I say?
EM Forster – The Art of Thought
For over 30 years I have wanted to write, to learn to write, to share my thoughts through writing. Often when I teach, people say, have you written about that and I say well I’m thinking about it. I know that at the very least, I want to write out the basic curriculum of the CIL professional enrichment program. It is such a good program and people always say how much they gain from participating in it. But for those same 30 years, I have not written.
So today I think it is time for me to at least name the demons that stop me from writing. First and foremost, when it comes to writing I feel that I have nothing to say. When it comes to teaching I have lots to say. So I am trying to figure out the difference. The first obvious answer for me is that teaching, at least the way I teach, is a dialogue. Yes, I have lots of information at my fingertips, organized in what I imagine is a logical sequence. But information is not meaningful as raw information. It must land somewhere, it must gather import and meaning as it passes from my brain-mind into someone else’s. I need an energetic connection, a face, a response in order to determine if what I am talking about is resonant or useful to the other.
Preparing to teach is very time consuming but not hard in the way writing it hard. For me the process is lots of reading, lots of note taking. Then looking for the arc and the themes. What will hold this together? Where is it going? Is the content solid? Does it touch on the personal, the collective, the transpersonal as I believe that is how life is lived, or at least lived most well? This is a process I know well and love every minute of. I don’t begrudge not going to a movie, or reading an exciting novel as much as I enjoy those activities. I like preparing to teach and teaching even more. It is exciting to learn, to figure it all out, and then imagine how it will land inside of another human being and how it will enrich them going forward.
I love Dan Siegle’s view of the mind-brain as the space between us, an emergent property that is always changing and always holds an element of the unknown in it. No matter what I say, how simple or mundane, I really don’t know how it will be heard by you. That is the beauty and excitement of a good conversation, what will I say that I did not know I would say, or even perhaps know that I knew or believed; and then there is the other side, when I stay Present, fully Present, I have no idea what you will say either. We will explore together, and both come away slightly changed by the encounter.
Following that thread, I know that being useful, doing useful things is a fundamental part of my value system. I like doing. I like weeding my garden because for me that makes it more beautiful. I like cooking in part because I love eating and in part to try something new and in part to give to others. I think the tradition of sending over food to newcomers and when people are in need is a very fine tradition connecting us in our bones and body. I really get the food equals love equation. I also love doing psychotherapy as it is a way of helping others who are in distress and it keeps me emotionally and intellectually on my edge. And I love teaching for the same reasons, plus I get to talk more. Yes psychotherapy is a dialogue, at least the way I practice psychotherapy, but it is certainly more listening than talking, more following the themes offered by those I sit with than my introducing topics that I am particularly interested in.
Another reason I don’t write is I can’t envision another who would be interested in what I am writing about. I spiral immediately into what we might call anti-life beliefs like others have already said all this and said it much better. Just now as I write that, everything inside of me stops. I hit a freeze place that says close the computer, go away, and do something useful.
In order not to be stopped completely I turn to my books, my trusted source of at least knowledge, sometimes even wisdom. I know that ‘real’writers suffer from ‘writer’s block’all the time. I don’t I qualify since I am not a ‘real writer’. Anne Lamott is a ‘real writer’. When she wrote Bird by Bird after Operating Instructions, she is entitled to talk about how to write and what to do when you are stuck. I love her humor and the example she gives of her Dad’s advice to her brother when he was swamped with too much information for a school report. Dad said: Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird. So Anne talks to me and says, take it piece by piece. One step at a time.
Another useful resource is Natalie Goldberg and her wonderful book, Writing Down the Bones. I have read and re-read her words on doubt. “Doubt is torture. If we give ourselves fully to something, it will be clearer when it might be appropriate to quit. It is a constant test of perseverance.”So Natalie shares that she has doubts, and gets stuck and thinks why bother. But then she pulls on a resource she called perseverance. These are writers talking about the craft of writing, including getting stuck and not writing.
Easy for me to dismiss Anne and Natalie: I am not a writer; in that field I am a non-starter with a longing and way too many doubts. I am constantly looking for inspiration as to how to start being a writer, how to take the risk to put myself as myself down into words.
So again I turn to people who have written books that I value, that have moved me, taught me, helped me in some way. Today’s inspiration comes from the organizational teacher Otto Scharmer and his Theory U. His model of change involves Open Mind, Open Heart and Open Will but the part I am interested in today he labels the Three Enemies, our personal inner voices of resistance.
Scharmer names three more demons that are familiar friends. The first enemy blocks the gate to an Open Mind and he calls that the Voice of Judgement. Boy do I know that one: Why bother? Who cares? It’s been done before and BETTER. You have nothing valuable (there’s that word again) to contribute. And just what field do you want to contribute to? Psychotherapy? Personal growth and development? Inspiration? The well lived life? Relationships? Aging gracefully? Well, yes I guess I would like to contribute in all those arenas. Just writing that feels arrogant. Why can’t I pick a focus and stick to it? At least I know I don’t want to write fiction or poetry. If I find my way into writing it will be about my experience of being a person who loves to teach in the realms of personal growth and psychotherapy and the spiritual life.
Scharmer’s second demon blocks the gate to the open heart and he calls it the Voice of Cynicism, the voice that blocks our ability to choose vulnerability over defense. Another old friend. In my mind, both good psychotherapy and good teaching require a certain amount of vulnerability. I can choose to be vulnerable because I feel a certain amount of safely in the room. The other(s) and I have co-created that safety. I know where I stand. When I write, there is no other. The words, thoughts, ideas are just out there and I don’t know where they will land. But it does feel like a big risk, to be vulnerable without knowing who I am being vulnerable to. Back to Goldstein: perseverance is the key and doubt is torture.
His third demon is the Voice of Fear which is designed to prevent us from letting go of what we already have and who we think we already are. For me the Voice of Fear and the Voice of Cynicism are a tag team, almost indistinguishable one from the other, both telling me to give up and quit now. After all I have a good life, right livelihood, a great relationship but I am certainly not ‘a creative’. I am a pragmatic, happy to get things done and I certainly don’t want to give that up. Is that what the teachers mean when they say we must die to the old in order to embrace the new? In this case I don’t think so. I think it would be another misconception to think I can’t be both creative and pragmatic. But it is certainly true that ‘creative’is not part of my self image. Once again I am meeting a demon of self doubt. I know full well that living on my personal edge is where full aliveness resides. It is not in the least greedy to want a greater sense of Self which for me means more awareness including the capacity to offer more kindness to the wider world.
So far I have my first two demons, plus Scharmer’s three. And then I hit a sixth. I am too old! Seventy is much too old to think I can start something new, that I can develop a new part of myself. Writing is being creative in a whole new way and I feel a fool to risk it. Too old screams a part of my brain. Stick with what you know: psychotherapy, teaching, family, house holding. Don’t be a sucker and think that age doesn’t matter, that you can live younger each day. Accept aging gracefully and don’t take any risks.
As I keep looking for demons I hit upon a seventh: if I am going to bother writing, and all the hard work it entails, I want it to be useful and brilliant, and seen as brilliant and suddenly find myself in the world of writers who are WELL KNOWN. This is the demon the Jungians name inflation. It is the opposite of modesty, of doing what you do well in a quiet unassuming way. This demon wants the big rewards of a certain kind of fame. I don’t want to languish in the world of unknowns. It is a very powerful fantasy demon of publishing a book and going on a book tour and “making a difference”.
Even though I have not known them this explicitly these seven demons have been very successful for thirty years. They have kept me from expanding into another part of myself. Today I meet them, I name them and I wonder about challenging them. Is it really possible?
David Whyte has a wonderful poem on taking the first step, the one you don’t want to take, the one from the narrow bit of ground right in front of you. Maybe these few words and finding my seven demons is my first step. Stay tuned.
If you would like to discover more of your first steps, consider joining the CIL Three Year Professional Enrichment program. Understanding your personal demons and the inner riches they protect will enhance your ability to follow your own Call.