Creative Writing and the Psyche: Conquering Self-Doubt

The Threat of Making Art III: One Writer's Journey,

Posted Sep 02, 2020

Despite the relief of making a commitment to learn to write, that would not be easy. Because I was still so convinced that the writing gift existed in its most mature form inside us and simply sprung to the artist when called, the concept of learning to write almost shamed me. The fact that I had to learn to do it made the possibility that I had a gift at all seriously doubtful. Certainly, if I did, it was considerably less than that of truly gifted writers, who I was still convinced didn’t have to. I wanted more than anything to be able to write and I was terrified that I couldn’t.

So, coming to grips with my own unresolved passion for writing was very painful. I had held it captive all my life (I was then 42) and had focused on career and life choices that were predictable given my background growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s.

My parents, and all parents in Edgewater, were immigrants and uneducated—mostly blue-collar workers who were survivors of World Wars and the Depression, for whom a home and food on the table were life's goals and pleasures. Each craved a good education and professional jobs for their children.

You didn’t aspire to be a writer in the 1950s; all arts were frill and flimsy at best. Writing was a nice hobby to have but it certainly was never considered a serious life choice; those were reserved for vocations that would earn you a respectable salary and security.

Knowing that you could work every day for as long as you needed and preferably in the same place were the values that we were guided by. As a girl, you wanted to be a teacher, a secretary, or perhaps a nurse. You chose work that would allow you to be home when your children came home from school.

So the arts had no place in our world. In school, we had no music or art courses. No creative writing. Walt Disney was the only imagination. There was certainly no such thing as adult imagination.

Philosophically, we were a very authority-conscious society. We had rules, laws, and commandments for every life situation—priests, police, and presidents to tell us what the truth was. And we believed. There was no ambiguity and no questions. We found solace in knowing how and what to think. It was a barren land, indeed.

To complicate things further, I was already a Ph.D. in my professional life as a clinical psychologist, so the concept of being a beginner at anything seemed incongruous. Somehow having achieved success in one arena should have rendered me more knowledgeable in another. I felt very self-conscious.

Through a friend, I learned of a group called Bergen Poets. My initial challenge was to get myself to a meeting. I did, and returned several times, though I felt completely intimidated and couldn’t participate. I was amazed that people could read their poems aloud and listen as the group discussed them—their strengths and weaknesses. I couldn’t imagine such confidence. But then I learned of a workshop that was starting for beginning poets. I was terrified, but I signed up. There, I started to write about Janice. After many weeks, I brought a poem to class and read it. Miraculously, no one laughed at me.

From there, I found more challenging workshops and spent two summer weeks at the Frost Place Poetry Festival in Franconia, New Hampshire. I set new goals for myself —always upping the ante to include some new challenge.

Despite my constant self-doubt, I also had a very vigilant alter-ego fighting for me—listening for, finding, and repeating every word of encouragement that any teacher or peer uttered. Once again, no one laughed at me or told me I didn’t belong. In fact, everyone took me seriously.

After about three years, I decided that my next step needed to be a master’s program since that was the only way I could study with the finest poets and also find a community of equally serious writers to share my work with. Not since my two brief weeks at Frost Place had I had that sense of shared trust with a group of writers, and I was again feeling isolated.

So, on the recommendation of poet Louis Simpson, I applied for the master's program in creative writing at NYU. I had met Louis at my first serious (university-based) workshop and later studied with him at Aspen and he had always been very supportive of my work.    

Though I had many positive learning experiences at NYU, it turned out to be the wrong place for me. As an older writer—I was now 45—I stood out among the score or so brilliant young writers (fresh out of college) that I studied with. They were all far more gifted and literarily sophisticated than I. Twenty-five-plus years separated me from any formal study of literature and it had included very little poetry and virtually no writing technique or craft classes. To read a poem in workshop was torment, but I did it. I wanted to learn. I wanted to write good poems, and I had long since given up the fantasy that this should be effortless and graceful.

But here, too, I struggled. Because of my clinical training, I somehow always knew where the poem was going before it decided for itself. Surprise seemed outside the realm of one who had so studied her own and everyone else’s psyche as to render them sparse terrain. There would be no discoveries, I thought. But still, I pushed further.

I developed a technique of recording everything that came into my head during a writing session. I gave myself rules—turning internal censors into enforcers of my own dictates. No edits, no corrections. At this point, I had become adept at editing out all idiosyncrasies, rewording as I recorded, reframing, and redirecting, conducting the poem as it attempted to be born, girdling, and corralling it just as it started to move.

Just be an instrument, I told myself. Record. Record. Record. Do not change a word. Do not arrange. Follow every wandering… record every thought or feeling in the language in which it arrives. In its exact syntax. In its quirky sometimes shocking, shameful dialect. Every nuance. Every detail. Do not ask what it means. Do not erase! 

I assured myself anonymity. No one had to read it. I could rip it up once I’d written it. I obeyed. I recorded. It worked.

I erupted with discovery; in fact, I got more than I came for. I was terrified of the poems that were emerging—their relentless wanderings into emotions and subjects I saw as objectionable. I was embarrassed and ashamed, often riddled with guilt, sometimes horrified. I wanted to have different feelings. I wanted to obsess about the same things and in the same way as my classmates.

But that wasn’t happening. With each poem written and workshopped, I was moving further and further away. Despite the fact that I railed openly about the intrusiveness of some of the comments and the inappropriateness of it—specifically that it criticized the voice, not the poem, I felt increasingly more isolated; the community that I had longed for had formed itself but didn’t include me.

Next: Creative Writing & the Psyche: The Threat of Making Art IV: Envy