I was intrigued by a blog post by Ann Kroeker in which she suggested we name our writing nemesis. At the same time, I was returning to Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way to re-cover Chapter Three and found “Recovering a Sense of Power.” As in, getting over feelings of powerlessness and shame about writing.
Cameron goes into quite a bit of detail on the effect of personal experiences of shame on your art. It did bring up some memories. When I was first starting to write, I wrote a novel manuscript of which I was quite proud. Back in those days, manuscripts were generally still paper and as I was working on it, I brought it with me to my in-laws house and left it on the dresser.
I came back after being out and my mother in law said “I read that novel you wrote. It wasn’t very good.”
Although I knew her opinion was almost certainly of little critical value, I was mortified that my personal thoughts and feelings had been read in entirety by this woman who had been mean and unkind from the get-go. Shame is a perfect description of my feeling. True to my birth family’s practices, I didn’t show my feelings however. Doing would have let her know I was hurt. It was just this year (2017) that I first recognized a practice of mine which goes back to childhood: when hurt, I will refuse to react. This is a way of maintaining your composure and sense of autonomy when family interactions can be by turns warm and generous, and then brutal. It can be very confusing to friends, but it’s a good way to deal with enemies.
Later, I voluntarily shared the same manuscript with my two brothers and my father and mother. Now I look back and think “was that really wise?” But I couldn’t think of anywhere else to find potential test readers.
My two brothers both read it and said they liked it. I should have been happy just with that. My mother was also basically complimentary, as was my father at first, but he didn’t like the ending. In fact, it made him angry.
It seems that he had misinterpreted my intention with the story, and thought I was somehow addressing events that happened in his marriage to my mother, instead of responding to novels were were reading in the English department at the university. And he was mad. Well, that was the second profoundly negative response I got and it was enough. I didn’t write another novel for fifteen years.
At the same time, my essays got more positive responses, and shame about them was largely absent, and so I continued writing essays and magazine features. But after the shaming regarding that novel, I was careful about who and what I showed people. I wonder now what would have happened had I somehow gotten supportive and appropriate critiques back then instead of scathing criticisms or genial approval. But then, as my husband says, life is an experiment that can only be done once. So I’ll never know how much shame, my writer’s nemesis, has cost me.