I met Philip Kenney, a Portland-based psychotherapist, several years ago through an introduction of a mutual friend. What began as a discussion about publishing grew into more discussions about the challenging inner-life of a writer. Through our discussions, it became clear Phil was addressing many important and tender psycho/spiritual issues many writers and creatives battle with; issues that, if left unaddressed, often upend our best creative efforts, to say the least. Though I had read several inspiring books about writing and the creative life that have helped shape my creative perspective (and sit lovingly dog-eared on my shelf), it wasn’t until speaking with Phil, who also happens to be a poet, author, and painter, that I felt some of the most fundamental questions “on being” in the creative life were answered. So we did a few interviews for the online ‘zine LitReactor. Phil’s wisdom seemed to soothe a throbbing nerve in writers. Time moved on and Phil wrote The Writer’s Crucible: Meditations on Emotion, Being, and Creativity, a book I feel many writers and creatives will find indispensable on their journey toward their best work, and ultimately, within themselves.
Now here we are, almost five years to the day of our second interview (wasn’t planned!), discussing the agony and the ecstasy of the writer’s life and the revolutionary, creative sprit that moves through us all. Philip’s message is as clear now as it was five years ago – you are enough.
My sincere and enormous gratitude to Philip Kenney for writing this book and taking the time to so thoroughly share his compassionate, loving wisdom with us. Thank you for bringing us home, Phil.
Erin: You don’t waste any time in getting to the heart of the issue for many writers and creatives – artists suffer – emotionally, psychologically. The life of a writer is often a lonely one in which all emotions are emptied onto a table for them to sort through. Some days, this process isn’t so fun; it’s painful. And then there’s the issue of rejection, from family and friends to editors, publishers, readers, critics, and so on. Why put ourselves in firing range? Yet, in the same breath, you introduce us to what Toni Morrison calls, “the non-secular”, the birth flame of creative wonder, a magical place where our most important questions are answered and maybe fresh lines of a poem or an outline of a character spring forth; it’s our source of basic goodness, as you have so eloquently expressed. If you were to ask most writers and creatives “why do it?”, I’d wager most would tell you because they can’t not write or create; we need to explore the full range of the human experience. We’re curious and compelled. So, on our worst days where we might want to turn in our keys to the magical land of The Non-secular, how do you suggest we find our way back to this fundamental connection to source? What works for you?
Phil: As you said, Erin, we need to explore the full range of human experience. What is that range? Well, I think it encompasses the remarkable vastness of inner life stretching from the agony to the ecstasy. As for the agony, yes we suffer, and are tempted to run from the pain or prematurely transcend it. I see this every day in my practice and the result is always the same: temporary relief that results in a disconnect from the core self. I’m not saying never leave your writing desk and have a beer, or watch Star Trek, but I am saying a pattern of pushing away painful feelings creates a bigger problem. Because, when contact with our inner experience is disrupted, it interrupts our mysterious connection with the creative impulse that affords us an opening to the “non-secular”. The unconventional truth is we find the field of joy by going through the pain.
As writers and artists, we have the greatest fortune to be welcomed into this realm of existence, don’t you think? We should give thanks every day before we start writing. In doing so we recognize the wonder of this opportunity as well as our relationship to it. By appreciating our reliance on something bigger than ourselves, a great weight is lifted from our psyche. The work is not about being brilliant or endlessly clever. It is about listening and serving the will of the muse. That ineffable something that compels us to write, that beckons at 3 am, tapping us on the shoulder with a merry, “Hey, get up, I’ve got an idea!” The same one that asks us to walk across hot coals and, sweet surprise, helps us shed our small self for the joy of entering the groove of creative movement: the space of the non-secular. Being in that space is what drives me to get up at 5:30 to write. OK, I know I’m getting carried away. But I love this. When you’re in the groove and a guest of the non-secular realm, insecurities dissolve and the question of worth is nowhere to be found. Only the work is happening: emotion, psyche, being and creativity are one beautiful force moving in sync: “Words are flowing out like endless….”
What works for me? I try to live in a seamless zone, where walking and listening to birdsong, doing the dishes, feeling the pain of rejection upon rejection, writing a good sentence, talking with my two sons, doing my psychotherapy practice, spending time with Lori, feeling the sting of a bad review; the whole stir fry of our living is invitation to connect with and be in the source. Like everyone else, I fall asleep, forget who I am, chase after distractions and run from pain. But when I wake up to the folly of my wayward pursuits, I return to the simple things in life that bring me closer to the source.
Every morning I get up and before anything else, sit in meditation. It’s not that meditation is the be all and end all, it’s just that we are too prone to forgetting who we really are. Too susceptible to distraction and occupied by worries. So meditation is the center of it all for me. Each morning I remember and experience what it is to live from the place of being. That is nectar. It is a reminder of what is of real value and the source of all I hold dear. From there it is all about relationship – an ongoing conversation with everything that comes my way. The Sufi’s call this sohbet, a mystical conversation that is transformative of everything involved. They consider it their most sacred practice. I’m beginning to realize what this means. Conversation, whether involving our writing, those that are dear to us, or the inner self should begin with listening. So it is with the source. Listening and making room to be found is the best practice. I think in the end, it’s less about finding our way back and more about being found by that source that is continuously going on being.
Erin: I loved your story about your experience viewing a Matisse exhibit in New York. You were surprised to see the rudimentary first draft sketches displayed next to the finished masterpiece in bold color. Did this realization affect your creative process? How so?
Phil: Completely. I had no creative process at the time that I was conscious of other than an interest in art and literature that was mostly an attempt to look cool. But something happened that day. You see, I was born in Ohio not long after WWII and lived there until I entered the 8th grade. The closest we got to culture was Lawrence Welk on Saturday night. We lived not far from Detroit under the unconscious influences of assembly line manufacturing. Visions of Fords and Chevrolets rolling out of the factory danced in my head. By the time we moved to New York in 1962, I truly believed that the masters of canvas and paint sat down at the easel and turned out those masterpieces as easily as snapping their fingers. This was magical realism at its worst! I didn’t realize at the time, and wouldn’t for many years to come, that a powerful yearning to make art was growing inside. Where it came from I have no idea.
Years later when that yearning broke loose, I immediately remembered standing in that gallery and the vertigo I felt staring at those primitive drawings hanging next to the masterpiece. It completely upended my childish notions of perfection. Eventually, that freed me to write with abandon.
Today, when I begin a new project, I enjoy scribbling and scrambling about the page like a bug. I forget about punctuation and sentence structure. This works for me because in a very real sense I don’t know what I am thinking until I take to writing. Soon the paper looks like one of those poetry games on the frig — word salad zig-zagging this way and that. What fun it is to play, trusting in the flurry of random sparks, and feeling a kinship with Matisse and all artists who have been touched by inspiration. One of Portland’s finest artists, Phil Sylvester, draws portraits without looking at his drawing paper. That’s what I’m talking about.
There are other times when even doodling is too ambitious and premature. We have to be good at waiting and accept that at times we will feel helpless. No one likes this, but for the process of unconscious gestation to prepare what is to come, it is necessary because the unconscious mind is closest to the creative source. In those hours, days, and often longer, it is enough to allow the growth of inspiration to happen. Then I try to feel into the growing mass of thought and feeling that is coalescing around an idea. I try my best to allow my unconscious mind to go before me into the interior of the unknown where the creative brew is taking form. A longing develops that I feel is somehow integral to inviting the muse to speak. I try not to rush it, and that is challenging, but more and more it feels like an adventure in being with mystery.
Erin: Let’s talk about something you bring into the spotlight early on in your book – our shame. You connect shame to feelings of deficiency and inadequacy, which fertilizes the terrible roots of anxiety. Our own embarrassing fear of exposure is the elephant in the room. It’s common enough a problem to devote an entire book to soothing the self who feels “not good enough” (which we’ll explore in greater depth later). You say, “the way through the field of shame is to fall in love with the presence of being that holds us, just like we have fallen in love with the process of making art.” Here’s that connection to the non-secular again. Further on, you explore the following:
“A story is still a story, and we remain susceptible to narrative that is reductive and puts a negative or limited spin on what we are. The purpose of expanding and detailing your personal story is to make every effort to see yourself clearly so that when the storms hit and self-doubt begins to breach the levy, it remains possible to hold a good-enough notion in mind of your actual strengths and weaknesses.”
What’s important for us to know about our shame? Can we see it as a friend with a message? Is it possible to transform this powerful energy into something useful in our lives and art?
Phil: Entire books are devoted to shame and the many derivatives of its presence. And you are right to suggest that this book is in large part a meditation on shame, how to relate to its presence and how to soothe yourself when it emerges uninvited. It is the emotion at the core of the “I’m not good enough” narrative. That narrative is often represented by a bullying voice that proclaims unequivocally, “You suck. Who are you kidding, you can’t write.” When in the grip of shame, this kind of self-attack seems indisputable. The anxiety authors feel often concerns the threat that shame is near. The tendency is to want to hide, or in the case of humiliation, disappear or get out of town.
Shame is perhaps the major cause of our emotional distress in leading a creative life. The ways to best deal with the toxicity of this emotion are counterintuitive, because every ounce of you wants to move away, hide, do something ego-enhancing or down a whiskey. What we rarely think to do is turn towards shame. Sorry, but until you learn that you can feel into shame and bear it you will be stuck in its grip. The first and maybe most difficult step towards disempowering this tar-like emotion, is to face it. Again, the more you try to escape, the more it sticks. This takes lots and lots of practice, but believe me, it is essential so that you don’t start running around trying to fix yourself and further the disconnect with who you really are. Besides my own book, try reading Brené Brown’s work on shame. She’s terrific.
What helps us to stand in the experience of shame is knowing that it is based on this false narrative: something’s wrong with me, I’m not worthy, loveable or good enough. The stuff of internal condemnation. It helps to see this for what it is: distorted stories of inadequacy produced by what I call, the anxious brain, or the shame brain. I know this is oversimplified, but you will be surprised at just how empowering it is to label these pronouncements as you would in a mindfulness meditation. Call them out! “Shame brain.” It will help expose the bullying and shaming for what it is: a highly charged voice generated by the part of your brain that has mistakenly identified with a distorted image and lost sight of the real multi-dimensional wonder of you. More often than not, these habits of the mind are laid down early in life as a result of traumas of one sort or another. It’s worth exploring those injuries in a good therapy setting to assist in reducing their power.
In therapy, we go a step further that is perfectly suited for writers. First we challenge the habitual false narrative and then we make it into a more complicated version. Revision time! We slowly piece together a new story that is based on a more thorough historical review and empathic analysis of our situation. This narrative may go back many generations and includes any personal traumas suffered along the way by any member of the family and culture. For example, my father’s family was devastated by the Great Depression and their shame and fear of poverty shadowed us into the prosperity of the post war years. In a real sense the struggles I have had with depression and shame are not solely my own but are the result of a great deal of trauma that went unprocessed and was unknowingly transmitted to my generation. Knowing that allows me room to see my life in a far different light, and reach out a hand of friendship to that little boy who grew up bewildered by the shadows circling his world.
What is painful to observe and at times incredulous, is just how binding these oversimplified stories are. How helpless otherwise bright and assertive people are when subject to their own self-reproach. I think it is time we all learned to protest the authority of the anxious brain. We have seen the power of taking to the streets to protest gun laws in recent weeks. We are seeing women protest and claim authority over their bodies in the me-too movement. But little has been written or practiced to strengthen and support an internal protest to the demeaning voices within. For victims of childhood trauma, the body’s healthy and instinctive protest is overpowered. Internalization of blame follows. We can and must restore the instinctive capacity for protest. Shame can be externalized by creating a realistic narrative and by stopping the shame brain in its tracks. This leads to the development of healthy self-respect and self-recognition so necessary to a writer navigating the turbulent waters of creative life.
Again and again we come back to that connection with the non-secular, with ordinary being. Again and again we get lost. I can’t go so far as to say shame is a friend with a message, but I will say that you can learn to recognize the emergence of shame as a signal that you have become disconnected from your real self and are caught in the trap of trying to prove yourself worthy over and over.
We are held together by the basic goodness at the center of our being. When you connect with that inner presence, the integrity of your essence shines. It has the power to transform shame like the sun burning off morning clouds. I can be in a fit of shame, sit down for meditation and before long it has dissolved. Really. This is not to say that shame will disappear from psyche altogether. It’s a bit like blueberry stains on a white t-shirt. In order to create emotional stability you need to establish an ongoing relationship to your inner world just as you do for your writing practice.
Meditate, do yoga, therapy, walk in the woods by the ocean, play with your dog, look into the eyes of babies—it doesn’t matter what it is as long as it brings you back home to that place of ease. That place where love and inspiration emerge into the world. That, as Thomas Merton wrote, is our True Self.
Erin: Okay, onto “The Self Project”, as you call it, which is essentially our ego’s self-defense mechanism at work, right? Maybe it’s safe to say we’re all working on it to some degree. I loved this passage:
“We live in a society that prizes accomplishment of goals and success. In economic terms, it is the product that is revered. Nothing is wrong with achieving success and finishing your novel at long last. However, along the way, if you are separated from being, you will suffer. And your work may as well. Because at one juncture or another, you will become lost, or you will lose faith, and without the support of the experience of knowing your basic goodness – that is, without the connection to being that holds mind and body together – you will feel shame and the strategies of The Self Project will move into high gear.”
I feel this is a throbbing nerve in writers whose work is commercially available, and for those who have that aspiration. In the world of traditional publishing, not only is the work of the writer a commodity, but the writer is, too. They must have this grand presence before a traditional publisher will even consider their work. There’s some sound economic reasoning behind this from the publisher’s perspective, but so much pressure is placed on the writer to have this type of celebrity status while they create and many writers who are green to the biz struggle to make sense of this dynamic and their role within it.
With all the commercial expectations placed on writers from their publishers (and even from their readership, to some degree), how should writers prepare themselves emotionally/psychologically for the business of traditional publishing, which encourages writers to be ever present with their audience via social media, events, etc.? How do we keep “The Self Project” in check while giving the publisher and our readers what they want?
Phil: We don’t. “The Self Project”, or the ego as it is fondly referred to, is a powerful and tricky force to be reckoned with. In many ways it is more cunning than we are. And because it has been around since the beginning of time, that is the time we were wounded by life, family or society, it is blended into our lives like a cleverly camouflaged insect in a tree. Because what is this ego, this self-defense mechanism really? I gave it a different name, because The Self Project is not merely a mental function organizing self-inflation. The Self Project is a vast system of behaviors, strategies, maneuvers and internal fantasies designed to compensate for feelings of defectiveness, unworthiness etc. In short, it attempts to cover shame and produce glowing evidence that you are actually someone special. As such, it feeds perfectly into the seduction and trappings of the business of self-promotion and the demands of the publishing industry. I don’t pretend to have solutions to these challenges, only practices that provide ongoing care. It is extremely difficult to hold onto yourself and the muse while trying to navigate economic realities and find success with the work. It demands a great deal of hard work on writing projects and a great deal of hard work in the personal realm. How to do this?
As you said so well, Erin, this is indeed a “throbbing nerve”. We are tender souls. Sensitive we are. Strong and resilient too, and we will need all of that to write with authority. What is common for most humans is to pull away from that throbbing nerve. But in doing so, a separation from the real self begins that is a signal to the Self Project to take over. In the moment, it does not occur to us to remain with vulnerability. That sounds stupid. We want to protect and distance from hurt and exposure. However, vulnerability is the link to our vital self. Listen to Brené Brown’s classic Ted Talk on vulnerability. Rather than an impediment – vulnerability, that is maintaining contact with your emotional world – is the way to be connected. It allows us to relate to our friends and colleagues in ways that offer real support and encouragement for the tough days on this path. Moreover, it keeps our connection alive with the real self, which enables us to discern the promptings of the muse from the anxious strivings of The Self Project.
We are not doomed to lead the life of Sisyphus, rolling a boulder up a hill every day. But it is true, more often than not, that we regularly encounter the challenge of accepting the lost and found nature of our lives as artists. We are in the groove and then we lose it. We are with our voice and then it disappears. This doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. You are not inadequate. This is the nature of things. We may feel shame about this condition, blame ourselves and grasp for the promises of The Self Project. But it always ends up at the same place. Disappointment. The more you identify this pattern, the more you can normalize it as a feature of a writer’s life the closer you are to gathering support from your colleagues and offering a hand of compassion to your hurting self.
Two other things are essential and bear repeating. First, while these patterns are inevitable in the course of our work, they are augmented by the emotional wounds of the past. We are sensitive people, and, many of us have experienced psychological injury and or trauma at one time in our lives. These experiences are etched into the cells of our bodies and hearts. Sorry, but it’s true. Those leftovers make us susceptible to emotional flooding and states of being overwhelmed. They also initiate the elaborate construction of The Self Project and its many strategies. For those people, I highly recommend therapy. I have been a psychotherapist for over thirty years and I know it works. Even Consumer Reports says so! In that time, I have worked with scores of artists and writers who have lived under the shadow of shame and the not good enough narrative. People find tremendous release from the binding constriction of these painful emotions and move forward to an enhanced capacity to do their work. Therapy does not make everything better, but it certainly expands our capacity to tolerate difficult emotion while increasing the ability to recognize and free ourselves from the success trap.
The second idea is to establish some sort of spiritual life. I recommend meditation, but there are many ways to practice and connect with the creative pulse of the world. You can find this in nature, in music and dance and countless other ways. What is transforming is to find your essential self within. Therein lies the truly good enough you and the integrity of being. Therein lies ease and contentment that is free and springs forth from the source for no particular reason. Contact with this place makes the pronouncements of the shame brain laughable and the trappings of success impotent. This does not mean success is not important, but it does shift the desperate striving for validation to a more grounded yearning for accomplishment that is based on your real self and thankfulness to the creative spirit guiding you. Again, none of this is a one and done thing, a final decision. It is a life long practice of devotion to the mystery of creativity and care for your tender, but hearty self.
Erin: Now on the flip, “The Good Enough Self”. You present this question in the face of our desire to have “more” to feed the “The Self Project”. More money, success, great reviews, sales, and so on.
“What would our lives look like were we to give up on the lust for more? Stopping necessitates a connection with something within that holds all our talent and all our insecurities in an embrace of goodness. You are okay, after all.”
My question has two parts:
When one feels choked at any stage of their creative process, for any reason, how do you suggest they lessen the grip of whatever is causing the restriction in order to breathe life into what they intuitively know they need to create?
And, many writers and creatives would love to make even the humblest form of living from their work. The demands and expectations from publishers and readers/consumers can become overwhelming. The ebb and flow of reviews presents another pendulum of emotions for writers/creatives to deal with. How do you suggest we find the balance between the demands of commerce and our vital connection to “The Good Enough Self”?
PHIL: Part 1: Choking is a good word for the experience of being tied up in knots unable to execute the inspiration seeking expression. These are frustrating hours and maddening days. The easy answer is to take a step back, go for a walk, dig in the garden – do something to disengage the mind from the state of contraction that is interfering with the work. More often than not, we are trying too hard to make something happen and working way too hard at figuring things out rather than listening to the creative impulse. In doing so, we contract even more and miss the subtle threads that might open things up. When the Self Project is activated, it’s worth taking time to reflect: what is motivating me to push so hard? What am I striving for that is separating me from my-self and the muse? Is it fame and fortune? Trying to prove myself a great writer? Trying to convince everyone that I’m right? Or not-guilty? Now is a good time to journal or talk to a confidant to get to the heart of the insecurity that is straining for validation.
But there are certain times in creative life, as in any kind of birth, when we just have to bear the pain. Women understand this better than men. Some of us aren’t so good at this. Here we enter the mysterious realm of surrender. Not giving up, but laying down the anxious striving. True surrender is easier said than done. It is not entirely conscious and it often necessitates going to the limit of self-will until we feel the fatigue of our solo efforts. Often, to our surprise, it is in moments of defeat that an opening occurs for the creative impulse to enter. A crack for the light to come in. Thank you, Mr. Cohen. This happens in scientific thought as well. Many breakthroughs in insight have occurred at moments of impasse as a scientist was stepping onto the bus. It seems this process is a property of creative thinking of any type. It’s nearly impossible to remember it when you’re stuck in the mud, and yet, the more you go through it and experience the power that is you and greater than you moving the work, the more an unconscious faith will grow in your dependency on the uncanny ways of the creative spirit.
Part 2: I’m not sure I can believe in the ideal of balance any longer. So much of life involves getting lost, stumbling in the dark of night, emotional flooding, eureka moments: you name it, the whole stir-fry of existence. Writers have signed on to a life that compounds these dynamic forces. I see life and people more like weather systems than as an individual controlling the turbulence of the inner environment. We have to roll with it to a certain extent. Try to get a degree of comfort with flux and imbalance. Rather than balance, I look for equilibrium, finding the eye of the storm. This is why mindfulness is becoming so popular. It allows one to connect with the inner self with awareness without reacting to or being taken over by the emotions and negative thoughts of the nervous system.
Capitalism prays on insecurities. So while it’s next to impossible to be free of the reaches of commercial demands, it is possible to recognize them for what they are. And it is possible to have rituals or systems in place to protect yourself and separate from the pull of the business world. In other words, having some degree of peace and freedom from the increasingly harsh realities of publishing racket. Making a living begins with finding emotional and spiritual nurturance and grounding in the everyday privilege of being a part of creation’s desire. How amazing is that?! When I’m conscious, I try to remember this profound truth. I try to feel it deep in my bones. It really does feel like a miracle to me especially because I began writing later in life. I am the most unlikely of writers, having only learned to truly read in my senior year of high school thanks to Mr. Warren Allen Smith my eccentric English teacher. He taught me to look deep into literature and life for meaning. What a treasure. By the way, Mr. Smith wrote 5 books between the ages of 80 and 90!
What I do believe in is the archetype of the return. That the creative impulse will return even when I am in the desert and convinced I’ll never write a decent sentence again in my life. And so, every morning I return to my meditation seat. I sit down, close my eyes and do nothing for 20 minutes but be with myself. Soon I am reacquainted with the bearable lightness of being, which I love, and the ever so good enough nature of this guy. Sure, thoughts and worries are flying around like swallows at dusk (I’m not sure I want to know what they’re eating) but amidst the swirl of mental activity, I can sense the simple presence of being that holds me and the whole confounding play of psyche. Then I am ready to get back in the ring with the demands and challenges of promoting my work.
For me, this is the rejuvenator, the clearing ground of constriction. The bonus? I can’t tell you how many times the answer to yesterday’s writing problem has come to me in meditation. Sometimes I keep a pad next to me. William Burrows did the same. I love this. It returns me to an abiding delight and faith in the unbidden. In something much more than me, that moves me to write, marvel and love this wild and crazy thing we call creativity.