With tremendous gratitude, I welcome back Portland-based therapist, author, poet, and artist, Phil Kenney, for part two of our interview series on his new book, The Writer’s Crucible: Meditations on Emotion, Being, and Creativity (Inkwater Press, 2018). Several weeks ago, Phil and I discussed the multi-faceted, stained glass inner life of a writer and the non-secular creative spirit that moves us toward the blank page, here. This week, we continue the discussion on befriending the artist within and joining in the creative breath of the universe.
Erin: In the chapter “Verse,” you relate something Carl Jung said late in life to an interviewer who asked what he had learned in all his years of study. Jung’s response was “to reach out a hand of friendship to this lump of clay.” Regardless of Jung’s brilliant, groundbreaking contribution to the field of psychology with its tendrils reaching into literature, art, and other disciplines, Jung’s response suggests there were moments he didn’t think he was so hot, right? What writer or artist hasn’t felt this? What artist hasn’t felt the depression that stems from the anxiety of not measuring up? How many of us spend our adulthood as artists struggling to like our work, or ourselves, for that matter. You ask the question, “Why do we struggle so with extending a measure of kindness to ourselves?” Why, indeed? What stops us from looking at our own struggles and successes as the work of art it really is?
Phil: I’m always stopped in my tracks reading that quote from Jung. Really? You too, Mr. Jung? I suppose we can’t help ourselves from idealizing people of such stature and are surprised to learn they are just like us. Like us, they struggle with the turbulent weather of interior life and the difficulty of feeling even a bit of self-respect. Humbling, it is. And all too often shaming, as we hear ourselves over and over mumbling in secret, “What’s wrong with me?” Where is the kindness?
In fact, Jung suffered at times with episodes of what he described as terrifying experiences of insanity. What good shrink doesn’t! I became a therapist in the late seventies after “cracking up” at the ripe age of 26. Having been a literature major in college I found myself easily drawn to the compatibility of psychoanalytic literature and the likes of Freud and Jung. Today, some 40 plus years later, I feel stronger than ever that psychology and literature inform my life and one another in profound ways. I have always felt training programs for therapists should include the reading of literature and the same holds true for writers and the need to be familiar with psychological theory. I’ve tried to bridge those domains in my work and in my writing.
We are blessed with this incredible thing called psyche, which for better and for worse carries us through vast worlds of experience, some of which we often find overwhelming. Though much of conventional thinking insists we should be in control of our lives and minds, the reality, which should be obvious, is that in many respects we are not. This mysterious and remarkable psyche, named after the beloved butterfly, is quite wayward. We are made from energies at once dynamic, creative and unstable. I liken this notion of self and mind to the weather with low and high-pressure systems in constant motion and flux. What a ride!
From this vantage point, the question of “Why we struggle so with extending a measure of kindness to ourselves,” is an intriguing one. Economic forces alone depend on and perpetuate a certain amount of insecurity to flourish. If we felt good enough and self-accepting, we probably wouldn’t buy so much stuff, would we? But from my point of view, and the research on attachment and trauma, much of our difficulty liking and being connected to ourselves has to do with problems that begin in a culture obsessed with appearances and behavior at the expense of recognizing and connecting with the wonder and mystery of the inner self. Children suffer enormous confusion and pain when not seen in their wholeness.
This failure to see and appreciate the depth and complexity of people makes it exceedingly difficult to recognize ourselves as adults pursuing something as demanding and uncertain as making art. How many times have I read something I’ve written and thought, “Wow, this stinks,” put it away in the desk drawer only to read it weeks later and think, “Who wrote this, this is pretty good.” Ever done that one?
We have lacked adequate mirrors and so now we get lost and can’t see who we really are. Our internal mirrors are clouded and the shame that resulted from not being seen turns into the nagging negative self-reproach we are all too familiar with. Much of my book is an attempt to undo that shame and help authors and artists see themselves more completely. Then it is possible to connect with the spiritual source at your core and realize your true integrity. When you know that, reaching out a hand of friendship to you as you are comes more spontaneously.
Erin: In “Rhythm and Rhyme,” you write about the creative play of rhythm and rhyme in writing and art in general. It’s listening to the rain, the birds, the exhale of the wind. You call it, “the juice…the swing, the aliveness, that art brings us to.” You’re keen to bring up the revolutionary music of the 60s and how the full scale of power of our collective experience during a time when culture was “expanding and collapsing”, as you say, in so many ways was directly influencing the music scene.
This expansion and collapsing, this creative and destructive force of life, that is very much the genesis of our own biology, is the creative force at work.
“It’s the soaring voice of Walt Whitman arcing over the battlefield and singing the praises of the living and the dead, the victorious and the defeated. It is the poem of you, the mysterious juice of you, the particular swing of you, that decorates this space and time like no other.”
As Mary Oliver wrote, “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” It takes time to pay attention. It can take years of time, even. Often, I would hear from writers who didn’t feel they had time to watch the snow fall. They were so overwhelmed by the pressure to produce, for their own validation, to pay the bills, and so on. When we as writers sense a clock ticking, what might be a way to remind ourselves to slow down and take those deep breaths with the creative universe? How does this benefit our art?
Phil: Yeah, I just keep coming back to the 60’s and rock and roll! I have to think that music woke up a whole generation. It brought life back to bodies that were moth-balled in the 50’s. Consciousness exploded with the arrival of Elvis, Chuck Berry and the British Invasion. Throw in the civil rights movement, assassinations, Vietnam, free love and psychedelics and kaboom—there you have it, what I like to call the whole stir fry of life on high (sorry I couldn’t resist) heat. And yes, you said it so well, Erin, “This expansion and collapsing, this creative and destructive force of life, that is very much the genesis of our own biology, is the creative force at work.” Right. And have you felt that in your own life, in the experience of living your day to day stuff and in your creative process?
Things come together and things fall apart. And things are sustained. The Hindus have been saying this for ages through the mythological triad of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. And those cosmic forces are simultaneously moving though each of us morning, noon and night. This is the magnificent mystery and beauty of our lives: we have been touched by the creative impulse and moved to cooperate with its wishes to express something that points to that ineffable beauty. What could be better? Children and love bring us close to the same joy and primeval mystery. We are a fortunate lot.
So it’s no wonder that we experience the agony and the ecstasy in our work. How could we not? And yet, we find ourselves thinking something is wrong when we collapse into a helpless ineffective stage of the work. Not so! As Beckett said, “Fail again, fail better!” When it takes two years to find the right voice for a piece we think something is wrong with me. I’m unfit. When the editor says you have to take this back and rework the structure of your novel, this is how it goes. The eternal dance of becoming and dissolving.
And when we find ourselves in the zone of ecstasy we tend to think it was something we did that brought it on. “Man, I’ve got this.” Wrong. Assuming total personal agency for the failings and the triumphs is a mistake that will eventually lead us down a dark alley. Some will find this an insult to their talent and efforts. For me it is liberating and invokes a spiritual reverence for the privilege of being touched, or as Rumi would say, kissed, by the creative spirit.
Having recognized this we can lead our lives in appreciation for what we have been given and practice receiving this preciousness we did nothing to earn as we listen to the morning birdsong and, how did you say it, Erin, “the exhale of the wind.” This readies us to recognize and meet the inevitable droughts, problems and storms of the world that arrive often simultaneously: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Thank you, Mr. Dickens.
The more we practice this consciousness, the more ready we are to take what I call a sacred pause when the going gets tough and the second hand on the clock is beating as loud as our stressed out hearts. Take a sacred pause, breathe, look around and see the world humming. Take it all a little less seriously and listen. To what? To the creative heartbeat within. It’s not all on you. You have the help of that desire that makes worlds spin. Truly. And that connection, and that connection alone, is what allows you to make art. That connection is what allows you to disappear and let your skill and talent mingle with the creative source to make what you never really expected. It’s amazing isn’t it? In my opinion that is why we keep coming back, knowing full well we may have to walk some hot coals on the way.
But it is important to remember, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” What does that mean? It means we have to come home to the aliveness of our bodies. We have to become embodied again and find the aliveness that transforms this lump of clay into a vibrant source of love and creativity. Too many writers live in the mind and are disconnected from the body and its wisdom. All too often you find the writing lacks the juice. It’s either too cerebral or it runs a little flat. Do some yoga, find the rhythm and pleasure of this life force and the support it can offer to your life and work.
Erin: In the chapter, “The Script,” you touch on the generational psychic trauma within families and our struggle to understand and deal with this inherited psychological pain. If left unexplored and unaddressed, the stains of these traumas begin to seep into the pages of our lives. You write, “like all scripts, it must be revised; rewrites and edits are the stuff of our lives. Without editing the script, we are prone to either repeating the original norms of family and culture or radically opposing most rules.” Perhaps some writers may feel their fodder will dry up if they heal these deep wounds within themselves? What do you say to that?
Phil: Please, don’t worry. Your wounds are not keeping your fodder vibrant, the creative impulse is. It uses your wounds and anything else in your makeup for its generative purpose. Rilke refused psychoanalysis in his time because he feared that if his demons were removed he would lose his angels, too. I appreciate this fear, but completely disagree. On the contrary, I see numerous writers and artists and therapy helps them to shed unnecessary emotional constrictions and connect with their deeper selves in such a way as to free creative energies that have been trapped for years behind defensive armoring.
The problem is that trauma takes root in the cells of our bodies and disturbs the regulation capacities of the nervous system making us vulnerable to the flooding of anxiety and shame. Additionally, trauma tends to rewrite the internal narrative in ways that perpetuate and amplify the story of our defectiveness. When trauma is faced head on, that narrative can be revised and empathy for the pain of past experiences develops. It is true that suffering can make us more sensitive to the pain of others, however that empathy does not recede with the working through of trauma. In fact, having discharged some of the toxic emotional left overs, there is growing room for a more compassionate response to others and oneself.
I believe in therapy. It saved me. And in over forty years of working with people of all stripes I have seen how valuable it can be to restoring a sense of aliveness and untangling constricting knots. It is true, that a substantial amount of our motivation to create art comes from what I call the Self-Project, which is that elaborate system of strategies and maneuvers intended to compensate and overcome the wounds and insecurity we struggle with. However, I don’t think that our brokenness is the primary source of our inspiration. It may be that “the cracks are where the light comes in,” nevertheless, it is my experience that the light expands once we work with trauma and its complications. We don’t seal over the cracks. No, we feel into and support the pain at the heart of those cracks. We tend to the shameful feelings that make us want to disappear or expect the impossible from ourselves. Then, the freedom to listen and work at the pace and urging of the muse is most accessible.
Erin: Let’s talk about writer’s block. You suggest, “Writers block and other interferences with a fruitful, creative life aren’t so much about being lazy, or lacking talent, but are more often than not complicated emotional constrictions that limit access to inspiration and the important inner resources to complete projects.” Wowza! So, what’s really going on here? We’re not just stumped on where to go next?
Phil: Being stumped is one thing, writer’s block is quite another. I’ll bet you know, as do I, many talented people who never get off the block. They have trouble activating themselves and moving toward what they want to do. They may fantasize but never act, or succumb to a puzzling inertia that takes over and undermines their intentions. I’ve known this in myself and in fact put off trying to write a novel until I turned 60 even though I fantasized doing so, yearned to do so and otherwise told friends I was about to get going on it. Why?
I resist the word lazy. My father told me I was lazy most of my childhood and I came to believe him. I wasn’t lazy, I was resisting him the whole way. My laziness was a passive protest to his unwillingness to relate to me in any other way than telling me what to do. This is the power of the powerless and the meaning behind behaviors easily misinterpreted. I also resist the word undisciplined. This is the favorite condemnation of those who suffer writer’s block. Simple. End of story: “I’m not disciplined.” In other words, this is a thinly veiled attack that leads nowhere but down. I tell you what, I have worked with any number of “undisciplined” people and when their critical inner world is exposed it is obvious why they don’t write. Why writer’s block is their secret ally. Hell, I wouldn’t write either if I knew I was going to take that kind of a beating.
So, writer’s block isn’t a character flaw. It isn’t because of a lack of talent, discipline or work ethic. Most writers have more than enough of that good stuff. And ask anyone in AA and they will tell you that willpower will not get you to sobriety. What is it, then? More often than not, writer’s block is the result of unresolved trauma and the emotional residue of experiences that have shaped the internal landscape and the intra-psychic narrative. In other words, shame and anxiety can debilitate otherwise talented people. Writers block is a form of hiding, making oneself small so as to avoid what the unconscious mind believes to be a certain rendezvous with humiliation.
When you’re stumped you are at least in the game. And God knows it takes lots of fortitude to plow through the stuck spots, the days when the muse is silent and the work just doesn’t flow. It takes gumption to keep on keepin’ on. When shame has the upper hand, who wants to get in the game? Right. The point is to avoid at all costs the terrible risk of revealing yourself. Yes, all writers should be saluted! Writer’s block is like a silent leg cramp. It is the kind of emotional constriction that makes a perfectly capable person shut down and dig in like a dog that plants its hind legs and says, I ain’t going no further.
With a lot of empathy and a lot of personal work on those feelings, the whole system starts to loosen up. People report to me feeling more spacious, more relaxed, in body and mind. Then you’re ready to write. Then you’re read to open, listen and receive the murmuring of the muse. Then you want to write and do so from a place of love and desire to express what is authentically yours. And it is so fulfilling, even when it goes stale, because the connection to the creative source, which is you and not only you, is there, or near. Once you tap into it you don’t forget. And even if you do, it won’t forget you and will come whispering.
Erin: I’ve often thought writers are some of bravest people I know. Not only does it take discipline to devote time and attention to the craft, but within many a draft, a poem, a published novel, the writer reveals where they are during a time in their lives, and at times, it’s pretty raw. Those pieces we’re the most afraid to share are oftentimes the most powerfully received. From the moment a writer conceives an idea for a story or poem, fear seeps in. Can I do this justice? Will it be good enough? Will people hate it? What if it receives bad reviews? What if it doesn’t sell? What an emotional burden to carry! It’s a wonder writers produce commercially at all!
You write in Chapter 16, “The Lights,” “Though we are conscious beings, fear motivates us to dim the lights and hide in the shadows of unconsciousness.” You ask, “How often do we hold back from giving our full self to the canvas or the blank page? …How often do we shrink from the expansiveness that is the nature of being?”
What do you do when you feel the anxiety born of fear creep in? When the fog of self-doubt settles on your chest? When you’ve lost faith in your own light?
Phil: Let’s start with the practical. If you are serious about wanting to help yourself with anxiety and depression you have to begin with the body. People aren’t happy when I say this, but cutting back on coffee/caffeine and sugar is the most effective intervention. They come back in a week or two and tell me how much better they feel. When I eliminated coffee and sugar after having a stent put in my heart, my anxiety dropped in half almost immediately. And guess what? Yes, you can write well without that coffee! You can, and probably more consistently. That and regular rest and sleep (how old fashioned!) some vigorous exercise, a dab of meditation and holy cow, I feel better already! Try it.
What do we do when the anxiety creeps in, when the self-doubt settles on your chest or all faith seems to have vanished? Once the anxiety hits it’s good to have some soothing practices to turn to. Someone to talk to, a walk in the woods; whatever allows you to begin to calm your nervous system, disengage from the anxious thoughts and ground yourself to the reality of the moment. Use your senses to break the trance. Find 5 things to look at carefully. Find 4 things to listen to carefully. Feel the soles of your feet on the ground and the earth supporting you. Do this often, it will ground you and get you out of your head and connected to what is real right now. Breathe through your nose and exhale slowly. You are in a trance and these practices will help break the spell.
Most of you know this already. Ask yourself why you aren’t practicing it regularly. Ask yourself what feelings of unworthiness may be holding you back. Deal with those. Find a good therapist, meditate on the spaciousness within. Ask yourself if you’re afraid to be your big self in the world. If you’re afraid to let your light shine on. These practices should be every bit as much a part of your routine as a writing practice. Remember, it’s all about nurturing the connection you have to being which is synonymous to the creative source.
Why is all this necessary? Because so many of us, and perhaps the entire species, have experienced one form of trauma or another. It is now a part of our DNA. In other words, we have been subject to overwhelming experience(s) that overstimulate the nervous system and cause it to reset by either revving up or shutting down. In either case the system gets out of whack and loses its equilibrium and flexibility and gets stuck in one mode or the other—hyper-alert/active or numb/dissociated. Enter stage left the many stimulants and depressants: coffee, alcohol, Netflix, smart phones, pastries, cable news—phew, no wonder we’re exhausted. Our systems are wound pretty tight trying to do our work and survive the crush of capitalism not to mention how much energy goes into the efforts of the ego, and what I call the self-project, to prove how important and worthy we are. Not a happy picture.
With our nervous system primed to react to any perceived threat, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we are so vulnerable to the very problems you articulated in the opening paragraph of this question. Our vocation leads us into areas of serious public and private risk and I completely agree with you that sitting down at the writing desk every morning is an act of bravery. J. D. Salinger said it took an hour of writing every morning to be honest with himself. Imagine that. And why is it that being honest and encountering your real self is no simple matter? For exactly the reasons you detailed in your opening paragraph: namely the fear of encountering our most intimate thoughts and feelings and the anxiety that they will be unacceptable.
This is why I named my book, The Writer’s Crucible. Why the Crucible? Because the making of art, the giving birth to a novel or poem is, in part, an ordeal. The mystery and beauty of creativity involves the labor of moving through a quagmire of feelings necessary to the creation of something new and unexpected. Something beautiful. This does indeed require stamina, faith and courage. And something unnamable when you feel you have none of these qualities left in the tank. I call that something spiritual. That is a creative force that somehow carries us onward.
You might be surprised how many writers and artists come to me for therapy with all sorts of insecurities only to discover somewhere in the center of that turbulence a deeply held fear of being big. That is, a deeply held terror of embodying the authority of their own talent. At the core of these anxieties lies the shame binding so many to a smaller version of themselves and reinforcing an epidemic of a people bound by the internal narrative that they are unworthy, not good enough, unlovable….
This is our tragic situation. Why write at all? Like you said, to write is to reveal yourself and face constant exposure, and exposure is the last thing anyone living with shame wants. We will hide, shrink and disappear to avoid its excruciating claws. This is the sad story. All too often a tragic one. But it need not be hopeless or cause for despair. There is help available in finding a good therapist. There is supportive kinship in finding a good writer’s group that also tends to the emotional trials of our work. And there is meditation, which helps a person recognize the integrity of her/his efforts, both in failure and success.
Feeling that integrity is the gateway to a deeper connection and knowing of the love and goodness within that is an outpouring of plentiful being at the core of ourselves. With that support and nurturance, the courage to return again and again and brave the storms will be there and the pain of failing will be soothed. This is not a 100% solution, what is? Writers never master their craft, there is always the sweet sorrow of nearly. What is satisfying in itself is the ongoing relationship to your emotional world, your creative desire and the realm of being. What more could humans want?
This interview is intended for educational and inspirational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any form of chronic physical or mental illness. For questions or concerns, please refer to your physician or qualified mental healthcare practitioner.