Braver, Wiser, More Loving

By David Corbett

Yes, I know, the vagaries of Wildcard Tuesday have put me up two days running. Forgive me.

I’m giving the keynote address for the Redwood Writers Conference on April 28th, and the theme of the conference is “Taking the Next Step.”

In the spirit of all the changes rocking the marketplace, I originally titled my talk, “Beyond the Book: Writing Opportunities in a Multi-Platform Era.” I thought I’d discuss the need to be narratively nimble these days, with skills that can encompass not just novels and stories but scripts as well—not just for TV and film but computer games—basically revisiting themes I addressed here on Murderati back in December.

But then I looked at some of the seminars on tap for the conference. One is titled “Indie Publishing,” another “Tomorrow’s Publishing,” one addresses “Blogging as a PR Tool,” another “Googling for Promotion,” one deals solely with Facebook and the conference concludes with a panel on ebooks.

What, I asked myself, could I possibly add to this excellent offering of information without being conspicuously redundant? (Quick answer: not much.)

As I was pondering this conundrum—and what else, realistically, does one do with a conundrum?—I glanced at an article in the New York Times Magazine titled “Why Talk Therapy is On the Wane and Writing Workshops Are on the Rise.” It’s by the prolific, brilliant and mercurial Steve Almond, with whom, ironically, I’ll be sharing faculty duties at but another writing conference, this one on the Mendocino Coast, which will be held July 26-28 this summer.

What I particularly loved about Steve’s piece were these two observations:

I recently began leading a workshop composed of students in their 50s and 60s. All have children and busy careers. And I sometimes wonder, as I look around the room, what at this late stage they’ve chosen to write at all. I fear that perhaps I’m giving them false hope. But it’s hard for me to remain cynical when I think about their motives. What they’re seeking is exactly what I wanted: the refuge of stories, which remain the most reliable paths to meaning ever devised by our species….They are hoping to find, by means of literary art, braver and more forgiving versions of themselves.

And as for why the Web doesn’t supply a means of gratifying our need for self-expression:

But the Internet, while it might excite the desire for creative self-expression and sudden acclaim, does little to slake our deeper yearnings. What we want in our heart of hearts is not distraction but just the opposite, the chance to experience what Saul Bellow called “the arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.” We want to be heard and acknowledged. It’s the difference between someone “liking” our Facebook update versus agreeing to listen to our story, the whole bloody thing, even and when it runs up against the bruising revelations.

I’ve just completed a manuscript titled The Art of Character that Penguin will be publishing in January 2013. In it I maintain that the only way to a deeper understanding of your characters is through an exacting and unsparing examination of yourself.

And though in my workshops I almost always focus on craft, and find my students in particular crave and benefit most from discussions of structure, there always remains an element of the personal in the stories they want to tell. Their protagonists invariably share many features with the person telling the tale.

I think there’s a common purpose in our heroes and ourselves. I think the heroic journey is one in which a braver, more loving—and I would add, wiser—life is the true underlying desire. And by writing as truthfully and as deeply as we can, we share in that journey.

I think Almond’s insight that “We want to be heard and acknowledged” is based in the simple need to be loved, which is to be seen for who we are, not who we’re expected to be.

Many of us are obliged to reach outside our families for that love, that chance to be seen more honestly, more openly, more acceptingly. There’s no guarantee that will ever happen.

But in the lonely work of writing we make an attempt to fashion ourselves into a truer version of who we are, combining who by necessity and habit we’ve been with who by effort and insight we hope to become. We learn to balance the generous with the judgmental. And hopefully, by sharing our work with others and reading theirs in turn, we earn our right to be seen by looking on others more fairly and thoughtfully.

Writing allows us to rise a little more in spirit, by combining acceptance with ambition. We cannot deny who we are, wounds and warts and wants and all, but we can’t deny the better self we strive to be either. In crafting our heroes, we implicitly recognize the need to be a little more than we’ve allowed ourselves to be, recognize that the fault lies within, as does the remedy.

When my wife, Terri, died, I was assaulted with well-meaning advice on how to deal with the loss, a lot of which was largely beside the point. But I saw in those attempts to be kind and caring a message I did indeed need to hear: I couldn’t live with a ghost strapped to my back.

That, in the end, was the message I took away from my grief: I had to find a way to live when the most important person in my life—my best friend, my lover, my bride—had been devoured by a savage, indifferent disease.

And after the battles with despair and rage I decided that each day I would try to be a little braver, more truthful, more forgiving. I thought if I kept it that simple—three virtues: courage, honesty and love—I might be able to manage it. And I’d live up to Terri’s example, for she was the bravest, most devoutly honest and most selflessly caring human being I’ve ever met.

But in the eleven years since she passed away, I’ve learned how tricky honesty can be. The unconscious makes liars of us all. We want what we have no business wanting, and trick ourselves into thinking our motives aren’t just pure, but noble.

Our egos are weak-kneed imposters, even when the will is strong and our insight keen. There is always a shadow trailing behind, reminding us of all we left unsaid and undone.

And all too often we face situations in which there seems to be no true or honest choice to be made, only two or more alternatives, each freighted with potential for pain as well as happiness. And so we don’t march confidently into the right decision, the true and honest choice. We wander a little further ahead, keep our eyes open, and hope for the best.

Instead of being honest I’ve tried, as pompous as this may sound, to be a little wiser each day, by which I mean accepting as well as truthful. I try to be aware of how I’m kidding myself, and rise to the challenge of being a bit more clear about why I’m doing something, while remaining aware that I can’t escape my blind spots. I try to seek a bit more balance, between solitary and social, determined and relaxed, firm and forgiving. Wisdom is the commitment to honesty combined with the humility of knowing that one day I’ll look back on any given decision and think, on one level or another: Who did I think I was fooling?

Bravery too can sound overly grand, but it has to be measured by the fear it overcomes. Sometimes it’s as simple as being disciplined instead of lazy, or staying at the keyboard even as the nasty cackling voice within tries to convince me that nothing I write matters, and in any event will never be as good as I hope. As I’ve become more aware, I’ve sometimes been amazed how often in any given day I have to push past some fear of judgment, rejection or anger to accomplish even a minor task. And if that’s the little braver I become that day, well done.

I’ve seen this same evolution in my protagonists, watched as they strive on the page to reach some place where their courage, their love, their hope for wisdom means something. And thanks to Steve Almond’s piece, I’ve begun to address this in my classes—not overtly, I don’t want to scare anyone off. But I realize my job as teacher is not just to make sure my students know where the midpoint of their story is. It’s to help them in some small way join the hero in his quest for a better, fuller, saner life.

As with therapy, there’s always the risk that by shutting ourselves away in the cocoon of self-examination we’re in fact tricking ourselves. If writing is mere self-scrutiny it can help me get my bearings, but there’s still a real world out there, full of people to engage and care for, challenges to meet, and our all-too-real mortality to face. I’m neither as unique as I pretend nor as alone as I fear.

That’s why I stress to my students that, despite what one often hears, we don’t write for ourselves. Even though so much of writing takes place in solitude, a writer who writes for himself is scribbling to a ghost. We want to be heard and acknowledged, and that requires that we make our interior lives clearer not just to ourselves but to others.

And the paradox is, the more we trust in story—the more we subsume our need for acknowledgement to the craft needed to write well—the more likely it is we’ll succeed. When we let our characters speak for us that delegation of duty humbles us, reminding us that we’re part of a long tradition and that storytelling is a fundamentally social enterprise.

Stories provide a prism through which the writer and the reader can observe each other without the glare of narcissism. The indirection provided by story allows me to reveal, and my reader to witness, what the hero is trying to show us both.

I believe that’s why stories are, as Steve Almond says, “the most reliable paths to meaning ever devised by our species.” They work at the level of image and emotion, they require discipline and skill, and no matter how fanciful or grand they oblige a sense of humility and responsibility.

Or at least that’s what I intend to say to the attendees at the Redwood Writers Conference. The next step—with each word, each page, each working day—is always to be a little braver, a little wiser, a bit more loving.

So—do you agree that writing workshops have supplanted talk therapy? If so, is this a good thing, or a god-awful thing?

Does a writer ever truly write just for herself? Doesn’t she on some level have to? If she worries too much over how her audience will respond, doesn’t she risk becoming over-cautious and dull?

Has your writing life obliged you to be braver, wiser, more loving?

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: Levon Helm is in the late stages of cancer. I can’t imagine the music of my life without his voice. This song, “When I Go Away,” seems an almost too fitting farewell:

24 thoughts on “Braver, Wiser, More Loving

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I've got to think that most people who start their first book in their sixties are really looking to write autobiography. After all, EVERYONE has ONE book in them, and I think if you're not continually telling parts of it, like writers are, then it's important to tell it somehow.

    I don't know, though, because I don't usually see that in the workshops I teach, which are so very genre-focused that I rarely see autobiographers. These are people who want to tell commercial stories. Maybe people who want to tell their own story don't tend to sign up for story structure workshops.

    As for talk therapy, maybe it's because I'm rewatching the first season of Mad Men, where Betty goes for talk therapy – but I would think that ANYTHING could have supplanted it as a more viable tool for healing. Where do I get THAT job, is what I want to know!

    Not that I'm that experienced with therapy but it seems to me that journaling has been a big part of the process for a long time.

  2. David Corbett

    Alex: I actually think learning structure is one of the humbling aspects of writing that needs to be mastered if one is to get to the "a little braver, a little wiser" place. Maybe your students aren't signing up for that reason, but if they do their work well, it may change them for the better.

    Also, if they aren't intending to use the stuff of their own lives in their stories, genre or not, then that denial or evasion will register on the page.

    Stories fail, commercial or otherwise, because the writers think they can line up a bunch of elements into a conventional form and call their work done. No matter how well assembled, it's still just a concatenation of cliches if you don't reach into yourself for something meaningful and try to connect with that same part of your audience.

  3. David Corbett

    One other thing: I know talk therapy has seemed to run aground, at least culturally (except perhaps as dramatized in the TV show IN TREATMENT), but at it's best it accomplishes something journal work cannot: It forces the patient to address her inner issues with another person. The therapist/patient relationship is meant to give the patient someone she can trust to expose things she might indeed write only in her journal. That establishment of trust is the no small thing. In fact, it's often the crucial thing.

    I'm reading a book titled A GENERAL THEORY OF LOVE that goes into human affection through what's now understood about memory and neurobiology, and the bottom line is, due to the nature of our limbic memory, the memory where we store emotions, the only way to truly change is through interaction with others. Writing in our journals may help us organize our thoughts, but we can't change within the confines of those pages.

    One of the best lessons I ever learned: We don't know ourselves by ourselves. This is what I was getting at with: You write for others, not yourself. And that's why I think Steve Almond's students come to class: They need to get the story off the page and into the room, where others can read it, evaluate it. It's not just about self-expression. It's about transformation.

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I would never argue the point that we write from ourselves. That just seems such a given I don't even know how to address it. Of COURSE we write from ourselves. How can we not write from ourselves?

    Maybe I'm assuming too much about other people, but I learned how to write through – well, reading, of course, but at the same time, constant, obsessive, microscopic journaling from so early an age I can't even pinpoint it. I still write three pages a day first thing in the morning most days, although meditation is really more effective – writing seems the easy way out on that front!

    I see what you mean about talk therapy being about talking TO other people. Again, my maybe more unconventional background – acting and especially improv meant constant exposure of personal issues to other people. The opposite problem – no boundaries – tended to kick in.

  5. David Corbett

    Alex: I think acting and improv require exactly the sort of mindful exposure and reaction we're talking about here. And yes, I think you need to solitary work of journal work/writing as well as the more social work of public revelation to accomplish the kind of personal change I'm discussing. I remember from my own acting classes how our instructors impressed upon us that the hardest thing to teach actresses was how to pursue an objective, which actors seemed to get instinctively. Whereas actors had the damnedest time allowing themselves to be affected by their fellow players, where actresses got THAT instinctively. Bottom line: we had a lot to learn from each other.

    I think that opening up and allowing yourself to be seen objectively is a huge step for any artist — and too often a destructive one, if the environment isn't safe.

  6. Allison Davis

    I feel like I'm sitting in the teacher's lounge overhearing a discussion…..

    "The unconscious makes liars of us all" – yes, true. As someone who did write all the time without make the next step of trying to be published — at least with poetry, essays and such, and sometimes would send the essays out and they'd get published, a lot of the writing was to have this conversation with myself. I read Steve Almond's piece and enjoyed it — that inner voice when you're writing is safe, intimate and can be truthful and shine the light. I've also done in my (much) younger years plenty of acting, improve and the outward arts so to speak, but it was never the same as journaling, or just plain writing in my head, on paper like daydreaming. I think we don't have enough daydreaming or stillness (but that's another topic). However the acting is immediate and must be forthright, and yes, brave. The writing to yourself can be deceptive.

    What I have found though when I'm writing with the will to want to be read by others, I can't be superficial, because it shows. You have to dig deep, bear the soul, be vulnerable — both you and Stephen have had this theme in prior posts. Without it, the writing is like tasteless soup. I have to be brave and yes, truthful and wise, not sure about the loving part.

    Levon Helm is one of those voices in my head that forever plays…

  7. Eve Kotyk

    Poignant a meaningful to me. I started to write as a therapy. Every morning I spilled my guts on the page and it was all crap, and whining and self conscious drivel. It wasn't something I ever wanted anyone to see and after a while it became a dead end. One day, because I couldn't deal with the junk anymore, I wrote in the voice of a fictional character. How amazing to find that where there was mud there was now some clarity. This being, who was me and not me, was brave and insightful, and, most importantly, took action. The minute I began writing in the character's voice I was not longer writing just for myself. That process immediately allowed a slight detachment, a passionate detachment that allowed for new insight and new meaning.

  8. David Corbett

    Allison: "Don't know about the loving part?" Ahem, young lady. First, your passion is an expression of love, and it shows in damn near everything you do and say. Also, your willingness to be vulnerable would be impossible without some "more forgiving" (per Steve Almond) understanding of yourself. That's what I mean by more loving. It starts with an ability to see ourselves more forgivingly, more openly, more acceptingly, and that allows us to share in a way that's meaningful not just to us but others.

    Eve — what a wonderful comment, thank you. I think this is the mystery of character — whether in acting or fiction. The role provides a mask that ironically allows us to be more truthful. Baring yourself completely is a kind of emotional suicide, and it's also misguided. We're always baring part of ourselves to another part, as though we're weeping in a hall of mirrors. But by selecting a character, a role, to provide a prism for those feelings, we allow both ourselves and our reader/audience to experience those emotions objectively, outside the clutter and scramble and noise of personal identification.

    One of the key techniques of therapy is "objectification" — getting the memory or emotion outside yourself so you can look at it "objectively." Meditation strives for the same result — by letting go of your thoughts and feelings, not grasping at them, you learn to see them like goldfish in the water of the mind. It's incredibly empowering and liberating.

  9. David Corbett

    BTW: A few relevant quotes:

    One writes out of one thing only — one's own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from that experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give."
    – James Baldwin

    "The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the Universe which runs through himself and all things."
    – Ralph Waldo Emerson

    "Drama, instead of telling us the whole of a man's life, must place him in such a situation, tie such a knot, that when it is untied, the whole man is visible."
    – Leo Tolstoy

  10. Lisa Alber

    Wonderful post, David! Hit a cord with me.

    I don't know if workshops have supplanted talk therapy, but I believe the rise in workshopping is a symptom of our need to truly connect in a world in which it's getting harder to connect. Social media isn't real connection — it's the shallows as so much seems to be. (I got this term from a great book called THE SHALLOWS, What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.) How do we get heard when everything seems to be in sound blips?

    I believe that for writers who aren't looking to be authors, sharing a written work with friends and family can satisfy the need for deep connection.

    I remember a writing friend getting on me because I didn't care about dating much. She asked, Why is this? I said, Because I have trouble connecting. She said, Ah, that's why you write." (Talk about an a-ha moment when you're least expecting it! :-))

    I like this paradox you mentioned:

    "We want to be heard and acknowledged, and that requires that we make our interior lives clearer not just to ourselves but to others…And the paradox is, the more we trust in story—the more we subsume our need for acknowledgement to the craft needed to write well—the more likely it is we’ll succeed."

    This got me thinking about the ego. My ego is way too involved in my writing process these days. I want the acknowledgment of an agent, then a publisher, SO BAD. I was a more prolific, happy, deep writer when I first started writing, when I wasn't thinking about the business side. When I had "beginners mind."

    I've been doing a lot of self-work lately…trying to go deeper. Taking time to be quiet, meditate, and so on. I've been skipping over the surface of things for a few years now, and my writing has suffered. This work is good work–agents and publishers don't enter into it all.

  11. David Corbett

    Lisa: The fact that you realize that by trying so hard to get that desperately desired agent, publishing deal, published book, you've actual strayed from what makes your writing of interest — especially to you — is no small thing.

    I find your aversion to dating interesting, because I often liken writing to dating, or more specifically to falling in love. The more you try to be what you think other people want, the more you fail. Paradoxically — I do love my paradoxes — it's only by being comfortable in our solitude that we make truly worthy companions. In writing this means only by owning what it is that makes our style, our theme, our story unique and worthwhile can we hope to make it interesting to anyone else.

    And yet, this doesn't mean falling into the trap of "sincerity." As Alex and I were bandying back and forth, and as I try to say in the paradox you quoted, there's something liberating in allowing ourselves to express the truth through story, through characters other than ourselves. But that's only true if we invest those characters with the reality they deserve. This is why I'm much more in the realist mold, and don't much care for the current vogue of Jungian archetypes and such. I feel real psychological and emotional depth is created by focusing on the concrete stuff of life. If you do that, the myth business, as I call it, will take care of itself. And if you work hard to invest your characters with the real depth of living people, you'll find yourself becoming, I believe, a little braver, a little wiser, and bit more loving.

  12. Lisa Alber

    Everyone seems to find my aversion to dating (really, the dating process–if I could skip straight to the love and stable relationship part, I'd be a happy camper) interesting. 🙂

    What do you mean by "falling into the trap of sincerity"?

  13. Tom

    This is a feast of meaning and intent, David.

    The picture at the head of the column – Kundry and Gurnemanz from 'Parsifal'? The search for real love and the need to change don't get more intense.

  14. David Corbett

    Tom: That is an excellent guess, though unfortunately incorrect. Actually it's — get ready — David Waller (as Pandarus) and Helen Mirren (as Cressida) from a 1968 Royal Shakespeare staging of Troilus & Cressida (which got panned, largely by making so little of Mirren's talent).

    Google makes me seem so doggone smart!

    (Thanks for the generous attaboy, btw).

    Lisa: By "the trap of sincerity" i mean to distinguish between sincerity and honesty. There's an earnestness to sincerity that ironically undermines whatever truth it's trying to pull across. Thus the old saw about Hollywood: Once you can fake sincerity you've got this town licked.

    Sincerity tends to lack insight into the inherent capacity for error. It's gushingly, devoutly sure of itself.

    Honesty on the other hand realizes that every step could fall on "stray sod," as the Irish say — an expression meant to convey the experience of feeling, despite many years of conviction, that something you've believed to be true is not at all — like waking up beside your spouse and feeling all but certain that it's a total stranger lying there.

    Sincerity clutches its hands to its breast. Honesty uses one hand to shade its eyes, the other to reach out for something to hold on to for balance.

  15. Reine

    Dearest David,

    Despair brought me back here today. Why here? Again your post throws heart and sensibility my way. Will I catch it? It's like catching the news and realizing it really is, for a change, news. I caught some news this afternoon that at first made no sense. Then it squashed me. My choice was to turn to Murderati, not a therapist and not in condemnation of talk therapy.

    Being a talk therapist, and therapand, left my words homeless, ungrounded, bleached of significance, replaced by trite concepts of the day. Talk therapy isn't always like that, but it was to me. Did that to me, my words. Writing gave them a new house.

    Today I discovered empty hearts, and I knew that this writers' blog would force me to focus on something relevant. To me. Today. Right now. Then I would write it down, rearrange my pitiful lost words.

    As devastating as discovery sometimes is, it's better than being fucking blind.

  16. Reine

    "Honesty on the other hand realizes that every step could fall on "stray sod," as the Irish say — an expression meant to convey the experience of feeling, despite many years of conviction, that something you've believed to be true is not at all…"

    Mmh. Just saw this. That's it. It was like that. Just like that. Today. This afternoon. It all fell down.

  17. Karen, NZ

    Good to see you back Reine, and David, your posts always make me think deeply, thank you.
    Murderati is definitely a wonderful touchstone for self-reflection 🙂

  18. David Corbett

    Reine!!!! How nice to hear from you. It's been ages and I've been so concerned — I was about to send up a flare to the other Murderati members, asking if they'd heard from you.

    I'm sorry to hear about the despair and the news that turned so wrong, and the certainty that turned out to be illusion. I hope somehow the eind has shifted enough to where you can get your bearings, at least a little.

    I have nothing at all against talk therapy by the way, but I do think that writing, by being an essentially social act, forces us to stand up and be seen in a way that therapy sometimes doesn't. But courage and honesty and love are required to make either work.

    Thank you for checking in. You're very much missed.

  19. Sarah W

    All I know (or think I know) is that writing has always meant catharsis, no matter what form that writing has taken.

    I quit my old writing group because the pressure to publish had me tied in knots that I haven't quite unpicked, yet. But I'm getting there. . .

  20. PD Martin

    Thanks, David, for another great post. And I know you'll add a lot to the Redwood Writers Conference.

    Having just started with another group of writing students, this post is very timely. I generally see the full mix in students – those who are completely focused on getting published, those who are experimenting with writing and have a very distinctive autobiographical story, and those who like to write but aren't sure what that really means.

    I'm not sure if writing workshops have replaced talk therapy, but like you and the commenters have said, writing certainly can be therapeutic. And it is nice to give a 'better' version of ourselves a run in a fictional world 🙂

  21. Reine

    Hi David, I had a Murderati brain fart a few weeks ago. My emotional life is torn up by seizure-induced stuff. So wherever I am when this happens, becomes a place to avoid. When I realize what happened I'm embarrassed, because I know no one will understand how that works. I know you are not against talk therapy. I'm not either. I've just had a rotten string of luck with finding therapists who understand the temporal lobes, when there is frontal lobe seizure involvement.

    I will be alright – not the same, perhaps, but alright. It's a stunning thing to have reality pulled away and replaced by another truth, a truth more real? Who knows, now? It's still better to know. I believe that.

    Thanks for the welcome back, David… Karen… Lisa.

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