Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Anguish of Joy

This last week in class a student prefaced her work with a somewhat standard inadequacy statement: “I don’t like how this turned out, it’s trite, not powerful or as meaningful as I wanted it to be (this is the last class of the session so she mentioned wanting to write something significant).”

When a student manages to get this in before my “don’t give yourself feedback” monitor engine kicks in, it’s always a sign that they have written something powerful, usually very powerful, and often the kind of thing they don’t write, so powerful in a secret way. We recognize strengths and weaknesses in similarity, but as soon as we’ve reached unknown territory, we squander any chance at hope and insert rejection in before the world or anyone else can do it for us. Bonnie Friedman, in her excellent book Writing Past Dark, has a great quote about the joy of the unknown, the powerful potential of it, which happened to be the quote this week as the student shared her work:

“Australia quote” . Redrawing the map is something we are constantly doing, seeing as how we are never the same person from moment to moment, much less from class to class, week to week, lifetime to lifetime.

The students’ work was brilliant, of course, joyful and bounding, in love and open. Afterwards we all mused on why she shut herself down before even reading, and besides the usual resistances to the unusual, we also noticed a particular resistant to JOY, how we cannot seem to stand to read to others about things that bring us pleasure. “I suspect this is because a part of us can’t stand to experience the pleasure to begin with,” and the class solemnly nodded.

When I first began taking classes with Paula Novotnak (hers were called “Writing from Center” and she often quoted Natalie Goldberg and Pema Chodron), I was terrified of the other women, stuck in a small room with them, smiles pasted on all of their faces, platitudes plugging their mouths so nothing sincere could come out. Well, this is what I thought the class was about, because at the time, I thought, like a lot of us do, that compliments, support and insight which recognizes the goodness in others is far less valuable, not to mention often fake, in comparison with criticism. Fitted to years and years of writing workshops, critique take downs and elimination games, I had no idea what to do with the space she and these women provided. I rebelled and cried, faced off each of my co-students as if they were my hidden mother back from the dead, and secretly derided the class for the first few weeks for “not doing enough” for me. Yet, it is undeniable, and was then, that my writing changed the second I walked through Paula’s door, and has never gone back. Honest, clear writing, always precise, even if the precision is describing confusion. And, in fact, by the second class I was asking her to let me also become a teacher, to intern with her, in no matter how informal a way. I continued to think of compliments as the signature of the weak, dopey, bad. I even, in the same time period, took on a writing gig with the fantastic but short-lived magazine LIP, writing book reviews. Only none of them ever went to print, because the editors had to tell me that while my observations were astute, I was so negative about the books I was reviewing that it sounded as if I had totally unattainable expectations for the writers – that I wished they had written different books – which just isn’t acceptable for a review. I realized, just barely, at that time, that I had somehow learned – many different ways – that criticism is smart, and support is stupid. It was too heart breaking and profound for me at the time, without enough containers for care in my life yet, but now it is clear as a bell what my assumptions were and how they shaped my life, work, politics and even love.

I revealed this to my students tonight, and some were shocked – those who, by the grace of those who raised them, or by some surviving nature of positivity from deep inside themselves have never found negativity more valuable; some understood right away, shaking their heads in a shocking despondency to hear someone else admit that they have always sought something worse for themselves, always sacrificing, always denying, because it was believed to be the right thing, to be better, to actually be of more value.

Why is it so easy to see this now? Despite several strong personal habits which still maintain a strong minority view (my tendency to fill time rather than savor it as space, my workaholic habits which clutch me in long hours of dissociation, and my tendency not to call those whom I love the most just to allow myself to hear their voices for five minutes when needed), I know now, and with more than my head, with my heart, trained after years and years of receiving and giving positive feedback, that we cannot, simply cannot, get enough support. A teacher told me once, Arawana Hayashi, a teacher in the Shambhala tradition, when I mentioned to her that I feared being “too gentle with myself for fear of becoming indulgent” “watch for how you define things: indulgence isn’t the same thing as gentleness. One does not turn into the other.” Aha. Yes. Gentleness, true gentleness, begets gentleness.

The edifice of anger and belief in a solid self melts gently each week. It’s an indulgence, but not the bad kind. More like a fresh strawberry I can truly taste because I am present enough to its sweetness. There is a paradox where the two meet - a paradox only because we want opposites, and we want those opposites to stay apart. They don’t – instead the lessons which hurt the most wind up helping us in the end, the other side of the coin winds up being the core of the actual issue, and positive feedback winds up making us more critically acclaimed writers. Go figure.

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