The Good Enough Writer, Posted by Erin Reel Publishing Services

Often, people like me who work with writers professionally address how writers can cope with some of the more challenging aspects of the writer’s life from surviving the editorial process to dealing with rejection. Sometimes, though, we come to that place in the dialogue where the writer’s needs reach beyond our best intentions.

It’s no secret many writers wrestle with depression and anxiety, yet there are few professional voices addressing this issue in the grander professional world of publishing. Day to day, I read far more about craft and query letters than how to cope with self-loathing and fear. It’s nobody’s fault; few are able to adequately reach out to writers in this way. This voice is needed, however.

I’m delighted to welcome Portland based author (Radiance) and psychotherapist, Philip Kenney to The Lit Coach’s Guide to The Writer’s Life this week to share about being “the good enough writer.” You can also read my interview with Philip about dealing with depression and anxiety at LitReactor. 

We are in the season of darkness. Our beloved poet here in Portland, William Stafford, once beseeched us to pay attention because, “The darkness around us is deep.” Sadly, for writers, the darkness of our lives is not seasonal. Many of us live in a perpetual state of vulnerability to depressive states of mind brought on by internal voices that declare our inadequacy. The satisfaction and equilibrium of a good enough sense of accomplishment and self are all too often missing from the writer’s experience, leaving even the best of us suffering from periodic states of depression, shame or anxiety.

 A number of years ago, the British Psychoanalyst, D. W. Winnicott, coined the term “the good enough mother” in an effort to understand and define the necessary role of the mother/caregiver in the psychological development of the infant. His theories dispelled the notion of a perfect mother and, in fact, gave credibility to the importance of tolerable “failures” in the growth of a child’s capacity to  know his or herself and impact the world.

 The good enough approach goes a long way towards releasing a mother and, I hope, writers from the constricted states brought on by the cultural and psychological demands of the writer’s life. This is not an acceptance of mediocrity. It is the recognition of what is good and valuable in our work.

Six months into the search for an agent and publisher for my first book I found myself singing this line from a John Prine song, “…felt about as welcome as a Wal-Mart Superstore.” Indeed. A negative tailspin followed that may be very familiar to most writers. “You can’t write. Who are you kidding?” Sound familiar? I considered stuffing the manuscript into the lower drawer of my desk. Writers die a thousand deaths in this way.

It took a concerted effort to break this spell. I think of these spells as trance states, or states of consciousness that operate autonomously in the psyche. More often than not they are organized around a feeling of shame that we loosely refer to as a rotten feeling about oneself. This certainty that something is wrong with me seems ubiquitous in today’s world. In my practice I see it everyday in doctors, lawyers and particularly in artists and writers.

I suppose there are some fortunate souls who write wonderful stories and are not burdened by these feelings of lack. I just haven’t met them. What happens for most of us is that we develop a compensatory self, designed to hide what has come to be identified as a deficient self. Others may adopt the persona of an idealized, often suffering, favorite author. Winnicott called this, “The False Self.” Eventually these strategies either collapse from exhaustion or self-destruct.

Freeing oneself from the grip of these tyrannical forces is harder for me than doing chin-ups, but I have learned a couple of tricks that help. Both ideas derive from skills employed by writers every day in their practice. No special training is necessary. We need only redirect what is already known to support the self.

The first frees us from the entrapment of negative self-talk and the dead-end fantasies rampaging through the brain. It involves immersion in the senses. Allowing the doors of perception to open and fully engage the self in seeing, hearing and smelling just as we do when taking in the world for the images and details used in our stories. Soon the mind is occupied and quieted by the sensory splendor of the world. I make a practice of looking at the cracks in cement sidewalks, marveling at the patterns. I fall in love with birdsong and listen for the nuance in the crow’s complaint.

The second practice asks us to examine our writing after the fact with the same particularity and detail we used to write our books. For me, I had to remove my book from the drawer and read with a beginner’s eye, discarding such burdensome abstractions as, “Is this a good book?” With trepidation I began to read slowly, looking for the small, shining bits. Low and behold, I found myself thinking, hey, that’s a pretty good sentence. Damn, I like that simile. It added up. Bit by bit until I found I was slapping myself on the back singing my praises!

Small is beautiful. I may not sell more than a hundred books, but when I went across the street to give my neighbor, Selma, a chocolate cupcake on her 100th birthday and found her reading my book I thought, it doesn’t get any better than this. This is plenty good enough. When all else fails, I study my dog for inspiration. The every day walk to the park is always good enough. Each smell is new. Every cat is his to chase. The birds in flight are an invitation to fly.

But who doesn’t fantasize about getting a call from Oprah one day? Or dream of striking it rich with a six figure publishing deal? Every yearning for love and acceptance, every unfulfilled longing for the recognition of our unique voice can come cascading into the mix of that quest to write the perfect sentence, the stunning story that will reach the readers of the world and transform our fledgling anxieties and sense of not good enough. We wait and wait, for agents to respond, for reviews to come in, for sales to accumulate. What did Leon Russell say? “Up on the tight wire, one side ice, the other fire.” Is it any wonder this question of value fills the gap?

Maintaining self-regard in this world of perfectionist demands is really hard, but not impossible. We can give our attention to all the little things that come through us that are remarkable. We can practice the mantra of “good enough, yes, good enough.” We can start the day sitting with the quiet of ourselves and experience the “going on being” that Winnicott and Yoga masters have spoken of with such eloquence. We can celebrate our connection to a creative spark in this crazy universe that is bigger than any one of us and is the source of our inspiration. How could that not be good enough? All of this is possible. Easier said than done, but possible with practice. And, a little help, from me friends.

And if we stand in the dark and look these demons in the eye, not shrinking, running or denying their existence, and if the stamp of not good enough can be accepted, even relaxed into, but not given the last word, perhaps then we can have the courage and self-respect to follow the sage advice of one of our great elders, Samuel Beckett, when he said at the seasoned age of 77, “Ever tired. Ever failed. No matter. Fail again. Fail better.” Fail better with a warm sense of good enough pulsing in your heart.