A Writer's Mind: An Interview with Psychotherapist and Author, Philip Kenney

In the last ten years at least, we've witnessed a major shift in the writer's life; they've evolved from writer to "content provider," marketer, promoter and social media expert ó many against their nature, to be relevant in today's publishing climate. This seems like a very short time for an entire culture to evolve and I've certainly witnessed a palatable level of anxiety from writers who are aware of this new reality and feel uncertain and totally uncomfortable stepping into the role of marketer and promoter for their own work. What are some ways writers can cope with this artist versus sales person gap?

I've always loved what Georgia O'Keefe said on the subject of fear, "I've been afraid every day of my life and it never stopped me from doing anything." We would all benefit from befriending the gaps and learning to find and use the energies embedded in anxiety. This is easier said than done, I know, but really there is a tremendous amount of energy and desire in fear that can be transformed and mobilized for our benefit. Often anxiety is a sign of internalized aggression. Aggression, which means, "to move toward," can be released from its constrictive hold on the self and freed to act as creative assertion in service of our goals. We can all get better at accepting the gaps in our personalities and learn to surf the currents of differing self-states. In other words, it is possible to find satisfaction, not so much in marketing, but in elaborating unused aspects of oneself. I'll elaborate on this in other parts of the interview.

The dilemma of a conflicting gap between personal roles is not unique to writers: teachers are called on to be social workers and doctors have to be counselors. We would be hard pressed to find a vocation that didn't have to juggle disparate sets of skills. About 15-20 years ago, in the Reagan era, therapists had to deal with a similar development called Managed Care. Suddenly our well trained psychodynamic minds were being questioned by accountants and we were forced to deal with complex psychological problems in a handful of sessions. The two situations have their parallels. What we found essential was to band together and offer as much support and comfort as possible to one another. There seems to be a great deal of that kind of support in the writer's community today, but I'm afraid many still get isolated.

I'm not saying, buck up and stop complaining. Moving from a place of internal concentration necessary to write a book, outward toward the world of public promotion, can feel awkward and disjointed. And yet, I find artists and psychotherapists often hold a somewhat rigid psychological identification with a pure notion of who they are. Why not try to flex this self-system to include that which is foreign? It might just make us better writers, more capable of feeling into characters unfamiliar to our norm. I went kicking and screaming into the Facebook universe and now I get pleasure out of connecting with some dear old friends. There seems to be an opening here for play, that is, playing with one's self portrait and playing with the whole package of social media.

Rachelle Gardner wrote an interesting piece on her blog last week in which she quoted from the biography of Steve Jobs. For the most part, she was referring to the publishing world and the balance of power between editors and sales people. Jobs was adamant that the focus needed to stay on the product not on profits: "When the sales guys run the company, the product guys don't matter so much, and a lot of them just turn off." Sounds familiar. He saw this switch in priorities as leading to the decline of big successful businesses like Microsoft and IBM.

This process happens on an intra-psychic dimension as well. Author and marketer become polarized and one or the other wins the power struggle while the other disengages. Unfortunate. It seems to me, this division isn't inevitable. Jobs says the product, not the profits, should be the motivation. Right on. What if the author and the promoter hooked up and the presentation was all about this beautiful book you have written? In other words, what would happen to our anxiety levels if we weren't trying so hard to sell something, or someone, and instead we went about enjoying the practice of expressing our love for the creative act and the fantastic accomplishment of crafting a book out of nothing?

I've seen some gifted writers take on this changing culture with remarkable energy. They are invariably extroverts in nature. For the many authors who are introverts these challenges can become overwhelming very quickly. I know I get a little nauseous just hearing the word, Twitter. So there is a need to take small bites. I try to be happy if I do one or two marketing things a day. Think small and break these mammoth tasks down into bits you can handle. Introverts can also study and learn about their tendencies. Try reading, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. A very good read, that deals with the core of the introvert's personality in relation to an extrovert dominated culture, while offering some sage advice along the way.

Social Media. Many users navigate the ins and outs of this connection tool with ease but studies have shown that using Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets has actually made users more anxious, depressed, obsessive, addicted, narcissistic, etc., a range of psychological tendencies not unfamiliar to writers. And yet many publishers require some level of social media presence with writers they acquire. How can writers who experience anxiety, obsessive behavior, addiction, etc. deal with this medium more effectively?

In a recent New Yorker cartoon the analyst says to his worried patient laying on the couch, "Let's try focusing on your posts that do receive comments." Right. Who can't relate to the anxious patient on the couch wondering why his posts go unanswered? A case could be made that social media is all about feeding on the longing to connect and the insecurity that accompanies that yearning. Anxiety is blood for the body of social media. It is the modern stage production of the Narcissus myth gone viral: a face, a mirror and the promise of self-love. What could be better?

As you've pointed out, the demands of social media often exacerbate these feelings because the exposure we subject ourselves to increases a vulnerability to experiencing shame and rejection. Often, anxiety is a reaction to the anticipation of a more troubling feeling such as helplessness or inadequacy. What is needed is the internal capacity to hold these strong, difficult feelings in such a way as to allow them to run their course and dissipate. I call this a mothering gesture. Sadly, many of us have had insufficient help when it comes to learning how to regulate our emotions. It can be a long learning curve to do so. This is one place a good therapy comes in.

Clearly there are no simple answers to these matters. In fact, what we're facing here is the reality of suffering inherent in our work. It is helpful to normalize the feelings of anxiety and depression that besiege us all. Accepting the feelings that seem so unacceptable is a profound practice. Many artists feel something is wrong with them if these feelings arise. Other writers are idealized as being confident and free of tormenting doubt. In actuality this is rarely true. So how to accept these searing experiences? How to comfort and soothe oneself? How to keep the negative thoughts from escalating completely out of proportion? More on this subject under question number 3.

We've talked in the last interview about things that help: eating right, exercise and meditation. You have to take an active role in self-care. There are things that aggravate anxiety and depression, particularly if there is trauma in your history. Caffeine, for instance, really heightens the adrenalized response common to trauma states which produces even bigger anxiety. Please, if you have experienced trauma in your lifetime, find a good therapist who knows how to work with the response that has taken over your body. It really works. If you can't afford therapy, get a yoga DVD and practice relaxation for 30 minutes a day.

Let's face it, most of us have romantic fantasies and images in our psyches of what an artist is and does and looks like. These models often contain self-destructive elements. As a teenager my idols were Hemingway and Faulkner, both renowned drinkers, and I came of age watching Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison do themselves in. We have to be very careful of what unconscious portraits are shaping our decisions and are at odds with the practical steps that can help to modify these feelings. So if you want to help yourself, it may be necessary to sacrifice certain cherished rituals. Even something as common as a good espresso can amplify my anxiety level big time. The writer's persona is not indispensable.

Courage should still be considered a virtue in our modern world even though it has fallen out of favor. Writing is an act of bravery every author should be proud of. There's no reason we can't transfer that courage into the social sphere. It takes considerable will, another forsaken virtue, but writers are blessed with tremendous resources to draw on throughout the course of a manuscript's life that don't disappear when entering the realm of social media.

Whether a writer chooses to go the traditional agent to publisher route or self-publish, there's a lot of waiting time. During this waiting time I've noticed writers go through a range of emotions from elation to trepidation to fear without any meaningful reason for the latter two. How can writers manage their emotions during these waiting periods?

No doubt it helps to have other projects or interests to give oneself to during these periods of not knowing. This is another opportunity to enjoy and explore other aspects of yourself. I love color, so I paint, usually large representations of images from the Hubble space telescope. I am naturally suspicious of any one expression of myself so it helps me to have multiple places to go with my attention. When all else fails, I study my cats. They seem quite adept at waiting, though I'm never sure what for. But your question comes back to the matter of feelings that overwhelm "any meaningful reason." These feelings tend to infiltrate and upset the best of plans to tend to other matters. Of course waiting is the perfect Rorschach test for whatever fantasies the mind will conjure up to project onto the space opened by the waiting period. Letís come back to this open space at the end of the response. 

Rightly so, we return again and again to the problem of affect regulation. We find this at the heart of most therapies, especially those relating to trauma. Like Goldilocks, we're usually trying to get it just right; not too hot not too cold, not too big not too small. In the absence of a good enough regulatory system, the psyche is vulnerable to emotional flooding. Flooding is experienced as a threat to the self and usually compromises other cognitive functions such as decision making. When confronted with overwhelming feelings, the only thing of importance is to end what feels like a timeless, never ending experience.

This dynamic is not limited to trauma states. Most of us, in one way or another, attempt to fight difficult feelings. The power of these emotions is such that they overwhelm the ego's capacity to discern "meaningful reason." This is the point and the challenge. We have been conditioned to react aversively to painful and so called negative emotions. Really, people will go to great length to escape from emotional distress. Some of the favorites are self-medicating substances, manic behaviors, compulsive relationships. The list is long. One brand of suffering is often a substitute for something worse. Anxiety or depression may be preferable to powerlessness or rage. People see themselves as something to fix rather that a suffering self to relate to and care for.

Why go into such detail? Because people are so hard on themselves. They underestimate the power of these feelings and think they are weak, or pathetic if overcome by their experience. What helps is to develop a relationship of acceptance to the emotional world. With practice it is possible to have these feelings and relax into them. What causes the most suffering is the constrictive reaction most of us meet these feelings with. A writer will go through a host of difficult emotions and will benefit from learning to give these feelings room to be. Let them have a life of their own and they will rise and fall like everything else. Surrender is a much maligned word in the language of a society devoted to being strong and rising above it all.

Surrender can be sweet. Practice breathing through the nose, which activates parts of the lungs connected to the relaxation response. Soften the belly and try to be curious about the emotion you are feeling. What is its texture? Your inclination may be to flee to your head or even leave the body, but try to lean into the feeling. The paradox of managing feelings is to really embody them. Try to resist thinking about the experience and really feel into it. Breath slow, deep breaths into the abdomen doing your best to relax the muscles in your belly. Then try to drop the story that is pinned to the emotion. Let the feeling be in its raw dimension. You'll find that when it is met, the emotion will begin to change.

Pema Chodron is a good one to read or listen to if you want to go further with this practice. She will guide you well in entering into the emotions with love and acceptance. If you learn to meditate, you may find a capacity to both experience your emotions and simultaneously observe them. This can feel like being in the eye of the hurricane where the most intense feeling can coexist with the most sublime stillness. Additionally, you may find in the center of your being the most welcoming and accepting presence. Many of us are afraid of our own inner self. But if you sit long enough and stay with experience, you may discover that rather than an empty place inside, a radiant, luminous source of being is there to hold you and every imaginable state of consciousness. This is a beautiful place and, I think, the original source of creativity.

Let's shift to process. I've worked with several writers who've dipped into dark waters for their novel. To put their best on the page, they've needed to push their own psychological comfort levels. Some writers have trouble navigating their emotions during this time, not because they don't believe in their work but because they fear what they think they see in the mirror. How would you suggest writers navigating darker themes and plot lines deal with the darker emotional baggage that comes with it?

"If my thought dreams could be seen, they'd probably put my head in a guillotine." Thank you Bob Dylan and thank you, Erin, I love this question. It goes to the heart of a number of issues raised by your questions. When I wrote about a little boy's fantasies of killing his mother in Radiance it was disturbing, but what was really disturbing was that it was also exhilarating. What kind of a freak gets inspired by thoughts of matricide? Of course, every kid has an Oedipal imagination. Does that mean boys and girls want to sleep with their parents? I don't think so. Most of what we call dark material should be considered as we would a dream: not to be taken concretely. Think of it as a poem full of symbolic and not literal content. Oedipal fantasies are not so much about murder and sex but about the wish to be close and or merge with the desired parent. Often these unsatisfied wishes get recoded in adult images and themes. In Radiance, Jimmy's violent designs are in actuality his distorted desire to get through to his mother. He wants desperately to locate something real between them and other than the persona he feels he must destroy in order to find her. Much dark material has these types of underlying longings as motivations.

So first of all, don't take these dark places in a literal way. We are in the land of shadow elements and these are often representative of aspects of the self that were felt to be unwanted and unacceptable. As such they were repressed and driven out of consciousness only to become distorted and frightening. The frightening nature helps to convince the governing ego that exiling these parts of ourselves is right and necessary. The release into consciousness of these psychic elements can certainly be anxiety provoking, but it has the capacity to be energizing and liberating. So often in my practice I work with individuals who have blocked anger and are convinced it is destructive and will drive needed others away. It takes a while to support and resurrect anger so that its natural function to protest injustices can be validated. We should also remember that the shadow world also includes tenderness and needy feelings. For many, dependency is the most frightening position of all. What is more dangerous than loving?

The beauty of our vocation is that there are no limits to the people we can be and the states of mind we can occupy. Shadow work enables authors to grow internally as they shepherd their characters through the life of the story. The integration of forsaken aspects of the self coincides with the development of narrative plot lines if the author is brave enough to venture into dangerous and forbidden territory along with his/her characters. The risk is, as you said, that the writer will look in the mirror and get terrified. Latent fears of going crazy or being taken over are common to the experience of going to the edge. Again, it is like being in the nightmare that is engulfing and feels inescapable. These experiences can feel like cracking up and coming undone, which in a very positive sense they are because the constructed self, defended against allowing in certain powerful emotions, is breaking down in order to reorganize with a more complete access to the full emotional terrain. The more you swim in these waters, the more it is possible to trust the currents and ride out what is seeking to be returned to its place in a more integrated self.

Some writers have a hard time letting go of their work in order to take it to the next step, from another round of edits to sending it out into the world. What's going on here and how can this writer deal with this issue?

I have worked with a few writers who struggle mightily with this very problem. One gifted intellectual compulsively rewrote manuscripts and never to the satisfaction of the inner judge. Those drafts were piled high on bookshelves and desks and never saw the inside of an agent's office. Usually these hesitations are about fear. I think Wallace Stevens was so upset after his first book of poetry was reviewed, he waited 10 years to submit the next volume. My patient was terrified of humiliation and certain that it was always waiting in ambush ready to jump.

We all know gifted writers who can't let go and, in fact, letting go has become a popularized cultural demand. Easier said than done. Once you let go of that manuscript, be it for editing or submission, you have lost all control. There is no telling how others will respond but one thing is known, not everyone will like it. Sometimes this feeling of powerlessness is just too much for someone with fragile self esteem. It could be called a Narcissistic hoarding, defending against anticipated wounding. Holding on to material retains the illusion of perfection and protects against the deflation that can come with even the best intended criticism. These narcissistic features typically oscillate between all or nothing states that can see the self image switch from brilliance to crap in a blink and leave the person experiencing an abject sense of badness. No wonder people hold back.

These are really tough states of mind. Best to try to desensitize oneself from the get go. Get into a writing group and get used to the comments of others. Be your own critic, don't project all that power of critique onto others. Maybe you've had bad psychological mirroring your whole life and the expectation of a repetition of this kind of insult to the integrity of the self is too threatening. I remember how I trembled the first time I dared give my father a book of my poems to read. When he looked them over the only thing he had to say was, "You didn't capitalize any of the words. That really detracts." I took the book from him and shriveled up inside in a way that was all too familiar. If your nerve endings seem that raw, you probably need to find a very supportive person/group that will give 5 positive comments for every 1 negative. That kind of positive mirroring helps bolster the self over time.

I know it seems impossible, but practice identifying with something bigger than your project. Volunteer with people in need. Spiritual practices help enormously with this challenge. In meditation, contact with the vibrant, spacious center that I described in question 3 helps to relieve your book and psyche of the burden of providing satisfaction and self-validation.

And finally, what would you say to writers who clearly have the gift and zero confidence in themselves? What do you want them to realize about themselves?

Believe me, you are not what you think you are. You are so much more. So much. Your lack of confidence is an unfortunate construct of the mind. It is no more true than a child's night terror. The mind has contracted around a story of inadequacy and self-negation and blinded you from your real self and talent. What Nelson Mandela said is so true, what we fear most is our own light. Our own bigness. Truly, if you don't believe me, or Mr. Mandela, look into the sacred literature of the past 5000 years. It's all there.

Isn't it remarkable the evidence our minds can ignore? Try to become aware of when you are in anxious, self-deprecating mind and when you are in creative mind. Study your thoughts so you can discern these radically different states of consciousness. Become a skeptic of the, "I am not good enough" story. Take the skepticism that is turned against yourself and aim it at those destructive thoughts. When the mind tries to tell you you suck, do what the yogis have called self-inquiry and challenge these proclamations. Answer them with questions that get at what you are. When you hear yourself say, "You can't write, who are you kidding?" You might say, "Really?" When your head says something nasty, or self condemning, answer, "Am I? Really?" Ask yourself, "What am I?" I find that when I turn these questions on the accusing mind it begins to dissolve and disempower that thinking. Many times it makes me chuckle, because really, it is ridiculous. You might try giving the deficient self a name and a form. Call it out, try to find it within. You won't because it isn't real.

Many people who suffer from low confidence in themselves have a secret, perhaps unknown, fantasy of being the best. One man I worked with admitted to harboring feelings of superiority. That area of his psyche really believed he was next in line for the Pulitzer. We came to be able to play with the inferior and superior poles of his psyche. This energized him enormously and in time he was able to laugh at both distortions of his many faceted self. You can do the same. Start slowly and develop a sense of what is false. And perhaps learn to meditate and find, in your own experience, the unborn source of energy and love that is your core self. That same source is the headwaters for the inspiration that passes through you and helps to write what only you can.

Please remember you are in good company. A million others are feeling what you are. Keep going, have courage and, as the I Ching says a thousand times, persevere.


Interview by Erin Reel

Erin Reel is a Los Angeles based publishing and editorial consultant, writing coach, columnist, blog host of The Lit Coach's Guide to The Writer's Life and outspoken advocate for writers. A former literary agent with nearly 10 years in the industry, Erin has worked with a wide array of writers worldwide. She has contributed to Making The Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent's Eye (Sands, Watson-Guptil, 2004); and Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents (Frishman & Spizman, Adams Media, 2005).

View this interview online here.