The Salvation of Words

Way back in the day when I was mired in a terrible relationship, my then-partner and I saw a couples therapist who recommended I keep a journal in order to have an outlet for myself. At the time, this felt painful to me: I do keep a journal, but I still can’t see the need for a partner who won’t converse. Actually what’s the point of a body hanging around the house dirtying the dishes, leaving size 10s all over the house and bras on the sofa if it doesn’t also provide some degree of company?

I don’t know what the therapist intended all these years later, but I was reflecting this morning that reality is not always pretty or the way it should be. My partner wouldn’t talk to me and so ultimately the relationship ended. I might have accepted that and talked to other people or she might have accepted that I needed a conversation partner and tried a bit more. Neither of us were able to compromise about this–you can’t only kind of converse. Believing she should talk to me might have made me demand she do so more insistently, but it didn’t change her behaviour. You can scream all you want but people are still free to do as they please.

The risk factors for the development of borderline personality disorder include abuse and a non-mentalizing environment: a social group in which no one is making sense of thoughts and feelings. Fonagy says that therapists working with borderline clients should enter into their own therapy not so much to address countertransferance as to maintain their mentalizing capacity because non-mentalizing is contagious.

I think now that journaling restored my mentalizing capacity. Of course, it doesn’t have to: you can say a lot about feelings and intentions without linking it to the sensory experience of emotions, and it’s the balance of sensation and thought which allows us to integrate our understanding of intention.

As a child, reading may have allowed me to explore the world of emotions in a safer way.

Words don’t have to but it’s possible for them to save you.

On the blank page

blank pageI sat down to write this evening without any particular idea in mind. I often have a backlog of ideas I’ve been meaning to post about, and so starting out with no direction or focus is unusual for me. Typically, I have in mind four or five possibilities and all I do is choose one and begin.

Which means there is never really a blank page. I have already begun to fill it, even before starting, because I’ve been playing with that idea for a while.

But today I began with a blank page.

And I’m telling you it was like Christmas. I said to myself (inside my head—I haven’t started speaking aloud to the voices just yet), “I can write about absolutely anything.”

I think this whole process of recovery or healing or whatever you want to call it has been like this—it’s been a process of stripping away layer after layer of stricture and confinement. That’s not been the whole of the process, but it’s been one part of it.

Because I grew up in a cage: between the Two by Twos and their rules and the rules I came up with for myself in a rather futile attempt to make life predictable, there wasn’t much freedom.

christmas presentsI pushed the envelope a lot growing up. I wasn’t a rebellious kid. I wore skirts (as prescribed), I kept my hair long (as required), I wore no make-up (as suggested). I didn’t fight with my parents or the ministers over any of those things and I didn’t experiment with anything I wasn’t supposed to.

Instead, I became a vegetarian. I refused to go to church. I came out to my parents as a lesbian. You know, just the big things. So I’ve always seen myself as a free-thinker.

This isn’t just my own imagination. I have been told again and again I think “outside the box.” I keep trying to explain I live outside the box or even simply that my box is different. I am just outside your box. But no one gets that.

Still, the question I’ve found myself facing repeatedly in my own mind is, “Can I think that?”

Can I think, first of all, that thoughts aren’t magic and, in themselves, don’t cause anything to happen? Can I just admit on certain days that I am having thoughts about suicide or thoughts that suggest I don’t like myself very much and just allow that to be?

Can I let go of the need to be positive as well as the need to try not to be too optimistic (since that might jinx what I’m hoping for), because whether my thoughts are negative or positive they remain nothing more than thoughts and life will proceed in the same way regardless of what I think?

Can I relinquish my sense that I am obligated to worry? Can I stop believing I should be afraid to think something through—that if I do, I might begin to ruminate and that will make everything worse?

Can I stop thinking I am so damned important that it even matters what I think? Because I’m not. And the mind is the best playground ever invented. And should be taken just as seriously. Which is to say not very.

Can I cease the search inside myself for that underlying badness, the ulterior motives, the suppressed desires, the passive-aggressiveness? Can I toy instead with the idea that I’m basically good and doing the best I can with life? Can I just try that out?

And the answers to all of these questions has been yes. I can think what I feel like thinking. I can say what I feel like saying. And I can write what I feel like writing. Nothing will happen.


writingI woke up working on a post. I was trying to hammer out a sentence.

Regular writing does funny things to you, and I have had what amounts to an extended vacation where I have been fortunate enough to write every day–sometimes a few times a day–and that has come to shape how I go through my day.

I think that is where the advice comes from: write every day. I think it’s about that habit.

I know people who do write every day, who have quotas for themselves of words or something, and set goals for how long their books will turn out to be and when their drafts will be finished. Goals are motivating and how to keep yourself going doing something that is to some extent fairly thankless–at least while you’re doing it–is always a challenge. But I don’t think it’s about that.

I think it’s about that habit of working with words.

It isn’t about creating great work, or making sure you really complete that next writing project. It’s just about keeping your hand in all the time, so that the page is never intimidating. And you are never at a loss for ideas because you’ve been working on one for a while. In fact, you have several kicking around up there in your hand, because that’s part of the habit too.

Photo credit: Steve Hopson.
Photo credit: Steve Hopson.

At the grocery store, deciding between crushed and diced canned tomatoes, you are thinking about the next scene in your novel and if your characters would really say what they made them say. Over the bananas, you are slipping metaphors into your descriptions, because you’ve decided your prose is too barren.

Writing is really about telling other people about things–that’s all. It’s a rehearsed form of telling. Otherwise, it’s exactly the same as what we do all the time. We talk to people. Writing is only slightly different.

I see people everywhere hooked up to their phones like they’ve added new body parts. They describe their lives trivialities to other people I can’t see. That’s writing, in a way. But instead of boring your listener with the shocking price of coffee, you’re trying to find a way to make it interesting.

But that creates a problem. Because if you assume your writing always has to be good, you’re going to end up writing considerably less. Anne Lamott has this thing about shitty first drafts and I think she’s right about it, or it least halfway right. On the one hand, if you begin off-track, you will generally continue off-track in anything you do–so it is important to get the beginning of a piece right. On the other, if you can’t tone down your inner editor to a a quiet whisper from time to time, no one else will ever get heard–including the voices of your character or even your own voice as a writer.

Balance. A balance between getting it right and just getting anything. You need that. Everyone does. In anything, really, but including writing. Maybe especially writing.

You don't need him to shut up. You just need him to keep it down.
You don’t need him to shut up. You just need him to keep it down.

And the problem for me–and maybe for you also–is that if I only write once a week or even twice a week–and especially if I only work on that One Big Project, I will think it needs to count. I’ll think I can’t just futz around writing things down that I later realize are crap. Because I won’t get another chance to do it again for a while.

The inner editor wakes up, clears his throat, begins to speak. Then won’t shut up.

It’s better for me–and maybe for you–to write every day. Then it doesn’t matter if what I’m writing is good or not. I can look at it tomorrow and see, and if it turns out to suck, so be it. I can try again.

A Dry Spell

Drought_2011_jpg_312x1000_q100I’m in the midst of a dry spell it seems. I don’t mean we’re having a drought here. That’s nothing new. Our drought is in its fourth straight year. (No, you can’t really tell.)

But I have nothing to say. i thought I might write about cattle today, since I enjoyed writing about goats so much yesterday. But I thought that might be asking too much of my readers. They aren’t following because of my fascinating insight into livestock.

Instead, I’ll tell you about dry spells and what to do about them.

Writing is like a part of the digestive process. It’s the output. Or you could say it’s like cooking–that metaphor will get a little less gross as we delve into it. But I think i’ll just go back and forth. If you don’t mind.

If it keeps up, I'm getting one of these.
If it keeps up, I’m getting one of these.

It doesn’t take much to realize that if you want something to come out, you need to put something in. If you haven’t bought groceries, you can’t very well expect to prepare a five-course meal in the evening. If you don’t eat, I wouldn’t expect much to go on in the bathroom arena.

But we do it to ourselves all the time: feed our brains nothing but the same old things, the same conversations, the same TV shows, the same kinds of news articles even. And yet expect them to offer up something new.

Maybe we just don’t get it. Maybe we still have the idea that ideas come whole out of our heads. That we just need to wait for that right, perfect, splendid idea–that story, or that new way of seeing things. We wait, and wait, and nothing comes. All we know how to do is wait longer.

The waiting often doesn’t help.

Because it’s wrong, that notion of how ideas happen to us. It’s utterly incorrect. Everything we think and know is based on what we already think and know and the sweet spot of generating something fascinating to say–or at least moderately interesting–comes when we are taking in the right amount of new facts and ideas. The right amount is an amount we can keep up with. It is amount that neither gives us diarrhea nor makes us constipated.

No, this won't help. Not unless you've never attended a cocktail party before.
No, this won’t help. Not unless you’ve never attended a cocktail party before.

It is neither too insignificant to bother with nor too much to get straight in our heads. The right amount will be different for everyone. It will be different for you than for me.

But if you are out of things to say, like I am, then it is probably time to read. Or go somewhere entirely new. Talk to new kinds of people that you don’t understand or that just make you think.

I don’t mean you just need more stimulation. You don’t need more of the same–a party not unlike parties you’ve been to before, or a book much like other books you’ve read. It is not about revving up your nervous system a notch, so that it’s running the same but faster. You aren’t a machine whose idle needs adjusting.

It is about having enough to chew on. And I don’t. For a day, that’s probably a good thing.

Tomorrow, I’ll read a book.

A Year

1-year2This is the 365th day since I began writing this blog.

Like many things, it did not go as expected. I did not expect it to be so easy. I did not expect that most days, when I am not too busy, I can just sit down and write something and what I write will turn out to be intelligible and interesting enough that at least two people will read it. One of them will even be someone I don’t know.

I did not expect it to become a therapeutic device. I did not expect the process of writing itself to be helpful in forcing me to make better sense of my life and myself. There is plenty of research to support this, but before I started blogging I hadn’t read that research.

I read less when I wrote less. There was less I actively needed to work to understand. As a non-writer, I was lazy. I speculated. And that was all. Now I need to know. Otherwise, I can’t tell you about it.

Above all, I did not expect all of you to be so helpful, so kind, or so supportive.

Unlike some writers, I don’t write in hopes that I’ll be praised or admired. I write because I am hoping I have something worthwhile to contribute. I hope I have an idea or a thought or a way of describing something that might be useful or different or new. I write because I want to be a part of what all the rest of you are doing. I want to help.

Thanks for making me feel that I have. At least some of the time. Some of the time is enough.

Also, acknowledgements asides, I have learned a few things. Mainly, as I said, simply by writing about them. In hoping I had something worthwhile to say to all of you, I have found I also have some worthwhile things to say to myself.

Among them, I understand now that I live in a world with rules, where there are constraints on behavior, and where it is not acceptable to harm others just because you feel like it. It is not a free-for-all out there. It is not a dog-eat-dog world, despite the claims of some people to the contrary. Not entirely anyway.

And it is not okay to hurt me just because I don’t live up to your particular expectation for who I should be. It isn’t now. It wasn’t then. When people did it every day.

In moments of stress, one of the mantras in the back of my mind is this, “I am a bad person.” Meaning someone difficult. Uncooperative. Someone who might be or say something that will make others uncomfortable, unhappy, uneasy. Someone who has lived a life that might scare you more than any horror movie ever could.

In retrospect, I understand now that I long avoided talking about my past in psychotherapy because I didn’t want to distress my therapists. But I have written about it here repeatedly and all of you lived through of it. Some of you even felt better because of it.

People are more resilient and more forgiving than I ever guessed.

I also realized it doesn’t matter if I am a “bad” person (according to the definition I have given myself). I have as much right to be difficult, uncooperative, and challenging to one’s preconceived notions as anyone else does.

Again, thank you.

Two hundred seventy-five posts, 1437 likes, 315 followers, and 18, 216 views later, I am a better person for it.

Oh, and for those of you who like that kind of thing, the top posts from my blog in the last year are the featured posts. For a limited time only.

My Spam Fans

Some program called Askimet protects my blog from spam everyday, but it keeps my spam messages for a period of time so that I can review them before they are deleted.

Most of the spam messages are very flattering. I am, according to my spam messages, a wonderful writer, providing great content, and use a great blog design. (Never mind that the design of it is off-the-shelf, free, and provided by WordPress.) Oh, and original.

I guess my need for positive self-esteem and flattery oozes through every pixel of my page. Or, it’s universal.

Someone named bbom particularly loves me. He writes in almost daily. Saying things like, “it was nice to read your blog. the thoughts are very well laid out and it was refreshing to read. i was able to find the information that i was looking for. thanks.”  Or, “it helped me with knowledge so i really believe you will do much better in the future i appreciate everything you have added to my knowledge base. thanks”

Bbom needs some work on capitalization rules, but I’ll excuse it. Because he clearly just loves me so much. I could use the ego-stroking. Especially given the box of dirt I’m carrying.

I did get a comment in Russian a while ago that said something demeaning about my being a gay man. Or maybe a prostitute.  (Thanks, Googletranslate!) But generally spammers are incredibly nice. Generic, as you can see from bbom’s comments above. But nice.

So I feel a little guilty laughing at their errors. But not so much I won’t share them with you. Someone calling himself levitra said this, “Hi there it’s me, I am also visiting this web page daily, this website is really good and the users are in fact sharing fastidious thoughts.” I guess he mistook the topic for OCD. Or maybe he just thought I was a Martha Stewart wanna-be offering advice on how to set your table beautifully this Father’s Day.

This one is almost as fun, “I like this web blog its a master peace ! .” Aside from the double punctuation (maybe cocktail dresses kohls just couldn’t decide), I’m flattered at the way she thinks I’m really doing good in the world. You know, inspiring peace like that.

But my favorite spam fans are the ones offering products I don’t need. Aside from Levitra and Cialis, which I continue to be unable to fathom a use for, I’ve also been offered roofing services. In the UK. Apparently, the roof I don’t own can be improved substantially if I just move it across the pond a bit. Next, I need a hook-up with some international movers.

And I’m starting to seriously ponder advice about improving my seo ratings. Evidently, I’m supposed to include at least one internal link in my posts, and the title within the first paragraph, the web address, and the last line of the post. But maybe that’s just the power of propoganda. Keep reading it and…?

Still, my most-viewed post of all time does only one of those things: Repeat the title in the web address. (Since all of them do).

This is, incidentally, my 200th post. So thanks to all the real people out there who continue to make fastidious comments. Доброго времени суток!Хотите заказать одежду на выгодных условиях? Тогда читайте новость (With a little luck, maybe we can do some shopping together.) Or maybe just given bbom a hand with his homework.

Spam comments. Yep. That’s for you, SEO. Love you, too.