My evolution from wanting to write, to loving writing, to having to write did not proceed quietly. The more I lost myself in the craft, the more I anguished over what it meant to be “good enough” and, once good enough, then “really good.” If some of my pieces were receiving so much praise, why were they being rejected? If the editors liked them as much as they claimed to, why didn’t they publish them? I would submit a piece and then incessantly check my email for a response. My response to success wasn’t a quiet mind but rather just a search for the next mountain to climb. And the long latency between submission and response for most literary fiction venues only made the process more fraught. When I complain, I complain out loud, and my wife wondered why I didn’t take up a pastime that actually relaxed me (as a practicing clinical psychologist, my work is stressful enough)—and here she almost had me, until she added: “like golf.”
If it were only my writing that caused such disquiet, maybe it would be more tolerable, but there’s also a confederacy of regrets about things I should have done, things I should not have done and things I should have said; then there are my wonderings about how things might have turned out differently if only . . ., and, on top of that, the whole gaggle of murmurings about my parenting.
And what if I were calm and, as the mindfulness crowd says, “centered” about all this? I wonder if I would create anything worthwhile. Sure, you can write wonderful prose about your peaceful, harmonious inner life, as has been proven by Ekhart Tolle and Alan Watts. But could I do that? So, if I focused mindfully on the present, on what is right HERE . . . NOW, to paraphrase Ram Dass, what would I experience? Somehow, those old insecurities would probably still be banging around like a loose wrench floating in an abandoned spaceship. I guess I have approached quietude with the same disquiet with which I have approached most things.
I have heard the aphorism, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” though I’m not sure who coined that phrase but, without conflict, what material could I possibly have? I tried self-help books until I read that the person most likely to buy a self-help book is someone whose last purchase was a self-help book. It reminded me of the stand-up comic I saw who said that his first job was as an assistant to a psychic. One day he arrived late to work, and she asked, “Where were you?”
So, I see good writing and wish I could do that. I see my pieces rejected and wonder why. Insecurity flares up when success doesn’t rise up to greet me and quickly follows even when it does. In the film The Adjustment Bureau, Matt Damon plays a man whose life, like everyone else’s, is on a trajectory that is largely influenced, although not completely, by a committee of overseers who steer each life along a predetermined path. A wrench is thrown into the overseers’ plans when Damon’s character falls in love and struggles to pursue this relationship despite the overseers’ efforts to divert his path from this woman. Why do the overseers want to do this? Because Damon’s character is a politician, driven by the need to be loved by the public, to compensate for the love he never felt he received in his life, and he is on the verge of winning a high political office through which he can do a great deal of good. If he finds love and is at peace, gone will be the thing that drives him.
Freud taught us that internal conflict is universal in life, that the mind’s disquiet seeks manifestation, that the conflicts that seethe internally find expression in the relationships we form and the choices we make, and that we have to divert them—we can be controlled by them or we can find ways to express them productively or artistically. I might succeed in taming the geyser into a fountain from which I can drink, but the source, the underground spring, must continue to flow.
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