by Naomi Rose

Reprinted from Writer’s Connection, December 1986

It’s common to think of writers as people who write because they are wounded. But what if it also goes the other way around: What if writers are people who are wounded because they write? Rarely is the declaration "I want to be a writer" met with sighs of relief. A writer’s life, as everyone knows, is not an easy one. The belief that writers cannot partake of the good life is so deeply engrained that when I told a friend that my 10-year-old now wanted to be a writer instead of an astronaut, her eyes filled with sympathy. "Too bad," she said helpfully. "He’ll never make enough to support himself."

A quick review of some popular beliefs about writing, writers, and the writer’s lifestyle shows how dismal a writer’s lot is supposed to be:

1. Writers have to suffer in order to create. To be content would be to cut off the very source of writing. A writer must choose neurosis over happiness.
2. Writers can’t be prosperous.

a. This situation hardly ever happens anyway.
b. If it does, you’ve sold out.
c. Making money makes you lose your anguish, that keen edge so crucial to creativity.

3. Writers can’t be true to their own vision and expect to be read (certainly not while alive). Audiences don’t like anything too unfamiliar.
4. Writing is, by its very nature, an isolating occupation. Writers are lonely people practicing a lonely art.
5. Fame is the arbiter of a writer’s success. Success is measured by the number of books sold. The New York Times bestseller list is God.
6. Keep it average, keep it flashy. Unless you can catch the attention of the average person in the supermarket as he or she thumbs through your book while on the checkout line, forget it.
7. Your diary is where your secret thoughts belong. No one is interested in your inner visions and knowings.

According to these beliefs lodged deeply in the culture and the collective psyche, saying yes to writing means saying no to creature comforts, financial and human support, human understanding, contentment–in short, all the goodies of life open to computer programmers, bankers, and construction workers.

Now, writers’ lives do bear out these myths. People really have lived in garrets, worked as janitors and secretaries to support their families, and squeezed in their writing time at 2 a.m. The question isn’t "Hasn’t this happened?" but "Does it have to keep happening?"

The more we keep living according to these myths, the more convincing we make this "portrait of the writer as a misunderstood martyr." To add fuel to these beliefs is to diminish the life of the human being in the service of the written product. But there is no reason why the choice should be between living a good life or being a writer.

The Inner Dimension: The Myth of the Gift that No One Wants
Writing has the potential to be the most profound form of self-disclosure. The act of writing demands an intimate encounter with the self. To write is to actually know yourself as best you can. And to show your writing is to reveal your most real, vulnerable self.

Self-disclosure can be a two-faced thing. We long to do it, yet we can be terrified of it at the same time. So many writers–beginning, or even in progress on a work–secretly fear, "I have nothing important to say," or "No one will want to read this," or "Others have written about this subject already." Yet if we write from the "realest" self we know, our words must carry some truth, some being. Our words cannot possibly come out wrong.

Where do we get this idea that our writing is worthless?

Much of it comes from childhood. When we are children, our minds and hearts are open. And in this trusting and alive state, we are totally susceptible to how our love is received by other people, particularly our parents. So one day we accomplish the feat of a mudpie that actually holds together, and we scoop it up with all due reverence and offer it up to our parents (our gods). But they say, "That’s nice, dear," or "Ugh, go wash yourself immediately," or "Don’t you have anything better to do?" or they say nothing at all. And they think that what they are talking about is our gift of a mudpie. But it is more than this. It is ourselves–the place in us that wants to just give, out of love. So when they scold or ignore or dispose of our treasure, we think they are criticizing or ignoring or disposing of us. And as we grow older, we may not remember the mudpie incident, but we do internalize what happened when we tried to give the gift of our best selves. And when it comes time to write, that pain, though perhaps disguised, is still in there, sabotaging our intentions and our work.

When I was twelve, my parents rented a tiny room by the beach in the summer for a few weeks. Every day I went to the boardwalk and played ball toss, trying to knock the wooden ducks gliding around an oval track in back of the counter off their perch–three tries for a quarter. I lost many quarters that way, but finally I felled one wooden duck and was entitled to claim my prize. I looked inside at the rows of stuffed animals, glaze-eyed dolls, pennants, and keychains–and bypassed them all for an ashtray shaped like a white porcelain hand, pointing gracefully with gold-rimmed fingernails towards the sky.

I gave it to my mother excitedly. I did not mention the money I had had to spend to win this prize, or how many times I had tried, or even the surprise that I had won. I just handed her the ashtray, bunched up in white tissue paper.

Her face, when she looked at it, was not what I would have expected. There was no delight, no astonishment, no "How good of you…" or, "So this is what you spent your winnings on!" Instead, she shoved it back at me and her lip curled in distaste. "That’s disgusting," she said. "What made you think I’d want to ditch my cigarette in the middle of a hand?"

I had not thought of it that way. But there was no time to look at it from that view. All I knew was that she had spared the ashtray’s feelings over mine. And that it must be that I, not the gift, was what she was rejecting. For this was not the first time I had offered and felt her turn bitterly aside. The way had long been prepared.

Now that I’m grown, I realize that my mother’s reaction had nothing to do with me or with the gift. She was symbolically identifying with the graceful porcelain hand. Life had abused her enough, she felt; she didn’t need reminders that beauty gets sullied. But from my child perspective, all I knew was that my gift had made things worse instead of better. And later, when I began to write with trepidation, I was terrified to show my writings to anyone, lest they be judged as quickly and wrongly and painfully as that ashtray, and turned aside–and me with them.

Perhaps you have your own version of this story. Not all parents know how to accept the immense preciousness of a child’s love and devotion. So we grow up and do things to cover the apparent "fact" that our natural being is not good enough. And when we become writers, we do not tend to think of our writing as a gift.

"The writer’s gift" doesn’t mean only the special talent that we are born with and cultivate. It also means the gift that a writer gives. Writing that reveals the true Self is no less a gift than a child’s mudpie or ashtray. And, as with those naïve, pure-hearted gifts, our writing is an offering of love. No matter why we think we write, the original mudpie-wish is a strong motivation. We wish to bring our most precious Self into the light, where it can be seen and recognized and valued; to be at last received unconditionally; to hear with our own ears the words, "Thank you, it is beautiful and I love you."

Writers whose love was rejected often reject their own writing, much as abused children often grow up to be abusive parents unless they can learn another way. How is this rejection manifested? Here are a few of the ways:

  1. Never writing at all, and consequently feeling like a coward, a failure, an incomplete person.
  2. Starting writings but not finishing them. Rejecting your work in its infancy, so that you don’t have to invest yourself in a project that is doomed to failure anyhow.
  3. Finishing writings but stashing them in a drawer rather than letting others read them and benefit from them. (The fear is that no one could possibly benefit from them.)
  4. Finishing and sharing your writing, but withholding your presence from your work–whether by substituting technique and style for presence, or by not allowing your own unique coloration to infuse the material.

The "who could want me?" attitude is self-defeating. How can others want your presence via your writing, if you yourself do not?

Accepting Your Own Gifts
Once you become aware of how you have sacrificed your gifts, you can reclaim them and start giving them to people who will really value them. That’s how you find your real audience.

You can also redefine success to fit your real needs. Do you really need to be on The New York Times bestseller list? (Maybe you do.) What would give you an internal sense of fulfillment? Knowing that you can pay the rent with your writing? Knowing that no experience is wasted, it can all be written about? Knowing that you can communicate your real treasures to another person? Being told by that other person, "Thank you, your writing really taught me something important/spoke to my heart/showed me myself"?

And you can start loving and valuing your own gifts. Just because your parents and teachers couldn’t accept who you were without conditions doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. It only means they had a headache that day, or were in a crisis, or had forgotten what it was like to be a child, unprotected by sarcasm or ideology. Reclaim your pure intentions; reclaim your love, and shine it on yourself. Your writing cannot help but reflect it. And love begets love–you will reap what you sow.

Lastly, you can start viewing your writing itself as an act of love. The most enduring writing comes not from "neurosis" but from that dimension of your Self that is beyond all neurosis, intellect, emotion, and even personality. This is the place of inspiration. If you are willing to love, accept, and forgive yourself and explore what comes your way with clear eyes and an open heart, you will find yourself as well as your readers enriched by your own precious gift.

And that’s a pretty good life for a writer.

© Copyright 1986, 2003 by Naomi Rose. All rights reserved.



TOUCHING WRITING (reprinted from Massage Magazine,
Issue 104, Sept. – Oct. 2003)

HEALING THE WRITER’S WOUNDED LIFE (reprinted from Writer’s Connection, December 1986)


Back to top