Two Essays From A Field Study On Vulnerability In The Creative Process

John McInerney

Debra Gitterman

Abstract

Where do we encounter our vulnerability? How do we respond to it? These questions prompted a conversation between John McInerney, LCSW, writer and psychoanalyst, and his editor Debra Gitterman, writer with an abiding writer’s block, in which they explore the emotional ground traveled by each while working on John’s book. They draw parallels between the editing process and psychoanalysis in terms of what transpires internally and between writer (client) and editor (therapist). For John, the experience as writer is one of overcoming fear and avoiding feelings of fragility.  Debra, unable to tolerate feelings roused by looking at her own work, fosters John’s writing by responding with positive feedback and challenging him at times to reach greater clarity in his ideas.  By helping another person get closer to authentic and clear expression through the ritual of writing and revising, does an editor experience vicarious transformation without risk to self?  What does the writer gain from the editor’s attention? What does the editor gain from the writer’s response? What insights, if any, does this inquiry offer about the process of psychoanalysis. Each of the participants responds with an essay.

John McInerney

I’m here as a psychotherapist and a writer who is writing a book about my work and who has turned for help to an editor. Part of the problem is that I have a touch of ADD and my writing tends to bounce around in a way that makes perfect sense to me but not to anyone else. To help manage my writers’ insecurity I needed someone who could reassure me that I had good-enough writing chops to take-on a long-form project. Debra, it turns out, needed someone who was patient and encouraging to help her with her ten year-old writer’s block. Debra will tell you more about her and our process in her presentation. I will describe what I believe is at the root of the problem for the writer and indeed for all of us. My perspective is informed chiefly by my practice in the Ordinary Mind school of Zen Buddhism and also by my psychotherapy practice, which is rooted in the psychodynamics of the Interpersonal school founded by Harry Stack Sullivan. (Evans, 1996). For now I can say that Debra and I have managed to create a reasonably safe space for each other to work in. We respect each others’ vulnerability and we’re loyal to each other.

I always like to put things into a larger context. It helps me feel grounded. For instance, whenever I visit a new place, even if I arrive very late, I like to walk around the neighborhood to get my bearings before I go to sleep. In a similar vein, as I addressed the theme of this conference–vulnerability–I thought of looking up at the sky and feeling miniscule in the same way that my Neolithic Celtic ancestors did. Their response to feeling vulnerable was to become the first astronomers. They built the great monument at Newgrange more than 5,000 years ago and a thousand years later they built Stonehenge. They intuited that if they could figure out what was going on up there in the sky they would figure out what was going on down here on earth. They tracked the phases of the moon, worked out when the solstices occurred, identified Orion the Hunter and other constellations. This knowledge helped them make the transition from their hunter-gatherer culture to agriculture and along the way they developed religion and the ideas of salvation and an afterlife and all that good stuff. So the take-away is, feeling vulnerable can really take you places if you are willing to go with it.

It’s one thing to acknowledge that you have an id, an ego and a super-ego doing battle with each other deep in your homuncular psyche – if you do acknowledge that or believe it. It’s another thing to simply confess that you are vulnerable. I suspect vulnerability is one of those concepts that every generation has to come to terms within it’s own time. Doing so may be a kind of maturational goal like developing an observing ego or managing ambivalent and contradictory feelings. My parents had two world wars, an armed insurgency, a civil war, and a period of immigration and return to their home country to help them get used to the idea that they were vulnerable. All this happened before they had reached the age when one inescapably feels ones’ inherent vulnerability, which is about the age that I am now.

Most recently though, in 2010, Brené Brown (Brown 2010) gave a TED talk on vulnerability, which you can find by searching YouTube under her name. If you do, you will be adding to the six million hits the speech has already gotten. Because of those numbers I’m guessing that Ms. Brown who is a professor of social work at the University of Texas, is responsible in some part for the current wave of interest in this topic and perhaps indirectly for the title of this conference.

In any case, two events preceded Brené Brown’s now famous talk and I believe, those events prepared us to hear and respond to her in the way we have.

They are: the fall of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11 and, four years later, Hurricane Katrina.

What do those events mean in our national psyche today? A few weeks ago, mindful that we are a year out from a presidential election, and with that question hanging over me, I watched Nick Lowe sing “What’s so Funny About Peace Love and Understanding” to a room with less than a hundred people in it. He wrote the song way back in 1974 for Elvis Costello, and after watching and listening to him sing it in such an intimate setting I had to tell myself, “there is not a simple answer to this question”.

In 1907 the psychologist and philosopher William James (James, 1970) tapped into our basic vulnerability when he said that the first part of reality is the flux of our sensations. “Sensations”, he says “are forced upon us, coming we know not whence. Over their nature, order and quantity we have as good as no control. They are neither true nor false; they simply are.” He goes on to say: “It is only what we say about them, only the names we give them, our theories of their source and nature and remote relations, that may be true or not.” – The emphases are all mine.

James meant that we are part of and subject to the elemental forces of nature, and that it is the flux of nature’s events that gives rise to our sensations; which we then translate into feelings, thoughts and behavior.

Now you may or may not accept that position. Some people prefer the idea that your feelings are an innate part of your identity and character, that they are of you and have nothing to do with whether the wind blows from the north, south, east or west. I want to suggest that the tension between these two notions makes for its own kind of glorious truth that creates our vulnerability in the first place.

I hope that introduction gives you an idea of some part of what we will talk about for the next hour or so, the flux of our sensations, which are the vaguest, most intangible aspects of our human experience.

What we say about them, the names we give them, our theories of where they come from, what we think they are and how they all relate to each other may be true or not, James tells us. In other words, what we do in the process of living, which is the same as saying “in the creative process” or “in the process of psychotherapy”, may be true or not.

“Well”, you might ask, “in the moment-to-moment of being, how do we translate sensations into words and actions?”

And more to the point, not just any words and actions but words and actions that hang together in such a way that they tell a story that makes sense and by a kind of verbal and behavioral alchemy recreate something like the original and long gone sensations that the writer, (you could say patient) has felt so that the reader (you could say therapist) can get an idea or have an experience of what the original sensation was.

For the talking cure to work there has to be a decently close approximation between the words spoken and the sensations felt; on both sides. The same is true for story-telling whether written, on film or on stage.

And when you put into that mix, something Samuel Beckett once said to his interpreter Lawrence Harvey, as quoted by James Knowlson (Knowlson, 1996):

“Whatever is said, is so far from the experience”, the whole enterprise, if it didn’t already, seems tenuous and fragile.

To me, this all sounds very weighty. You might be a patient, therapist, writer or editor, it is no small thing to create a narrative, or a self, if you like, that has a degree of integrity.

When I speak or write my story, I know that it is true or not. Or do I? If I do, in the case of writing, why do I need to write it, then re-write it then revise it and re- write it again and make 3, 4, 5, or 10 drafts and then abandon the entire effort for years or forever or send it off into the wind as I once did with a folder of handwritten notes for a novel by putting it on the roof of my car at a thruway stop while I put my coffee in the cup-holder and then drove off without noticing that the pages were fluttering away behind me. I didn’t miss the pages until I got to my destination an hour later and I didn’t love them enough to go back for them. Instead

I went crazy for a few days because I didn’t know who I was without them and I was ashamed of what I had done. And then I found a version of myself that I could live with comfortably enough to get by on for a while.

Writing is a search for self-experience, for self-discovery. Sometimes I find myself on the page, sometimes I feel held by the words that I write. Sometimes I feel that I am reaching too much for a thing I cannot grasp. In the Rogerian (Rogers, 1957) sense, when I write, I make my own mirror. In the Winnicottian (Winnicott, 1965) sense I make an environment that will hold me for a while.

My pain as a writer is the pain of the isolate who longs to connect; first with myself, the “me I think I am” as I call it, and then with others. I don’t mean to stack the two in order of priority but to be true to myself is to be vulnerable enough to make every moment a negotiation with what it means to be myself.

My experience of crafting a sentence in an essay or a line in a poem is a moment-to-moment experience of crafting a part of myself. Even if I am writing about the moon, I am writing about myself, like it or not. Sometimes it is agonizing, sometimes it is hopeful, sometimes joyous. If everything flows smoothly, which it occasionally does; a poem lands on a page, a string of sentences makes a satisfying paragraph, that’s great. When it happens I miss the agony but I know that I just have to share the work with Debra and it will come back–but only as much as I can bear. Because of her grace and kindness it is never too much. It could be too much if I shared with the wrong person. Then, I might withdraw from writing, confused by a reaction that does not seem to touch any part of the me that I see on the page; that in fact, breaks the mirror.

It is only because Debra has pushed me and pushed me to find that vulnerable self in my writing that I have been able to make the book I am making. And in finding that vulnerable self my experience is of opening a door to a new world of discovery and exploration that allows me a greater sense of ownership of the end result.

As an aside, although I’m not a musician, I did play conga in a three-piece band for a couple of years and one of the things you learn from doing that is to be a really good listener. Music is a collaborative venture. If you are open to going wherever it takes you–and it does take you to unforeseen places–you can have a great time and so will the people around you.

So writing is a bit like playing conga with the band and letting myself be taken by the music. When the music is playing me it sounds better.

Life gives me a sense of the continuity of myself, a sense of a “me I think I am”. The writing experience adds a layer of trustworthiness to that self, a sense that this “me I think I am” can be sturdy and robust as well as vulnerable. My Zen meditation practice adds another layer that underlines both the discontinuity and the uncertainty and opens me up to an awareness of the impermanence of all things. I know that living on this earth with vulnerable humans like myself can be a trial, a heart-break and a joy. Indeed it is the only source of joy I have, that and the joy of wild nature from which all my inventions spring.

The world as it is, is all there is. There is nothing to replace or substitute for it. Accept it or reject it as you may, it’s all you have. And it’s what has you, for as long as you’re around.

I know that everything is impermanent. I know how fragile joy is. There is a part of me that has never grown out of my childhood sense of vulnerability and sweetness. I know that I have always felt vulnerable but I also know that I have not always known that I did.

As I say this I remember the movie Birdman with Michael Keaton in the title role and also something Ian Holm once said, “the trouble with being an actor is that there’s nobody there”.

Another way to say that might be to quote the Harvard philosopher Alex Watson, (Watson, 2014): “We neither are nor contain anything that remains identical over time. Even at one moment of time, we are not one thing. Rather we are a multiplicity of interacting systems and processes.”

And I know that that is true.

To discuss the vulnerable self is to discuss the shifting self, the self that is inseparable from nature, the self that is an illusion, the self that is the me I think I am, that is continually forming and falling apart, that, in our digital world is both situated and distributed at the same time, that is a multiplicity of interacting systems and processes. This rather confusing self is the one that we all know and struggle with in our daily life and in our therapy or in our meditation practice or our creative practice–if we have one–but it’s the self that we don’t always talk about because it’s there and not there at the same time and trying to get a hold of it is like trying to hold on to a soapy two-year old that wants out of the tub. It’s the self that writers know because it’s what they live with. But I think all creative people live with it. Which really means all of us, whoever and wherever we are.

Now I’ll tell you a story of how I recently, well, ten years ago, came to meet my vulnerable self face to face, for the first time in a long time. This is the self that I have most recently written about at Debra’s urging.

In June 2005 I was bitten by a tick, (though I didn’t know it) and by Fourth of July weekend I had developed an abscess in my right armpit at the site of the bite. The abscess was treated but it’s origin was not identified. About a month later I started experiencing random symptoms that could have been neuromuscular and within a few days had what felt like a minor stroke. That prompted me to take off from work and for the next three weeks my symptoms increased and grew to include chronic severe pain.

By Monday, August 29th 2005, I had lost a considerable amount of weight and my symptoms included Bell Palsy and partial paralysis below the waist. No amount of medical attention had been useful or helpful up to then but that day, which was the day that Hurricane Katrina struck the south coast, I was admitted to the hospital.

Within 24 hours, and to my great relief I was diagnosed with Lyme disease. I spent the entire rest of the week laying in a hospital bed watching the aftermath of that devastating storm on live television. I wrote a chapter for my book on the psychological and emotional events arising from, and following that week. It proved to be a painful exercise but because I wrote that chapter I was able to make a transition in the book to writing about some ideas that I hold dear and that are fundamental to my way of looking at the world.

Before writing about my illness and the fear of death that went with it, I could not imagine how I would write about those ideas at all. However, once I had reached a certain point in the writing, my imagination took a leap off a cliff and before I knew it I had found a path to a place that I could not have conceived of before. This experience will be familiar to those of you who have reached a similar point in your own journey.

The book chapter that I wrote does not contain the following story:

When I thought I had fully recovered from my illness and was ready to go back to work I had an appointment with my infectious diseases specialist and told him I planned to go back to work the next week. He laughed out loud. I was shocked and offended.

“Look,” he said, “maybe you can go back the week after next, but I don’t want you staying over”. (I live upstate but my practice is in NYC) “You can go down, do a light day, come back the same day and see how you feel. If it goes ok you can go back the week after that. Your immune system is still very fragile.” So that’s what I did.

Everything went well. I drove to the railway station, got on the train, enjoyed the two-hour trip down along the Hudson River. It was a beautiful fall day.

And then we got to Penn Station and everyone stood up to leave the train. I started to feel anxious. Lots of people were moving around in a small space, bumping into each other, hefting bulky suitcases, elevating their energy level and steeling themselves for the city hustle.

It felt like too much for me to deal with.

I’m far from a country mouse but that’s what I felt like, timid and uncertain. I decided to wait till everyone was off the train and I could take my time rather than get caught up in the stampede.

I waited by my seat, letting people pass as they would. And when the way
 was clear I went to the doorway of the train to step on to the platform. The crowd was surging up the escalator. My anxiety kicked up a few notches and turned to fear.

I had been travelling the same route for 15 years. What was there to be afraid of? But no matter how I tried to rationalize it to myself, all I could do was go back to the empty train car and sit down. I was afraid of being jostled and pushed, afraid I might get hurt.

I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I’m tough, I’m resilient, I’m stubborn, I’m a fighter.

I was afraid, I felt vulnerable and I couldn’t believe I felt that way. I was shocked at myself.

I waited till everyone had gone up the escalator, then I left the train and made my way to the street.

In this state of mind I couldn’t take the subway, so I took a cab to my office.

On the way down-town, sitting in the back seat of the cab, I found myself rationalizing my experience, making it not just about me but about all of us. I thought to myself, “Suppose we all feel like this all the time.”

I thought, “Suppose we all feel fragile and vulnerable but we just push it aside to deal with whatever we have to deal with every day; to deal with the rough and tumble of everyday life.”

And that thought, that I had a little more than ten years ago to the day, in the back of a cab going downtown, led me here.

Debra Gitterman

The poet Ed Hirsch reads poems twice at readings. As an audience member, I’ve appreciated that second reading. I’m going to begin with a poem. I’ll read the poem again at the end of the talk and name the poet at that time.

GHOSTS

There’s a ghost in this house.

She walks the floors unseen, unheard.

Come. Follow her.

In this room she sees a boy,

soft-skinned, lean, not yet long,

sitting too close to a television set,

the shag carpet beside him

cut by a spear of afternoon sun.

He kneads his right fist into his left palm

until each knuckle sounds,

eyes intent on the screen.

Then kneads left into right.

The ghost, a child,

sees a woman come from the kitchen–

the mother, who is also a person,

but right now only a mother–

drying her hands on a dishtowel.

She wants the boy to play outside.

Her eyes are wide and wild,

her voice, pitched with contempt.

The ghost child looks worriedly at the boy

who doesn’t move his eyes off the screen.

Upstairs now in a blue-green bedroom,

the ghost child sees a girl

on an unmade bed reading

while snacking on chicken bones

that she tosses unfinished into a blue trashcan.

In a few days, under crumpled tissues and discarded poems,

the smell of rancid meat will fill the second floor.

The whole family will recoil, but the smell will offend the mother most.

Voices will rise, doors will slam.

In a bathroom past a short hall,

at the far end of a large bedroom,

tins of polish orbit a shoe-shine box.

A stained rag lies in a soft heap

on a countertop clean of colored wax crumbs.

A man, the father, looks up when the child enters,

as if he can see ghosts.

I collect ideas about the role writing plays in society that I use as ballast against a counter-impulse to keep quiet. Here is one: literature is a historical record of human emotions. I can accept the inherent value of recording history. A new favorite is by historian David Christian:

“We are blessed with a language, a system of communication, so powerful and so precise that we can share what we’ve learned with such precision that it can accumulate in the collective memory. And that means it can outlast the individuals who learned that information, and it can accumulate from generation to generation.” (2011)

In other words, I tell myself, by writing and publishing we add to a knowledge bank from which current and future generations can benefit. As parent to teen step-children who are thirsty for experience and wisdom, this makes immediate sense to me. It is another compelling reason to write and to publish. Nevertheless, I am challenged to write.

For the first ten years of my adult life I adapted to the imperative to be silent by making visual art–mute paintings, drawings and sculptures. Another way I skirted this prohibition against articulation–against knowing my mind, against being heard (even by me)–was by keeping a journal and never re-reading what I wrote.

Nevertheless, having played a role in advancing John’s writing, I’m here today as his editor and as a writer.

I consider myself a failed writer not because I don’t publish or because I lack a professional writing career, but because I avoid the uncomfortable feelings that come up around editing and revising. Quite simply, I can’t bear to look at what I’ve written. My self-critical eye is indiscriminately excoriating.

I have no problem generating work–putting what Wordsworth calls the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (1999) onto the page–but I can’t go back with a cool mind and objective eye to revise. I can do that for others quite well and easily.

Unfortunately, the magic of inspiration–what makes a poem a compelling object–happens in revision. Thomas Edison’s characterization of genius applies: 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.

When I edit my poems, I will often dishonor the original impulse by revising what’s on the page into a different poem than it started out to be. Then I’ll find fault with the revision and revise that into another poem. And so on. The poem becomes a palimpsest–a single, layered poem concealing its history.  As conceptual art that’s interesting, but conceptual poetry is not my intention.

I avoid writing in typical ways: by doing chores and developing demanding alternative careers. I don’t go to writing conferences because I feel that I haven’t earned the privilege. I watch my friends’ books get published and see their work change their lives by moving their careers and minds forward, while mine, in this respect at least, remains stagnant. What once compelled me to publish–and I have only done it once–was when a friend, the editor of Post Road Magazine, asked me for two poems for an upcoming issue. He was in a bind and I was able to overcome the prohibition in order to help him out. My desire to help prevailed over my unease.

The poet Larry Levis said that the most important part of being a writer is tolerating one’s bad writing. That’s what I haven’t, as yet, been able to do. So what is a writer who can’t edit her own work?

With much pain, I pushed past my difficulties to complete a master’s degree in creative writing in 2006. The structure of graduate school and having a community of writers helped.  It felt important to me to complete the degree. At graduation the director gave each graduate a walking stick because, he said, this was the beginning of our journey as writers. My writing process, however, was not sustainable outside of school. The walking stick wasn’t enough. What I needed was not the object, it turns out, but the relationships that were behind the object.

I know that what I go through is common. There’s nothing special about my writer’s block. Most writers have antics they use to avoid writing. And even successful, well-known writers are squeamish about sharing early drafts of their work.

Brené Brown has spoken powerfully and ground-breakingly about being vulnerable–about, she says, quoting Theodore Roosevelt, “the man in the arena daring greatly” (2012). It is he who deserves our sympathy, respect and admiration, not the critics, Roosevelt says. Through hard work and risk-taking, Brené Brown was able to get into the arena. But what if you can’t get into the arena? What if desire and willingness to be vulnerable, along with a decade-long course of psychoanalytic psychotherapy that was objectively successful in all other areas, are not enough?  What then?  How does one become unblocked?

I thought it might be useful to speculate about how I got to this place and to talk about how John and I are working to extricate me.

Thomas Mann said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” (1947). Because language was difficult for me as a child, mastery of it was also inordinately important.

My background:

  • Despite success in school, in some ways I was a slow processor (a function of either a learning disability or psychological trauma or both), born on the heels of a verbally precocious older sister and into a family of facile processors, it seemed to me, who placed a high value on verbal communication.
  • My mother, with 4 kids under the age of 6, was understandably overwhelmed. On top of that she was not particularly skilled at dividing her attention. She lacked attunement and a capacity for self-reflection, and although she was warm, fun, and clearly loved us, she was highly critical. There was absolutely no pleasing her. Her criticism was thorough and relentless.
  • My father had a more humane approach to child-rearing, but, in accordance with the gender conventions of his time, he was mostly absent, working day and night as a psychoanalyst. In addition, his poor judgment and a blind spot for his family resulted in painful and sometimes dangerous neglect.
  • The difficulties I had were not apparent to my parents, teachers or friends. In high school, I got straight A’s; I was in honors classes; and I had friends. I was successful in college too.

My relationship with writing started with a death. At age 16 I visited my 80-year-old grandfather in the hospital. He’d been unconscious for several days after having been admitted a week earlier to adjust the medications he was taking for Parkinson’s disease. As I understand it, when he entered the hospital he was given contradictory medications that filled his heart chamber with fluid and caused his otherwise strong heart to fail. When the heart monitor flat-lined, my mother and grandmother grabbed onto his body and cried his name in what sounded like shock, pain, and reproach, as if in dying he was doing something wrong, unthinkable. My eyes moved from their figures to my grandfather’s expressionless face on the white pillow and I saw a tear slide from one of his closed eyes. The eruption of anger and grief at his dying and that stray tear troubled me. My grandfather had never spoken much and for the past ten years Parkinson’s disease had kept him from talking at all. To process the experience, I wrote in a journal that a friend had given me as a birthday gift years before and I kept writing for 7 years.

I never read what I wrote and I never shared what I wrote with anyone. When I was 23, however, a personal crisis pushed me to look back on my life in order to figure out how I had gotten there. I reread my journals for the first time then, more than 15 of them. I was surprised to discover in them a compelling and complete narrative of my life at a time when I myself was feeling shattered. There was a whole self on the page. By reading my journals to others, I was able to share my self with others for what felt like the first time. “You’re a writer,” a therapist told me.

At the time, however, I considered myself a visual artist. I spent the next years making art, getting well, and exploring relationships and the world. It would be a dozen years before I would return to writing, in part out of a need for story and specificity, which wasn’t satisfied by making visual art.

When I did return to writing, I made it my professional focus. I had early successes: I was accepted into writing workshops and eventually into a competitive graduate writing program.

What I find interesting is that in my 20s and 30s I failed as a visual artist in an uncannily similar way to how I’m failing now as a writer. As a visual artist I had talent and received positive attention from my peers and some teachers, but when the natural next step would have been to share my work publicly, I stopped sculpting and painting.

There are strategies for extricating oneself from writer’s block– or, in my case, from being unable to review and edit my work–and I tried many of them: writing groups, writing coaches, self-imposed deadlines, therapy, country living. I tried lowering the bar: I told myself, “finish one thing, just one thing, build on that.” But each lowering of the bar led to a further reduction in output. Nearly 10 years later, I’m not really writing.

When John invited me to do this panel, I said yes without hesitation. The subject–vulnerability–is close to my heart.

In the work John and I did to prepare for this conference, we discovered that I lack a non-critical, psychological space to revise, play with, and make discoveries in my writing. There are parallels here, of course, with Winnicott’s holding environment and the good-enough mother. I lack a holding environment.

We also discussed an incident that occurred when I was 11 that created an imperative for me to keep silent. So even as I pursued self-expression, I was moved by a stronger impulse to not put words to what I saw, thought, heard, and felt.

When John and I first started working together a couple of years ago, he’d write at the kitchen counter and I’d write on the couch. Within minutes, invariably, I’d be asleep. At some point John confronted me about this, and we shifted our contract. I stopped pretending to write, and John paid me to edit his work.

In order to write this paper, I decided to lean on the friendship and growing trust between John and me and to try again.

As I’ve edited John’s work over the past two years, I’ve seen him be vulnerable and take criticism from me. He was frustrated by my feedback at times, but I knew that he was not going to fall apart. And with each draft I saw his writing get stronger. When we first started out, several rounds of revision were needed for John to clarify his ideas and get himself on the page. Now he brings a near finished product on the first go-around. He’s internalized the editing process and taken me with him as a good object whose advice and guidance is valuable.

Safety and comfort come slowly to me. With John as a new writing partner, I needed to feel that I had value to him separate from my ability or willingness to write; I needed to be acknowledged as an intellectual peer and as a competent and valued editor. I needed John to not be defensive when I pointed out that a particular kind of feedback from him unnerved me. I needed to see him trying to adapt as I discovered and communicated the kind of feedback that I needed. And, lastly, I needed an opportunity to take a risk so that I could lean on him.

John needed many of the same things from me: to feel legitimate as a writer; to feel that he could help me as my editor; to sit side by side as we went through his edited drafts. We both needed a lot from each other and it took effort, patience, and openness.

John has suggested that I lack sufficient ego strength to know that there’s good stuff in my drafts, to ignore the critical self-talk, and to trust the editing process. In our work together, in essence, I borrow his ego to edit my work. This rings true to me.

John and I have circled back to where we started. What I couldn’t tolerate is exactly what we are doing. We sit and write together. Instead of sitting separately, as before, we sit beside each other looking at the same computer screen. Sometimes when John senses that I’m feeling particularly raw, he might put his arm around me as we work. Comparing our process to a therapeutic one, I say, “You don’t put your arm around clients”. And John says, “No, But I convey the same safety and comfort in a different way.”

Our process still feels new and not fully tested.

The poem I read at the beginning is mine, of course. Its polished state and that I’m sharing it here is a result of our process. It’s a poem that I wrote many years ago. At some point in the weeks leading up to this panel, I shared the poem with John, and he and I worked through it line by line. John didn’t know that he was going to enjoy editing my poem. And I didn’t know that his feedback was going to work well for me. It was spontaneous. Our work moved the poem to a place where I’m comfortable sharing it today. And it gave John and me as a team more confidence to help each other.

GHOST

There’s a ghost in this house.

She walks the floors unseen, unheard.

Come. Follow her.

In this room she sees a boy,

soft-skinned, lean, not yet long,

sitting too close to a television set,

the shag carpet beside him

cut by a spear of afternoon sun.

He kneads his right fist into his left palm

until each knuckle sounds,

eyes intent on the screen.

Then kneads left into right.

The ghost, a child,

sees a woman come from the kitchen–

the mother, who is also a person,

but right now only a mother–

drying her hands on a dishtowel.

She wants the boy to play outside.

Her eyes are wide and wild,

her voice, pitched with contempt.

The ghost child looks worriedly at the boy

who doesn’t move his eyes off the screen.

Upstairs now in a blue-green bedroom,

the ghost child sees a girl

on an unmade bed reading

while snacking on chicken bones

that she tosses unfinished into a blue trashcan.

In a few days, under crumpled tissues and discarded poems,

the smell of rancid meat will fill the second floor.

The whole family will recoil, but the smell will offend the mother most.

Voices will rise, doors will slam.

In a bathroom past a short hall,

at the far end of a large bedroom,

tins of polish orbit a shoe-shine box.

A stained rag lies in a soft heap

on a countertop clean of colored wax crumbs.

A man, the father, looks up when the child enters,

as if he can see ghosts.

References

Brown, Brené. (March 2012). Listening to shame [TED Talk]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame/transcript?language=en

Christian, David. (April 2011). The history of our world in 18 minutes [TED Talk]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/david_christian_big_history/transcript?language=en

Evans, F. Barton. (1996). Harry Stack Sullivan: Interpersonal Theory and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge.

James, William. (1970). Pragmatism and four essays from The Meaning of Truth, p.160. New York: Meridian Books.

Knowlson, James. (1996). Damned to Fame. The Life of Samuel Beckett, p 492. Bloomsbury.

Mann, Thomas, & Lowe-Porter, H.T. (1947). Essays of three decades. New York: Knopf.

Rogers, C.R. (1957). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 21, 95-103.

Watson, Alex. (2014). Who Am I? The Self/Subject According to Psychoanalytic Theory. SAGE Open 4(3). Retrieved from www http://sgo.sagepub.com/content/4/3/2158244014545971

Winncott D.W. (1965). Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. London: Hogarth Press.

Wordsworth, William, & Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. (1999). Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems. London: Penguin Books.

Debra Gitterman may be contacted at: debra.gitterman@gmail.com

John McInerney may be contacted at: johngmhi@gmail.com

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