Below is an excerpt taken from a small book I am working on entitled Restoring Creativity: A Writing Guide for Self-Care, Sustainable Pleasure & Conscious Presence. I will be posting a handful of small selections to start this new year. Happy writing!
I was always a “sensitive” child, as they say, and I was also very creative: cardboard boxes were spaceships, closets were time travel machines, and I had no qualms about putting on a one-girl parade down my street with a few streamers and a tap dance outfit I scored at a garage sale.
Afternoons were easily lost in the bliss of play. Being present in an imaginative moment had not yet been un-learned, as happens to adults. Part of that conscious presence of a child, that rootedness in creative energy, was feeling the world with a greater degree of intensity. To be playful and creative requires being present, and presence is always tethered to the full range of human emotions and senses. (Perhaps that’s why we run from it so much.)
If you are a person who feels the world intensely, who longs to create, and who ever finds yourself musing upon possibilities, you probably do not have the choice to filter out the “good” feelings from the “bad” feelings. You feel it all—that’s what sensitivity and creativity does to us. It attunes us to what is there to be felt. Thus, the world’s pain and injustice will likely hit your heart like a sack of bricks many mornings of your life. But, it is also true that the smile of a baby, a cool walk at twilight, or a pocketfull of poetry can feel like perfection.
What I know is that this sensitivity to feel—both the heartache and the joy— comes with the territory of those open to creative energies. It is our fuel, even as it can threaten to consume us. It can overwhelm us, even as it offers us the kind of energy we need to draw from in order to create.
It is your sensitivity, in fact, that keeps you tender enough to create and hope and imagine, but it also means you are likely flooded with data you might not yet have the words for. You have antenna picking up on many currents of energies and emotions.
As a child, I remember experiencing myself like a tender sponge, absorbing the energy from my environment, and feeling intensely all those free-floating, split off emotions that hover around us in our families and communities. (Now, as an academic I theorize those intensities. We call them “affect.”)
Part of the attunement of children, I believe, is noticing the many intensities and emotions that adults have been trained to bypass. I mention this intellectual aspect of children because I think it has everything to do with any aspect of art, creativity, and writing.
There is a famous psychoanalyst—Jean LaPlanche—who says we are formed as infants by picking up on the unspoken messages of adults’ unconscious process. In other words, babies and kids are particularly perceptive to all the affective states the adults around them are divorcing from their conscious awareness. LaPlanche’s description of psychic process suggest we exist in worlds where much is left un-worded or un-represented, but much more is always being messaged and implanted in our psyches.
In these kind of relational patterns, the feelings deep in our bodies often become the receptor point for that which spills over from conscious communication. Our knowings often manifest at the level of the intuitive, like subtle embodied sensations in our gut that signal to our minds what we are in fact experiencing in any given moment. Even when our environment or the authorities or the presumed keepers of knowledge do not mirror back to us what we know, we still know, and often at the level of our wordless, somatic experience. (Not every sensitive person feels the world intensely at the somatic level, of course, but many do.)
Some of us, more deeply than others, in whatever way we receive unconscious information, will intuit the impressions of that which is being left unworded. We might even sense that which is being covered over by strategic untruths meant to serve those in power. We feel the sedimentation of years, generations, and histories that are yet present in this here-and-now moment. We might even question the time-space division itself, because we’ve come to understand that history is not in the past.
Just as there is starshine reaching my eye’s tonight, even as the star’s source burned out millions of years ago, we know that history, time, and linearity might be a grand illusion.
We sense more.
If you feel the world with this kind of intensity, one place to get guidance, of course, is sitting with a skilled therapist or psychoanalyst. Feelings often manifest most acutely in our families of origins and immediate intimate relationships, and skilled therapists can help us process this level of our psychic and relational experience. But, we should also keep in mind that anthropologists and sociologists tell us that emotions are not just about individuals or even family units—emotions are actually a manifestation of larger culture processes. Emotions are part of culture-making: as such, they are also tied to memory-making and the gaps by which we forget, repress, and disconnect on a much larger scale.
I want to claim that all forms of creativity—and in particular writing— are about diving into these gaps.
Whether or not you are a poet or a scholar, a novelist or an essayist, you move between expressed words and un-worded meanings, between conscious and unconscious process, between our collective knowing and forgetting, between what bodies knew and what minds are still remembering. It is a gap that artists of all kinds learn to inhabit. We journey into the gap and bring back pieces and artifacts, words and images, sensory impressions and distilled emotions.
That journey takes courage.
When we write in whatever form (as novelists, as scholars, as poets), we are languaging the feelings, ideas, and truths that have been previously been relegated to the realm of the murky, the subtle, the overlooked. We are stitching re-connections. We are providing re-cognitions. We are sensing what perhaps many children already know, but now we have the adult translation of language. We are trying to mirror the world, to refract it in more diverse ways.
This reflective process is why it is so satisfying to read good writers. In some way they are mirroring back to you what you already knew in your bones, but somehow didn’t have the words for. They are mirroring back to you what you might have intuitively “read” at some level of your unconscious being; but when the writer’s imagination and intellectual skills dance with linguistic symbols to communicate to you, suddenly your whole being lights up with resonance. “Yes!” you think. “That’s exactly it. That is how life feels, breathes, smells, hurts.”
Moments of recognition are profound, and artists have always known their power. Now, even neuroscience is telling us that “mirroring” is a critical aspect of brain development for young children. The circuitry of our minds need shared moments of resonance. (See Peter Fonagy’s work.)
As a writing teacher, I say we especially need artists who illuminate the world in such a way that our inchoate feelings come to make some sense. We need artists who help us live better into mysteries and wonder and all that does not make sense, too.
Certainly, we also read writers who seem to introduce us to totally new ideas and ways of imagining the world. We read to expand ourselves, to feel more and perceive more than we did before we picked up the book, to have a shift in imagination that at some level feels utterly new. We need the writers who can transport us outside of our limited life experience, so that we can feel our deeper connections.
However, I have a theory that most of our souls are quite old, and what artists are doing is actually re-connecting us, as much as they are introducing to us, to new ways to think, perceive, and feel. Writers, in particular, use the medium of words to gesture toward the wordless, toward the mysteries that words can step toward, as on a ladder, but ultimately remain much beyond symbol. This why the mystics of old could write incredible poetry, but also told us that an encounter with ultimate mystery was not something an earthly word could ever capture.
Writing feels risky because it is this dance between symbol, these scratches and squiggles on paper, and the ineffable encounter. It is the translation process between the unconscious and the conscious. For many of us, that space has been filled with anxiety, with pain, with addiction, with self-doubt (even self-hate), and with loneliness. In that “between” is uncertainty and unknown, and that space is vulnerable to filling up with fear.
The possibilities feel too much. We wish to rush to outlines and formulas to contain our fears and hopes. But try not to. Take a deep breath instead. Stay present to yourself. Dare I say love yourself.
What do you want to mirror back to the world? What is it that you know, something you believe the world needs to see mirrored so that we might thrive more, love more, feel more?