Writing about Ourselves So That Others Will Read It

Writing about Ourselves So That Others Will Read It

When we write about ourselves, it’s not dissimilar to writing about a fictional or imaginary character. In Hemingway’s iceberg, we see that what we need to know about a character is vast compared to what we show. This depth of knowledge helps us to create richly conceived characters who are believable and authentic. When we write about ourselves, this sense of the vastness of what lies underneath our writing must be felt even more evidently – in other words, when people read what we’ve written, they want the security of knowing that they are in the hands of someone who knows themselves – that we are a reliable storyteller of our own stories.

When we write about ourselves, we need to be vigilant about not lapsing into absolutes or clichés: ‘I am a loving mother… I am a selfish bitch… I am the worst daughter…’ but to know that there are many versions of who we are. In Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Going Home’ he talks about his different selves, ‘I love to speak with Leonard, he’s a sportsman and a shepherd / He’s a lazy bastard / Living in a suit… going home… without the costume that I wore…’

The Japanese painter Hokusai painted Mount Fuji from 100 different views. He believed that you could not claim to know or understand something unless you had looked at it from a hundred different views. So often when it comes to ourselves, we stay fixed in one point of view, instead of bringing a sense of not knowing, of Beginner’s Mind. We assume we are an expert in ourselves.

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

The poet David Whyte says self-knowledge is not possible–it is an ever-changing frontier. So the ‘self’ as an idea is ultimately a fiction. The self is always evolving, always in flux. The only thing we can do is come to writing about the self with a sense of utter wonder and curiosity.

And I think that it’s only when we come to writing about the self as a fixed ‘thing,’ opinionated, connected only to itself, and not as something infinitely complex, ever-changing, part of a larger collective whole, that it can become ‘narcissistic.’ If we write about our selves in this one dimensional sense, we flatten our possibilities. We pretend not to know that there are ‘many selves,’ including our shadow selves – the selves we hide from others, the selves we hide from ourselves and the unknown parts of ourselves. There are silent parts of ourselves that we ignore, lock away, bury deep within us. When we write, we must at least hint at the depths, even if they are inaccessible to us in the moment we are writing.

As mature writers, we know that we are always writing from a version of ourselves. None of us is a fixed thing-‘Joanne Fedler bestselling author, mother, wife, etc.’ Whatever words we might use in a Twitter or LinkedIn profile, or a dating website is a form of self promotion. It’s advertising. We know both that the self is unfixed and that it is connected to a greater whole – we know this scientifically from quantum physics, Jung’s universal unconscious, our own experiences of ‘connectedness.’

When we write from a place of genuine self-curiosity and expansion, when we recognize that our individual experience is an expression of a broader experience, we speak into a universal voice. And as writers, that’s what we want.

 

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How to Become a Writer Publishers Want

How to Become a Writer Publishers Want

I often get asked, ‘How do you get published?’ The better question is ‘how do we become the kind of writers publishers are looking for?’

Here are my thoughts:

Write the best goddamed book you can – live what you’ve written. Don’t write only for a perceived market, write from your soul, your essence, the very core of who you are in this world. Write a book that matters.

Write for yourself AND write for a specific reader. Do not write for fame or fortune. These are the unexpected gifts of grace – for some of us – when we write what is real and true and needs to be told.

Write your story AND create a message from your story that others need to hear – you are writing for an audience. Connect with your own emotional truth and learn the ways of the craft so that you can write to create an emotional connection with your readers. Think of your readers as your most beloved companions with whom you are sharing the best parts of who you are.

Have great intention but zero attachment to the outcome. Your only attachment should be to the process of writing the best book you can. In the publishing market, there are no guarantees. You will probably not get rich or famous, but then again, falling in love doesn’t make us rich or famous either, just happy.

 

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

If you’ve secured a traditional publisher, stand in your publisher’s shoes: publishing is a business. Your publisher needs to sell your books to stay alive. How will you help your publisher to achieve its goals while simultaneously achieving yours?

Be easy to work with – take your publisher’s suggestions on board, don’t get huffy or precious. But guard your book like a mother guards her newborn baby – you don’t have to take all editorial suggestions on board, but at least sleep on them.

Create a personal relationship with your commissioning editor – publishers are people. They love books. Be the author they love to work with.

Become your publisher’s partner in getting your book out into the market. Do not expect your publisher to do all the work. No-one cares about your book more than you do – so be its best cheerleader and spokesperson.

Be pro-active – come up with creative, innovative ways of bringing the world’s attention to your book. Your work is not done when the book is written. Your work is done when your book has sold well enough for you to take a vacation in Hawaii on your royalties.

Find your speaking voice – not just your writing voice. Learn how to talk about your book so that when you’re interviewed about it, you are articulate, clear and speak with credibility and sincerity.

Learn the basics of marketing so that you can determine whether the marketing plan your publisher has drawn up will work or not.

Learn what needs to be done to bring your book into the hands of those who want to read what you’ve written. Do you need to get more social media savvy? Do you need to get onto LinkedIn and Pinterest? Do you need to make a few YouTube videos? Do it.

Your training starts now.

If you don’t get a traditional publisher who sees the value of your work – that’s okay. There is a whole world of self-publishing out there. You still need to tick all the boxes above. There are many ways to get your book out into the world.

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Is the Black Dog Jewish

Is the Black Dog Jewish

If ever the human psyche held terrible secrets, and untouchable emotions, the language of modern psychology has opened its dungeons and let those dark hounds loose. We now have words (‘manic depression,’ ‘bipolar,’ ‘seasonal affective disorder,’ post-traumatic stress,’ ‘post-natal,’ ‘obsessive compulsive disorder’) – and chemicals (‘selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors,’ ‘tricyclic antidepressant clomipramine,’ ‘alpha-2 receptor antagonists’) – that can hook those nameless demons, cauterize them, splay them and even neutralize them. Science and the language to delineate it, have for now, rescued millions of listless, melancholic, insomniac, suicidal individuals from the grip of a condition Winston Churchill called ‘the black dog,’ more commonly known as ‘depression.’

Depression runs in my family like a rogue gene. My father has spent his life as a cartoonist making people laugh, propped up on antidepressants. He in turn inherited this condition from his mother, and it has been passed down through the generations with Jewish recipes and hand-embroidered tablecloths. Depression, like an STD, is one of those traits one does not blurt out in good company as a conversation icebreaker. It is a shame, a thing of which we oughtn’t to speak. Lest we get even more depressed. But to me, depression is fascinating. And I suspect more people suffer from it than we can begin to imagine. I can’t help but believe that thinking, feeling human beings don’t all experience a dark night of the soul, now and then.

In his biography of depression, Darkness Visible (Random House, 1990) William Styron says the word depression has ‘slithered innocuously through language like a slug, preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.’ It has become the modern term we use for a state of an unexplainable feeling of deep sadness. ‘Depression’ was first suggested as a term by American psychiatrist Adolf Meyer in 1905 and picked up by the medical community.

But melancholy, as it was commonly known, has plagued the human spirit from the earliest historical records of the Bible where David played the harp to relieve King Saul’s gloom. It is a condition that has affected millions over history and time, including Michelangelo, Vincent van Gogh, Georgia O’ Keefe, Eeyore (in AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books), Abraham Lincoln, Leonard Cohen, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Tipper Gore and (name some Australians). Depression affects people of all races, cultures and ethnic identities, and does not discriminate.

But I had a thought: were depression to claim an ethnic identity, let’s say Dreamworks decided to animate ‘depression,’ what would it look like? Arrogance would have a beret, a cigarette and speak French, just like greed would wave the star-spangled banner and sing ‘American anthem.’ But what of depression? My guess is that it would be kitted out with yarmulkes and tzitzit and they’d get Woody Allen to be the voice. The soul of depression, is, essentially Yid.

I began thinking about this when I was asked to deliver a paper at the Jewish Writer’s Festival in 2006, on the subject, ‘The Literary Representation of the Jew.’ To be honest, the topic sounded like a university English assignment and I’m a little shonky on the academics. So I began to trawl through literature, to look for a theme, a thread by which to weave a plausible ten-minute talk without making it obvious that I’d clearly been mistaken for someone clever.

What I discovered, was that most of the Jewish characters in literature I could find, were all depressed. They were gloomy. Mourning. Haunted. And so I wondered: are Jews a depressed nation?

When you look at it objectively, Jews have a lot to be depressed about. They are, as they have always been, a despised people, living always in the shadow of anti-Semitism. Perhaps they suffer from classic performance anxiety – being ‘God’s chosen people’ is harder to live up to than a parent with a degree from Oxford. Anyway, you only have to look where Joseph’s techni-coloured coat got him. No-one likes a tall poppy. As Tevya says in Fiddler on the Roof, ‘I know we’re the chosen people, but just for once, can you choose somebody else?’

 

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

The very presence of Jews in the world keeps alive some of the most vitriolic human hatred that has spawned some of the worst atrocities of the past few centuries. Jews are always looking over their shoulder. They’re always wondering when next they’re going to have to pack up their tent and leave. For the Jew, the laying down of roots is always a complex ritual of uncertainty. If it’s outside of Israel, they’re in exile, outsiders who will one day overstay their welcome. If it’s in Israel, they’re busy with, in John Travolta’s words, Staying Alive, because their neighbours don’t believe they have a right to exist. Being Jewish is not very relaxing. This can lead to Prozac.

New Age theory encourages us to: ‘BE WHO YOU ARE.’ But the Jewish injunction is rather, ‘REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE.’ Perhaps the greatest sin one can commit as a Jew is to (godforbid) forget who you are. Because Jews are a people whose identity is tied to their past, being Jewish is about never forgetting that ‘once we were slaves in Egypt,’ ‘once we were on trains to Auschwitz,’ ‘once we were without a homeland in the State of Israel.’

Yehudah Amichai, in Songs of Zion the Beautiful writes of this:
Let the memorial hill remember instead of me,
That’s what it’s here for. Let the park in-memory-of remember,
Let the street that’s named for, remember,
Let the famous building remember,
Let the synagogue that’s named after God remember
Let the rolling Torah scroll remember.
Let the flags remember….
…. Let the dust remember.
…. Let the afterbirth remember.
Let the beasts of the field and the birds of the heavens
Eat and remember,
Let all of them remember so that I can rest.

It’s a plea – a very Jewish, ‘It’s enough remembering, already!’ And why does Amichai say Jews need a rest from remembering? Because all that remembering makes you depressed.

Every act of remembrance is sad. Even remembering happiness is sad because it is the recall of that which has passed – a state of being that has come and gone. Jewish tradition ensures that even in the happiest moments, it is imperative to remember that that there has been sadness and loss – every Jewish bridegroom enacts a ritual of breaking a glass at his moment of supreme happiness. Jews are committed to remembering. If mourning were recognized as an Olympic sport, the Jews would walk away with the gold medals every time.

In Anne Michaels’ book, Fugitive Pieces, she writes:
It’s Hebrew tradition that forefathers are referred to as ‘we’, not ‘they’. When we were delivered from Egypt.’ This encourages empathy and a responsibility to the past, but more important, it collapses time. The Jew is forever leaving Egypt.

I think this is really the heart of it: for the Jew, the passage of time does not erase his history, but deepens the channels between past and present, engraving the memory more deeply, like the numbers scorched on the arms of ancestors who were herded into cattle trucks and gas chambers. To be a Jew is to remember. As a people, Jews are haunted by the spectre of genocide, of not-being. And because of this, the Jew is in spiritual exile, always longing for, moving towards the mirage of ‘home,’ either one that has been left behind because of pogroms, expulsions or fear of not-belonging, or towards one that never seems to exist. Nu, this is why Jews are depressed.

To Churchill, depression may have been best described as a ‘black dog.’ But I think there’s something far more Semitic about the soul that kvetches and agonizes about the meaning of life. To me, the oi-veyness of life is, surely must be, Jewish.

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I Know What Stops You from Writing

I Know What Stops You from Writing

 

 

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
And she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
And she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
Or not wear nail polish
And she said honey
She calls me that sometimes
She said you can do just exactly
What you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
My letters
Sweetcakes God said
Who knows where she picked that up
What I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes
Kaylin Haught, ‘God Says Yes to Me’, from The Palm of Your Hand

I know what stops you from writing. The results of the survey I recently conducted revealed that more than lack of time or focus or commitment, FEAR sets up home in our hearts – or sends in any of its ugly relatives: self doubt, dread of failure, anxiety about rejection and ridicule.

Here’s what some of the interviewees wrote:
Not believing in myself
Scared to bare my soul
Internal censorship
Fear of not being good enough
Judgement
Lack of confidence
Negative criticism… (and the list went on).

Jeez, we need a plan of action to cut our way through this jungle.

First up, I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t have conniptions about self-exposure. There are trolls out there and we have to be smart about how we put ourselves out into the world. However, we’re writers and the algorithm goes like this: FEAR + COURAGE = WRITING. So we have to find something that’s stronger than the fear. Something that pumps a whooshing YES through our veins.

Writing is about saying ‘yes’ to something inside us that is waiting to be expressed.

What do you want to say yes to?

 

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

Writing is the act of saying, ‘This is me. Here I am.’ It’s the most radical form of self acceptance.

What do you want to say yes to?

In writing, we only get from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’ by touching the parts that hurt until they stop hurting.

What do you want to say yes to?

My writing is my chance to say yes to….

(Print this out and keep it above your computer. Use it as a dreamwriting prompt).

Here’s a SpoonFed writing tip if you need any more encouragement and tricks to help you manage fear:

You are braver than you think. Don’t let fear become your dominatrix.

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How Do You Say the Thing You Are Not Allowed to Say?

“What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak….it was born in the moments when we accumulated silent things within us.”
– Gaston Bachelard

There are things we are allowed to say and things we are not allowed to say. We learn the distinction early on.

When I stopped working as a counsellor for abused women over twenty years ago, I hoped never to have to coach a woman on what to say and what not to say in court ever again. I never wanted to warn another survivor that she would be blowtorched in cross-examination about every previous sexual encounter she’d ever had. Or to dress ‘modestly’ How do you say the thing you are not allowed to say? | Joanne Fedlerso a judge would form the right opinion about her, which is to say, he would stereotype her as a credible, not-asking-for-it-kinda-gal. In court, you are supposed to tell the truth, the whole of it and nothing but it, but one truth will invariably butt up against someone’s rebuttal of it. As in, ‘I never did what she says I did.’

When I started teaching writing six years ago, I did not foresee that the majority of people who would want to write would be women, and that nine out of ten would want to write memoir. Nor could I have predicted how many would have #metoo stories. Incest. Rape. Molestation. Harassment. Abuse. Violence – the whole spectrum of legal issues I swore off two decades ago because it was too painful to invoke these narratives in a legal forum and expect something resembling ‘justice.’

Back then, I naively believed truth would outmuscle bullshit. I trusted judges would understand that to claim ‘I was raped’ in a court of law is a catastrophically self-annihilating attention-seeking or avenging device and that sane people seldom resort to it. And that if indeed the defence proves a complainant is ‘insane,’ ‘hysterical,’ ‘unhinged’ or on anti-depressants, thereby destroying her credibility, perhaps suppressing a truth for decades may have something to do with doing her head in. In my activist days I didn’t understand a simple marketing principle: know your audience and speak into their listening.

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

In teaching women to write their stories, I’ve found an outcome perhaps more enduring and wholesome than justice. It is self-recovery. Witnessing. Revisiting the scene of the crime and saying ‘He did this to me.’ Without self-pity or self-blame. Without fear of being judged for having invited these traumas.

Joanne Fedler MediaI have now coached dozens of women to write their brave stories. And against my better judgement, have set up a small niche publishing house, Joanne Fedler Media to publish these stories so that writers don’t have to prove to a big publishing house that there is a mass market out there who will buy their books. I don’t know what people will buy. I just know women want and need their truths out in the world.

Now, as a publisher, I face this dilemma: can one of my authors tell the truth in writing? Can she say ‘my uncle sexually abused me,’ ‘my father beat my mother,’ ‘my ex husband raped me’? By doing this, will we expose her and my publishing house to legal action? Truth is a defence to defamation, but generally the onus lies on the person alleging the act to prove the truth. All it will take is for the person named to deny it and the burden of proof will land on my author to prove otherwise. We all know that the reason these crimes have gone unnamed and unpunished in the first place is precisely because they are difficult to prove when she says he did and he says he didn’t and who’s to say otherwise? Unwitnessed – that’s what makes these crimes so abuser-friendly.

So I find myself in yet another ‘what are we allowed to say?’ bind.

I feel sickened that I even need to have a conversation with my writers about how to publish their work without invoking the wrath of those they’ve named. I thought I was done with my blood-boiling days, but knowing that a woman not only endured these violations, but must now be careful about how she speaks about them in naming her abuser, stirs an old cauldron. I’m taking my writers through a rigorous due diligence process – to seek permission where possible and to forgive those who hurt them.

But I’m standing by them and we’re going to tell these stories. Not to shame or blame anyone, but simply to honour the soul that has carried these wounds alone all this time. When we break our personal silence, it speaks into the collective silence and we give a voice to those who are still too afraid to speak up.

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