Without Self-Compassion, Why Should Anyone Trust Us?
Celebrity drag queen Ru Paul sings, ‘If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?’
Amen to this when it comes to the act of writing.
All writing begins with self-compassion.
To write, we have to own our voice and our right to write. I sometimes think that writing is the act of dynamic empathy – for ourselves and for others.
In life, we’re often caught up in opinions, judgments and criticisms. Our culture teaches us to analyse, disparage, bring others down to size. We ridicule people who make mistakes and vilify people on social media who disagree with us.
Satire and journalism are built on the impulse to destroy. This energy, as much as it is powerful and necessary in propaganda and in persuasive writing, is belittling and at its core, arrogant. It is built on the idea of ‘them’ and ‘us.’ The subtext is, ‘you are so stupid, and look how clever I am.’ Its impulse is to destroy.
This judgmental outlook is especially unhelpful when we’re writing memoir.
When we write memoir, we’re looking at ourselves and our lives as if we were watching ourselves in the mirror. But those are the same eyes that silently judge: ‘I’m so fat,’ ‘are those new wrinkles?’ ‘I wish I was prettier,’ ‘I wish my teeth were straighter, my nose were smaller, my eyes less slanty…’
While these voices inside our head may be difficult to tame, and may be the soundtrack to our lives, what is certain is that no-one – other than us – is interested in reading this kind of self-directed hate speech.
The 7 Day Writing Challenge
WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit
An African American friend of mine once said it to me like this: ‘no-one trusts self-hating politics,’ when I expressed to him my shame at being a white South African Jewish woman who came from privilege. What he meant was ‘get over it – do the work you have to do to come to some place of peace with who you are – and then you are ready to do political work.’
Writing requires of us to do the same – whether we’re writing about ourselves, or about other characters. To write complex character (where the character is not a cliché), we have to see all their facets – the heroic and the cowardly; the loyal and the lustful. The way I teach this is to tell my students, we don’t have to write about our pain, but we have to write from it. In memoir in particular, we may choose not to expose our self-loathing, shame, guilt, anger, resentment and fear, but we have to know them intimately to write authentically about ourselves – and any other fictional characters we may conjure up.
If we want to write – about ourselves or other characters – in a way that connects us to our readers, we have to be connected to ourselves. This means dropping the judgement, and replacing it with compassion.
Think about it: if we write about ourselves with condemnation and criticism, or alternatively we skim over difficulties with platitudes, we almost render ourselves an unreliable narrator – readers will feel our sense of discomfort with who we are, and will find it hard to connect with us emotionally. Whereas if we look at our wounded places with a soft gaze, and write about what we find difficult about being ourselves with tenderness, readers cannot help but connect with us. The upside too is that we give others permission to look at their own wounds with that same gentle regard.
Now, isn’t that a gift?