Without Self-Compassion, Why Should Anyone Trust Us?

by Dec 21, 2017Writing Tips

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?

The Turning: Reflections on Reaching 50

I am taking the business of turning 50 terribly seriously. I am dedicating the twelve months since my 49th birthday to this incongruous milestone, given that the actual age of my physical body – half a freaking century – and how I feel inside couldn’t be further apart...

Who Are You to Write? (On Stroke Correction and Conviction)

These are excerpts from my diary in 2001, four years before my first novel The Dreamcloth was published. Some years ago, I decided it was time to learn how to swim properly. I mean, I'd had swimming lessons as a kid, but stopped as soon as there was no danger I'd...

Writing Is Also About Erasing (On Editors)

Before I became a published author, I didn’t like editors. I couldn’t bear the thought of them, with their red pens and their pursed lips, their eyes like crabs across the page, just looking to pinch at my text with their editorial pincers. I used to be terrified of...

Unlikely Saviour

It startedin an unlikely encounteron the Durban beachfrontafter he came back earlyfrom one of his easy lays,and suggested a walkon the promenade.The night skyleaned in aswe spoke in that fraughtdeeply subtexted wayof two peopleigniting a fusebetween them.Then – like...

Keeping Faith

You can tell when someone is hungry. People who are hungry have dry lips. Chapped with dry bits that stick every so often when they talk. They do not pause to lick them, the frayed seams at their mouths. Most of my clients at (POWA) People Opposing Women Abuse, a...

Bedrock

Virginia can’t say if she is claustrophobic herself. She’s never been this far inside a cave before. The little spelunking she did as a child along the coast of the Western Cape was hide-and-seek with bare-footed cousins, in sea-carved rocky alcoves.

2 Comments

  1. Heather McKay

    I’ve written 6 pages of notes from all the writing tips and articles you have written from this one link.
    I notice I copy down what resonates with what I already know.
    I’ve highlighted every area that pertains to struggles I have in thinking about sharing my voice.
    I am surprised at how helpful I have found these writing tips coming from a place where I believed that if you were a writer then you should just be able to write. Knowing your tips come from encouragement to future writers I feel blessed to have read these as they have helped me to believe in myself!

    Reply
  2. Sally

    Wow.Together with your 2018 seven day challenge I have learnt so much. I don’t want to be a victim.I don’t want to beat myself up so badly all the time. I have plenty of compassion for other people and I often cry for their pain. Now I want to direct that compassion inwards and write from a better place.
    I loved in particular your insights that no-one likes or trusts self-haters. It just has no benefit to anyone. Thank you!

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *