It’s embarrassing and it works. But first, a brief story.
Writers and psychotherapists, if they’re any good,
are both truth-speakers.
I know. I’m both. And, honestly, I became a writer and a psychotherapist as legitimate outlets for my over-zealous truth-speaking, which general society did not particularly welcome, due to cultural imperatives such as tact, etiquette, and social manipulation.
As a child and teenager, I discovered that I had a compulsion to blurt out the truth, whether it was welcomed by others or not.
For instance, there was the time I insisted my father reveal to a bank teller that he was holding a counterfeit $20 bill. Backstory:
On Sundays, my dad entrusted me to go buy the big, fat weekend edition of The New York Times. This particular day, when I tried to make my weekly purchase, the storekeeper noticed something about the $20 bill I had handed him that he didn’t like. After a thorough examination, and a semi-covert conference with his wife, the storekeeper had returned it to me, deeming it “counterfeit.”
A thrill of horror cascaded through my young body. Espionage in Whitestone, Queens!?! Immediately, I ran home and told my father. This was hard for him to swallow. But the candy shop owner was a Holocaust survivor, which meant that he was a highly trustworthy person. What to do? My father hesitated. Twenty dollars was a lot of money in 1962.
But then the voice of truth struck.
Being my father’s daughter, I simply mirrored back to him the ethics he had instilled in me, “You have to turn it in, Dad! It’s the right thing to do!”
“But how do we even know if it’s really counterfeit?” he asked himself, trying to go into denial with some difficulty, because he trusted the owner of the candy store. And in addition to his conscience, he now had me as a witness.
“We can take it to the bank and show it to them! They should know.” I was eight years old and my confidence was unshakable.
Moral defeat crumpled my father’s face, and his chest sunk a little.
“What’s the matter, Dad?”
“Well, they may take the $20 for further investigation, and we will be out twenty dollars,” he said glumly. My dad was a good man, but he had also suffered through The Depression.
“Oh no, Dad, the bank won’t take your money away. If the money is bad, they have to give you good money!” I felt sure of this. Back to the beginning:
Myfather and I go to the bank. Dad confers with a teller, and I notice he shares the story hypothetically. (“If a person had a counterfeit bill, what is the proper protocol?”) His moral resolve appears to be weakening. The young fascist in me cannot tolerate this (hey, just mimicking my dad’s dictatorial style).
“But Dad!” I say rather loudly. It is a moment of truth. He knows that if he doesn’t spill the beans, I will. This is a way in which I do not take after him or my mother. He is helpless in the face of my truth-blurting. The rest is history.
My father handed over the $20 bill. It actually was counterfeit. The bank took it away. And we were out twenty bucks. The End. But not for you. For you, it’s just the beginning.
Inviting what lies beneath the surface to surface.
How can you tell the truth (be it non-fiction or fiction) if you’re not honest with yourself? And how can you be honest with yourself, if you’re burying the best stuff in your subconscious?
By the best stuff, I mean the most disturbing and shameful personal and family secrets you possess, but from which you have disconnected, to spare yourself the psychological pain of feeling the emotions that accompany them.
This is your material. Herein lies your unique voice.
And many other voices as well, if you’re willing to plumb the depths and release yourself and your characters. There is a psychological term, “splitting,” that describes the defense mechanism we all use to compartmentalize that which we don’t want to know at a given time.
You can split people in the world into good and bad, all or nothing, e.g., Republicans are bad, Democrats are good. You can also split yourself internally, e.g., repressing anger and cultivating an image of yourself as a peaceful person (until you explode and yell at somebody, or implode and get a migraine headache). This imprisons you in an inflexible black and white world, with no shades of gray. You lose the option to embrace life and people and yourself, including all the contradictions and paradoxes of human behavior.
“It takes a great deal of experience to become natural.” ~Willa Cather
The reason it takes a great deal of experience to become natural, is because we have been civilized and domesticated. We have been trained to shut up and stuff ourselves down. Though this may work for the tribe, it is problematic for you as an individual and as a writer. So let’s release you
from this straitjacket, shall we?
The Embarrassing Part.
Pull up two chairs. Place them across from each other. Sit in one. Look at the other. See yourself in the other chair. You’re going to have a conversation with a split off part of yourself.
If you’re not a visual person, allow a memory to surface, hold onto the merest glimpse of a thought that popped into your head, or notice what you feel in your body and place your hand on the spot (perhaps tense shoulders or a queasiness in your belly).
Now say something to “you” in the other chair. You may tap into yourself right away. Tears may come. Anger may arise. Unresolved incidents that have been festering for years are inside you, longing to be expressed. Start talking,
out loud, about the taboo subject. Note: You may want to record this and transcribe it later.
If you feel frozen, paralyzed, blocked, no problem. Start in cold blood.
Begin with, “This stupid article suggested that I put you, I mean me, aarrgghh! whoever, in that chair and that we have a conversation. This isn’t working!” and allow the conversation to spark from there. I dare you to have absolutely nothing happen.
As you get good at the “empty chair technique” as it’s called in Gestalttherapy, you won’t always need a chair. You can do chairwork walking down the street or sitting on the beach. Your subconscious is portable and will serve you wherever you are, with your invitation.
Plus, you will discover that you can place anyone, dead or alive, across from you. Liberating. Healing. Gets the creative juices flowing. And helps you find your own natural voice — young, contemporary, and even mystical elder. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed that your natural voice is ageless, and defies the constraints of time and space.
No objections! You’re lucky.
This is much more embarrassing when you’re sitting across from a psychotherapist. So count yourself lucky that you’re working alone.
If you do need a witness, I’m available to help you plumb the depths and facilitate many more creative exercises, but for now, sorry, our time is up ;-).
Take your writing to the next level. As a AWA Certified Writing Teacher and a Gestalt psychotherapist, I’ve developed unique, creative ways for you to delve deep, find your true voice and become a top notch writer. You can find my work on Medium in Thrive Global, Be Yourself, The Writer’s Cooperative, and more.