Writing Away Shame

The other day, one of my students described this beautiful memory for me, about the heating coil to the hotplate her parents cooked on. She recalled the cool, smooth feel of the coil in her hand, how she nestled it into curled grooves when screwing it into the plate, how when it burned out, her mom would send her to buy a new one at the hardware store for a quarter.

But she hasn’t written about it. When I asked why, she said she still felt as though hers was the only family too poor to own a stove. She knows, now, that hundreds of families in her community lived without stoves and cooked on hotplates. But when she tried to write about it, she pulled back.

Shame is one of the all-star creativity killers. Bernard Golden, a therapist and author of Unlock Your Creative Genius, says in Psychology Today there are two kinds of shame. There’s the good kind, the roadblock our consciences throw out to keep us from robbing banks or pulling up to an all-you-can-eat-buffet with a stool and a fork.

What’s deadly to writers is a deeper shame, the kind where we believe “not that we did something bad, but that we are something bad.” It paralyzes us, and no wonder. “It takes a lot of energy to protect [ourselves] against our vulnerability to shame,” Golden says.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of the six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle, spent years so paralyzed by shame, he could hardly leave the house. Since his mega-novel clocks in at 3,600 pages and roughly 1 million words, clearly, he got over it.

More specifically, he wrote his way out of it.

“When you write the whole idea is to be free. And what are you free from? From people looking at you,” Knausgaard told the Guardian. “Writing is a way of getting rid of shame.”

Which brings us to NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month.  It’s penicillin to the shame virus, and luckily it’s going on right now. During NaNoWriMo, you pledge to write 50K words in 30 days, and post your word count as you go. Few things are as effective at clearing away shame like producing 1,660 words a day on deadline.

If you need help getting started, I made you a writing exercise. You’ll find it here.

Happily, my student pushed past her shame by embracing her passion for writing—and stories. Re-reading one of her favorite books, “I had an ah-hah moment, when I realized that everybody’s got these moments they’re ashamed of. ” she said. “Writing our stories is how we get through it.”

Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty

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