Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Path Through the Woods: Thinking Clearly

Life is full of aggravations, reversals, and Things To Get Upset About. We can look at some of them and shrug. Even though they may be spectacular and full of melodrama, we have the choice of how much power we grant them to disrupt our lives (read: derange our minds). That is, going nuts over this particular issue or situation is optional. Thank goodness we don't all go bonkers about the same things at the same time! How concerned and upset we are is a spectrum, and we can move deeper into engagement or we can withdraw and turn our attention elsewhere.

Detachment is an enormously useful skill. It allows us to think clearly about what action is appropriate (if any) without simply ignoring the situation. A couple of examples: a review or critique that, while offensive in presentation, contains a germ of truth, something that would benefit us to pay attention to. (And if we're so distraught by the negativity, how can we discern if there is something of value?) Another, more personal example, is that I find the military situation in Afghanistan insupportable. A different person might launch into political activism, but for me, that's just a quagmire of insanity. Instead, I am able to direct my sadness and outrage into an action that makes sense to me; miniscule in comparison, but emotionally satisfying: I knit warm wool socks for Afghan school children.

What has any of this to do with writing? The recent brouhaha about an author reacting to a critical review by lashing out at the reviewer seems to me a prime example of "hot-button-running-amok," meaning that here's a person who is so overwhelmed by Upsetness as to lose all judgment of what is a reasonable and effective response. Moving away from this specific incident, about which enough has been said already, there are some more general principles.

We aren't all crazy on the same day or about the same things. A review that devastates me one day might only smart on another day. If I remember this and I am able to take a deep breath and set the incident aside, I stand a chance of approaching it from a saner frame of mind.

Becoming hysterical and abusive is not the only way to respond. Sometimes, I think I should engrave this on my forehead. I can ask myself, Is this how another writer might respond? How about a mature, professional writer? And that can derail me long enough for a smidgeon of sense to creep in. It's a sure sign that I'm way off base if I hear myself saying, "But it has to be this way!" or any other indication of rationalization or justification. Nothing has to be that way. It can be that way...but it could be some other way, too.

Knowing that I am upset, being aware of the extremeness and irrationality of my response, is my first step towards clarity. By clarity, I mean the ability to think in a calm and measured manner, to separate out my emotional responses, the memories of past Bad Things, and whether the situation calls for action. So often, I am fooled by my own level of hurt or anger into thinking that I have to do something. I have to set that reviewer straight.  I have to let everyone in the entire universe know how I've been wronged.  I have to teach that so-and-so a lesson. Whoa, Deborah! A little breathing space here!

Reasoning things out with someone who is not in the middle of the situation (or who is but has a different perspective) can be immensely valuable. For one thing, having to describe the problem forces me to slow down, to put my thoughts and feelings into words. Often I hear things I didn't know until I said them aloud. For another, finding a sympathetic and careful listener makes me feel less alone, less isolated...and less as if I'm the only writer in the whole world who has faced this problem. It also gains me time in which to extricate myself from my internal maelstrom.

That's why community is so important, and why it's important to have safe spaces in which to ask for support. Not necessarily advice or help...just listening so that we ourselves can sort things out.

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