whitney roberts hill

"One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began." -Mary Oliver

Category: inner critic

Inviting the Reader’s Gaze

“In the particular is contained the universal.” – James Joyce

Sometimes I have to forget about you–the reader.

Your gaze invokes my self-consciousness. And my self-consciousness strangles the work. Or stops it all together. (Fear is a powerful dam.)

But, I knew the risks when I decided to start this blog. When I decided to invite your gaze.

The posts I publish here languish for weeks. I construct and deconstruct and reconstruct them. I push them through a dozen drafts.

Which is like working out really hard before you walk onto a stage completely naked. Sure, you have abs. But you’re still naked.

Those dozen drafts are not about perfection, though. (Most of the time.)

They’re about honesty.

Each pass of the cursor is a chance to peel back another layer of the lies I’m so effectively and elusively telling us both. I don’t mean to lie. Really. It’s just stubborn self-consciousness.

But there’s the problem again. The self.

The self that mistakenly identifies with the writing. That thinks if you like the writing, you like me. And that, as a social animal, my actual, bodily survival depends on your liking me.

But there’s no room at my desk for that self that is so worried about what you think. To do the work I have to be emptied. Hollow. I have to make space for that wild, powerful, mysterious energy. I have to surrender. Because the work is not primarily constructed out of our differences, or my specialness, but out of our sameness. The quieter I get, the deeper I bore into my own particular life, the more I find myself in a well of shared consciousness.

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It is clear on the surface that you (the reader) and I (the writer) are distinct. But two distinct beings are not all that is needed for communication. Communication requires the tension between differentiation and sameness–the particular and the universal, as Joyce wrote–which, it turns out, are found in the same exact place.

I write because it is a vehicle for entering that place. It is a means of dismantling the self that limits my humanity and my vitality.

The act of writing calls forth all of my fears. It shows me where I am bound, where I am still trying to hide. It gives me the opportunity again and again to loosen the knots of self, to know my experience more deeply and therefore to know the breadth and depth of our shared humanity.

But it only works if there is an audience in front of the stage– if the writing goes out to you, the reader. Because it is you I am most afraid of. And it is you I am so indebted to, because it is your gaze which reminds me that I am naked.

That I have more work to do.

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An Open Letter to the Children Who Aren’t Mine

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For all of the nannies,  who devote their time and their hearts to caring for children who aren’t their own.

______

 

“They” say I have to draw a line through my heart. I can love you, but only so much. Only the appropriate amount. Because you are not mine.

What “they” (the ambiguous, omnipresent, “they”) don’’t know–—could’’t know—–is that the call to love you was the call to begin my life in earnest. They can’’t know that you changed everything. You woke me up.

I didn’t’ enter into this job lightly. I thought of it as a job, sure, but I’’ve never been good at “professional distance.” I knew I would love you. I knew I had to love you to do my job well. And I was committed to being in your life for as long as you needed me.

But how could I have known what it would mean to love you? Especially to love you while also knowing that you are not mine?

I could never pretend that you would belong to me forever, the way that parents sometimes do. It was right there in the contract. Our last day was embedded in our very first day, and every day since.

It is always there in the room with us–while I pour warm water over your soapy hair, while I slice apples for your lunch, and kiss your cheeks and zip your coat. Our last day is in every goodnight hug, every gaze, each ‘I love you’ and click of the closing door.

Of course, there will be a last day in all of my relationships–and yours. People try very hard to run from that truth. We’re afraid the knowledge of it will destroy us.

I sometimes lose sight of it amid the morass of our daily life. Caring for you is more challenging and humbling than anything I’ve ever done. Every day, your innocence holds a mirror to the state of my own heart and mind. It shows me just how much armor I’ve built around myself since I was your age. Every time you copy my behavior, I am reminded anew of my role in either teaching you to imprison your own heart, or showing you how to live and love without fear.

For a while, in the beginning, I was teaching you fear, because it was all I knew. I was afraid to make a mistake. I was sure I was doing everything wrong, that I was failing you. I tried to take care of you the only way I knew how—–setting limits, making rules, raising expectations. But we both failed to live up to those benchmarks. Our days became a struggle.

I realized then that if I was going to love you, I would have to learn to love myself. If I was going to attend to your pain with kindness and compassion, I would have to practice on my own pain. If I was going to listen to you, I would have to hear myself.

I can’’t give you what I don’t have.

I sometimes wish there was an easier way. Cleaning up my own mind, healing my own heart, meeting my own needs, is hard work. But I know you are worth it so I must be worth it too.

If all I leave you with on that last day is the memory of being loved, I have done my job. And love is boundless. There are no categories, no limits, no labels for love.

The work of love is ongoing. I still have my moments of forgetfulness and fear. When tears sprang to my eyes on your first day of school, I worried that “they” would think that I didn’t have a right to them. Maybe “they” think I haven’t earned my joy either–the joy of bearing witness to the miracle of your lengthening legs, your multiplying teeth, your new friends and interests. Maybe “they” think that when I look at you I shouldn’t feel a love so powerful it cracks my heart open again and again.

But I do feel that love for you.

And because of it, I will never be the same. I know now that the limit of my love is really the limit of my life.

And I know that it is possible to love the stranger–the child who isn’t mine–with total abandon. Such strangers are everywhere I look. And they are each as worthy of love as you are.

All 7 billion of them.

 

The Peril of The Pause

The wind barreled down the concrete breezeway and slapped my bare cheek as I walked through the library doors. I held a tottering stack of books flush against my chest, their corners digging into my ribs through my sweater.

Inside the library, I had felt calm, as I usually do. The dank, dusty smell and crowded embrace of so many crackling laminate spines always infuses me with comfort and possibility in equal measure. The library, for me, is a sacred space. A temple of learning. A humane gesture toward the infinite.

Standing in the aisle, I had scanned the strings of Dewey Decimal numbers for matches to my scrawled index card. I pulled my choices quickly. One of the children I nanny—the almost four year-old—raced around me in dizzying circles, karate chopping the air while I half-heartedly begged him to be quiet.

The day’s haul was topical. How to be a Freelance Writer, The Freelancer’s Bible, Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content, and the last, a petite red hardback entitled The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life—chosen because even I’m not foolish enough to go stomping around new territory without an ally.

But by the time we crossed the street and reached the car, my ears were ringing. A familiar, invisible vise tightened its grip on my head. Unconsciously, I was holding my breath.

I slung the books into the trunk and slammed it. I tried to focus on the way the steering wheel felt like a cool curve of skin-covered bone beneath my palms. But I could still hear the books, flinging anxious thoughts like miniature Zeusian bolts at the back of my head as I shifted the car into gear and drove away.

“Who do you think you are that you can be a writer?”

“Are you kidding—you don’t have a head for this. You’re no good at networking or promoting yourself.”

“You’ll never make enough money to survive. You’ll have to give it up and get a real job in a couple of years anyway so why bother?”

“There’s too much to learn. It’s too late. You should have decided to pursue this ten years ago. There are so many working writers out there already…how will you compete with them?”

In psychological parlance, these are known as Self-Limiting Beliefs. I label them my Inner Critic, a term I picked up from Julia Cameron’s canonical book on creativity, The Artist’s Way. There are many names for this phenomena—Steven Pressfield’s Resistance, Jung’s Animus, Freud’s Superego, the Dragon, the Demon, the Tempter.

And there’s new evidence that the engine of imagination sometimes manifests as this overthinking and worrying. In other words, the very force of imagination used to create art can be inverted to destroy the artist, as I wrote about here.

But the Inner Critic has an evolutionary purpose. Human beings are dependent on their tribe for survival and magnetized for criticism as a result. I lifted and laminated my Inner Critic’s favorite phrases in childhood. I postered my mind with them in adolescence. They helped me navigate the world, fit in enough to survive. But, over time, the phrases lost their original contexts and became so subtle I barely registered them in my conscious mind at all. They were my toxic elevator music.

And as long as my Inner Critic remained unconscious, I remained her victim. But I have made a study of my own fear over the past couple of years. I am learning the Inner Critic’s patterns. So it took less time to both recognize her presence and realize its cause.

Why was my Inner Critic waiting outside the library? I had finished the second draft of my novel about a week prior. Though I was still working on other projects, I had lived seven straight days without writing a word of my manuscript for the first time in six months. (Since the last time I experienced, and promptly forgot, this same agonizing pause after my first draft was complete.)

Every hunter knows that you shoot when the animal is still.

And the most effective way to ward off the Inner Critic is to keep working, to show up every day to my desk.

But, the pause is integral to the process. The work has to breathe. And I have to give my unconscious mind space in which to devise solutions to the lingering problems of plot and structure. I have to leave my desk and feast on the world.

What I have learned is that it is important to stay vigilant during such a pause, to protect the space you have deliberately created. Otherwise, the Inner Critic may populate it. A colony of fear may grow where you had intended only perspective, comprehension, and fresh ideas.

The temptation with that much space, with an inkling of the scope of the work, is to pass judgement on it. But, my job is not to decide if what I write is valuable. My job is to do the work as well and honestly and rigorously and thoroughly as I can and let go of the desire to control how it is received.

That is my job in the midst of writing. And that is my job in the moments of pausing.