So What Is It About Writers and Emotional Masochism?

Bonnie Friedman Breaks Down the Writerly Tendency for Self-Annihilation

When I was writing my first novel, I wrote in the mornings and worked in the afternoons at the Mutual of New York Life Insurance Company in Boston. My alarm clock rang at 12:15 and I would put on my serviceable black circle skirt, button-down shirt, and pumps whose heels were so worn by the bricks of Government Plaza that they were halfway to being curly-toed slippers from the Arabian Nights. I left the apartment in haste to go to my job, but always stopped at a certain bookstore on the way.

The store was in the interior lobby of the Prudential Center. “Just five minutes!” begged a voice inside me. I darted in and rushed to the brand-new books. And read in an urgent, determined manner. I favored volumes by young authors. I stopped only after I found one with admirable, sparkling sentences. Then I studied the author’s photograph. Only when I’d succeeded in achieving a certain emotional state was I free to continue on my way.

What was this state? Envy, yes—but of a kind so raw it cauterized, inducing a state of self-annihilation. I was nobody by the time I regained the concrete plaza outside the store. Blotto, I pulsed from my encounter with the glittering sentences of the already published writer, but I was also numb and dissociated, both blazingly present and evacuated.

In retrospect I can observe I was performing a kind of intimate self-cutting, identifiable as a compulsion by the absolute fidelity it demanded (I stepped into the bookstore every afternoon) and by the force of the appetite that consumed me as I approached the Brentano’s door. What was that hunger? Curiosity of a demanding sort. Insistent. The question that occupied my conscious mind was: what have other young successful writers published? What new writing exists?

But in fact, although it took years to see this, what I actually wanted to know was: do I have a right to feel good about myself as a writer? Do I have a right to feel good, considering what I’ve just written?

For I usually had, in fact, felt quite good leaving my apartment. I descended the stairs partially in the world of my novel. It was set in Spain, and fields of chamomile had spread before me as I wrote, and a scent of sun-baked fennel filled the air, and I pictured the friend about whom I was writing—glimpsed the way the sleeves of her elegant Gucci raincoat belled out as she walked, and heard the percussive way she scoffed that she could read only menu French (far more than I could do), and saw the way her long blonde eyelashes looked dusted with the first bright pollen of spring.

Sometimes as I covered the pages of my yellow legal pad a hint of the novel form’s great promise flashed, and there were moments when the very loops of the alphabet seemed to clasp a taut iridescence. It was in an elated and sometimes even ecstatic mood that I crossed the avenue and rode the escalator up toward the bookstore, whose entrance seemed to frame the question hidden within me: am I justified in feeling good about myself, considering what I’ve just written?

The bookstore provided an answer, and the answer was always no. How could it be otherwise? After all, I rummaged until I found what seemed superior. I cast aside works that appeared either worse than my own or just as good, muttering “Boring, boring.” But ah, the satisfaction of pulling my gaze across what seemed better, what seemed brilliant! Here was what I’d been in quest of. Here’s what I’d sought. A sense of correctness filled me. I lowered the book and restored it to its spot. Then, hunching with arms protectively crossed, I stumbled out.

What is the pleasure of masochism? Oblivion. Absence. Finding a refuge from an anxious sense of inauthenticity.

Now I trudged across the glum, dank Prudential Center plaza, my head kept down. The world was legs and flooring. It was always overcast in there, as if about to rain. I allowed the hurrying crowd to carry me. We moved en masse toward the busy Copley Plaza T station and the Green Line trolley that brought me to my job.

*

But why? Why this pressured behavior, this purging of good feeling? What was I after, I finally began to ask. After all, every compulsion has its reason.

There was a strange way in which this ritual soothed. Let me feel safe. Known. Reassuringly genuine. It restored a certain equilibrium.

Odd, that.

The American ethos is, after all, famously toward transformation—to want to go from Before to After, from fat to thin, from the streets to the heights. It’s for this very reason that we generally have a hard time even noticing the things we do that transport us in the opposite direction, that don’t make narrative sense. We simply recall stumbling away afterwards as if exiting a dreamy fugue state. And so a great many habitual but perverse acts remain lodged on the periphery of our awareness although their effects are felt so sharply they can determine our lives.

In fact, the bookstore of envy itself stood alongside my conscious journey; a way-station, a changing booth, a temple I entered to propitiate old gods in the form of new ones.

*

Growing up, I had been a muddled child with plentiful, knotted brown hair—a dweeb, a dork. My sister was six years my senior and by all accounts brilliant. We shared a bedroom. Anita got top grades. She was a leader in Girl Scouts. She was also insecure, and she could be witheringly sarcastic and domineering. She was a four-square, zoftig, outspoken girl in a misogynistic world. The first born, she’d been repeatedly and woundingly displaced by two boys and then a girl. And she had a painfully sensitive soul, for all her bluntness of expression. She wore homemade A-line dresses stitched of thick fabric, and defiant unfashionable knee-high socks stretched over her rounded calves. She was socially isolated, and my mother herself disapproved of her since for my mother, being fat constituted a moral failing.

I had the good fortune of being a slim girl with friends, an introverted child whose company our mother found copacetic. I wore Danskin peddle-pushers and my older brothers’ loose worn-out shirts, and sky-blue cat’s-eye eyeglasses. In the afternoon I often sat beside our mother at the kitchen table reading a library book, occasionally telling her about the other girls in my class. Anita scowled past us, her face acne-ravaged, and when she shut the bedroom door behind her the wind from the open terrace door often caught it so it banged.

Unhappy in her own skin, Anita could be punitive and pedantic, and she frequently made me feel a perfect fool. I, however, found myself comfortable in the jester role. I didn’t actually feel bad: I felt good. Offering a silly grin, wearing schlemiel clothes, I jigged, I Charlestoned. I shuffled my kneecaps in my hands, then formed a hook with my elbow and, singing the Merrie Melodies exit motif, hauled myself offstage. Everyone laughed—Anita, my father, my brothers. This was my special power: I brought the family together. We were all in a good mood, even sour, sensitive Anita.

Secretly, however, I trusted that I wasn’t just this goofball—mistake-prone, ordinary to the point of invisibility. Secretly I believed I was more worthwhile than that. And someday that more valuable person would be revealed.

Was today the day?

The timer buzzed and I rose from my desk a decade later on Garrison Street in Boston. By 12:30 I’m zipped into my trim black circle skirt and clattering downstairs. I feel grand from the morning spent writing. Above me on the street the sky careens, incandescent blue. Pigeons form hieroglyphs. Language itself fills me with a mystic resonance. A dressmaker’s dummy in an apartment window draws herself up in a posture that summons haughty, aloof characters, two sisters who run a school for girls. Before me on the pavement a man takes the hand of a woman in heels that indolently rasp. The scent of his cigarette reaches me, a frisson of sexuality. What joy! I have the sense I can glimpse stories behind stories, each peering out from behind the previous one like the pinwheeling sheets in a new packet of origami paper. It’s glorious! Maybe I can be a writer after all. My foot reaches the far curb and I step onto the escalator up into the Prudential Center and ahead of me rises the bookstore lined with brand-new volumes. The doorway expands. I go in.

*

Masochism. The pleasure in pain. The relief and even glee in finding an outlet for all the anger at being made to feel inferior, and at being inferior. The joy in stripping oneself of all illusions.

After all, it’s the shimmering and possibly misleading euphoria that creates the problem. One felt safe as long as one was saving up the happiness for tomorrow, thinking Tomorrow I’ll feel great. The problem is with feeling great now; it’s that which worries. Destabilizes. Being reminiscent of other obliviously exalted times which brought humiliation (“You looked like such an idiot, holding that candle in the school play!” “God, you looked stupid, swaying while you sing!”). I used the bookstore of envy to return me to where I was secure. Known down to the cinders of my soul. The joy I’d felt at my own possibilities made me feel strange and inauthentic. I was fooling someone—likely myself.

It was reassuring to get rid of that lofty feeling, to forestall attack. Because the attack would come, it always had—either from the outside world or from within. Everything I’d ever written was subject to criticism. (I didn’t yet realize that this is the nature of writing.). And so as I journeyed into the jostling, angular world populated by other people, I scraped off my iridescence. Went drab.

And restored myself to harmony with my inner Anita. I could feel close to my sister, who in fact knew me quite well, and who I loved. I didn’t want to be someone my sister couldn’t recognize. In the bookstore of envy, I sought Anita. I became Anita—and oh, the gratification of gashing that puny little sister, with all her yearning and strain. The relief of becoming again the person who Anita could identify: a shambles, a schlemazel, yes, but known, recognized to the very bones. Bonded with Anita again.

What is the pleasure of masochism? Oblivion. Absence. Finding a refuge from an anxious sense of inauthenticity, a refuge even from hopefulness.

*

Eugene O’Neill, at one time, lived at Jimmy-the-Priest’s pub, a drunk among drunks. There was no lower to sink. He was in “the subterranean rathskeller,” achieving nothing that might arouse the vindictive older brother Jamie’s attacks. And he was numbing himself against the awareness that he’d occasioned his mother’s addiction. She had been given morphine to treat her post-partum pain; Eugene wasn’t the only one in the family who blamed him.

Some of my students seem entangled in similarly self-destructive behavior: the doctoral candidate who keeps getting in car crashes and showing up on crutches (her father had beaten her as a child and had even broken her bones); the master’s student who continually misses meetings with her thesis professor. For some people there is a seduction in self-sabotage, a scripting that compels like fate. They display a loyalty to the past and struggle against growing up to be someone else.

After talking at a conference, I am approached by a poet who tells me that when she’s done working on her writing in the morning, she opens The New Yorker, reads the poems, and tells herself: “See! That’s why you are not published.”

A friend who focuses on short stories confides that she has used bookstores the same way I have. She is a highly successful, dark-haired beauty whose style is astringent minimalism, and I now picture her words as shrunken in an acid bath.

A novelist I know is always rewriting, never finishing, always undoing and redoing, and this too seems to pertain.

These three are women. In a society that punishes female authority, naturally we are conditioned to minimize ourselves.

But it’s also true that many men cast away their chances.

O’Neill took possession of his own life when he saved himself from tuberculosis at a mountaintop clinic that bade patients sleep outside even in the most frigid Connecticut nights. For the rest of his life, cold renewed him. He swam in the Atlantic even in winter, out as far as the sharks. And he started to write plays while he was at the sanitorium, pioneering a new presentation of American life. He ushered onto the stage coal-stokers and gamblers and prostitutes, and sons whose self-made fathers were as flinty as granite and as grudgingly admirable as his own father had been. He expanded the consciousness of the audience, forcing a confrontation with hitherto hidden realities.

What had it been like as he shivered in his blanket, staring up at the icy stars, knowing there is no God—he’d lost God when he discovered his mother’s cruel addiction—and knowing too that his own life might be coughed out for no particular reason?  He needed to be over whatever made him subvert himself. The cold gleaming angles of the stars shone with that message. No God, no God. Just what you make of your life. Seize yourself, summon yourself. There is no divine arbiter. There is just star and bone. Pick up your tools. Make something.

*

How to change? My own way was gradual.

Achieving publication helped. Although not as much as I thought it would.

We are looking for a signal that we are allowed to believe in our work. We get the signal and reverse it.

Teaching college helped more, as it helps many writers. Hearing my own knowledge in a classroom several times a week cured something. The classroom is court and theater. It is lesson-hall and art studio. It is also a therapy office, although one mustn’t say so. One gets back a reflection of the value of one’s insights. Months and years in the classroom recalibrated me. Eventually a sense of authority cohered.

And writing itself cured me with its relatively reliable display of riches, the way it repeatedly—almost dependably—exposed treasures like an ocean withdrawing, revealing marvels that breathe in the sand. Writing itself steadied me. It offered me something to lean upon. It accepted me whether I was having a good day or a bad day. It showed me I could not accurately judge myself. Even bad days might bring me something good. It remained hopeful about me even when I was in despair about myself.

*

“What does envy turn into?” I once asked my therapist.

She answered: “Gratitude.”

It seemed unlikely at the time. But now I see she was right. For my contemporaries’ books—especially the excellent ones—now tell me tell me something different than they used to. They say, “This is one way to do it.” They say, “I’m flawed. But viable. What you write can be flawed but viable, too.”

Because I no longer need these novels to punish me, they don’t. Because I can bear for them feed me, they do. I read with pencil in hand.

I feel excited reading The Vegetarian and Human Acts, The Ninth Hour and The Girls—the kind of novels I once frantically sought and then for a long time avoided. Now they tell me, “You don’t need to figure it all out yourself.”

I find myself better able to retain the good thing inside myself. It doesn’t claw and thrash. It is no longer the Melanie Kleinian self-envy object. It is no longer an alien thing of suspicious, indecipherable nature, liable to turn and attack me from within. It is no longer something I must expel to be safe in the way that the deprived, hungry Kleinian baby must purge the milk that came (too late!) from its bountiful, resented mother and which thus feels both bad and good at once.

Things within me calmed.

We are looking for a signal that we are allowed to believe in our work. We get the signal and reverse it. We get the signal and decide it’s not valid. We get the signal but now it doesn’t mean what we thought it would.

Until it does.

What changes isn’t the signal. It’s the ability to maintain a good feeling. To be comfortable with it. To defend it. To do this, at first I had to train myself to step past the beckoning doorway. I stepped past bookstores for a decade. And, over time the contents of the store changed. Books had fewer sharp edges. They weren’t arranged in tiers, all about superior and inferior. They were no longer the equivalent of exquisite haughty idealized figures drawing themselves up with contemptuous rectitude; I didn’t paste my sister’s sardonic disapproving face onto them. They offered inspirations and even the best of them didn’t seem so superior they couldn’t suggest things I could make use of.

*

“Sisters are forever and I’m so glad you’re mine,” says the mug from which I often drink my coffee. It’s orange and brown—earth-tones—with loopy flowers, and it must be over 40 years old. I was surprised when Anita gave the mug to me. I didn’t believe I was distinctive enough for her to be glad to be my sister. Nor did I believe sisters are forever. Now I believe both, although my sister passed away 17 years ago. She struggled, she had a very hard life, and the gifts she gave me continue to reveal themselves. She was the origami master, the story master, with her cranes and boats, her horses that galloped when you pulled their tails and heads, her fortunetelling device that moved its mouth in opposite directions, all created from materials she’d bought at the beloved shop off Broadway where rice bags were as big as tabletops, and salt-dried fish stiff as Turkish taffy, and where silver and gold foil paper twirled like boomerangs. If she taught me self-hatred, it was because it was all she knew, herself. I have been the lucky one, able to outlive the old training.

Bonnie Friedman
Bonnie Friedman
Bonnie Friedman is the author of the bestselling book Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer's Life, which has been anthologized in six different writing textbooks. She is also the author of the memoir The Thief of Happiness, and, most recently, Surrendering Oz: A Life in Essays, which was longlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel award in the Art of the Essay. A three-time Notable Essayist in The Best American Essays, her work has been selected for inclusion The Best American Movie Writing, The Best Writing on Writing, The Best of O., the Oprah Magazine, and The Best Buddhist Writing. Her personal essays have appeared in The New York Times, Ploughshares, Image, The Michigan Quarterly Review and other literary journals.





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