Why Writers Need to Confront and Create With Their Most Unpleasant Emotions
Philip Schultz Discusses the Creative Power Behind Anger and Shame
Every strong creative impulse creates a cautionary reaction just as strong, and the more intimate and difficult our subject matter, the greater and more turbulent the reaction—is this why I so fear acknowledging in my work the harm and transgressions I may have caused, what might be revealed even in my successes?
It’s most certainly why I demand of myself some awareness of the process in which I’m so thoroughly engaged, why I interrogate myself at every step of the creative journey. It’s also why I ask my students, before reading their work in class, to present preambles or statements in which they reiterate the criticism they heard the previous week, explain how they applied it, and then ask a question that best indicates what issue most preoccupied them during the writing.
This question often proves the most challenging part and what I mostly hear back are general proclamations: whether there’s a persona narrator present, or whether the mood or tone they were after is apparent. Few students ever ask the question so many writers find the most compelling and troubling: who may be hurt or offended by what they are writing. Joan Didion put this fear best in the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem: “Writers are always selling somebody out.” At some point every writer must deal with a similar question: Do we deserve satisfaction for causing pain to others, especially those we love?
Eugene O’Neill didn’t allow what I consider his best play, Long Day’s Journey into Night, which dealt with his most intimate and volatile feelings about his immediate family, to be published until 25 years after his death; Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter waited until the end of their writing lives to deal with the potently complex situations and characters drawn from their personal histories in Losing Battles and Ship of Fools. To protect others and, ultimately, themselves, many writers meticulously disguise their characters and sometimes postpone essential material indefinitely.
And in my experience, anger is the emotion that is most often hidden behind this fear of self-incrimination, retribution, and insensitivity toward others. Anger and the shame it so often creates; the shame we feel for being angry at those we love. Maybe especially when anger is the appropriate response in a story or poem, it’s seldom easily found; in fact, in otherwise finely orchestrated student work, it’s often impossible to detect.
When I ask for the emotional truth in a scene or in lines of poetry, what I most often hear are excuses, apologies, and static of all kinds. Yes, anger is what the majority of my students most stridently avoid and/or refuse to recognize in their work and sometimes in the work of others, even when its absence is glaringly obvious to me and many others.
One writer who ran away from home as a teenager and was forever trying to find her way back in her writing couldn’t access the anger that made her leave home in the first place; another couldn’t overcome the depths of her anger and shame in writing about a gay father who she felt had abandoned her as a child, and the ways in which this anger affected her eventual destruction of her family and herself as an adult; the union activist unafraid to take on tough factory bosses in standing up for workers’ rights but unable to do the same against a domineering father; a writer so indoctrinated in spousal abandonments she stops writing just as she reaches the limits of her perceived allowance of indignation and success.
Some, it would seem, would rather fail at what means most to them, their creative work, than confront painful truths, anger being, from my experience, the hardest to recognize and acknowledge.In my experience, anger is the emotion that is most often hidden behind this fear of self-incrimination, retribution, and insensitivity toward others.
The imagination thrives on powerful emotions, and discovering what we’re actually feeling under all the more stately and comfortable emotions we disguise them with can be a source of creative inspiration and thinking. Of its many forms and disguises, anger can be seen as reproach and instigation, a setting of boundaries and constraints, a system of checks and balances, a vow, and a warning system so sophisticated and subtle we learn to both fear and appreciate its undeniable forecasts. And shame, what we so often feel in its wake, equally dominates and restricts our choice of subject matter and desire to confront shameful truths.
As Cioran said, “A negative habit is fruitful only so long as we exert ourselves to overcome it, adapt it to our needs.” Writers learn to live with anxiety and exhilaration the way athletes learn to live with pain, yet so many of my students highlight a less menacing emotion at the expense of a more powerful one, which so disrupts their sense of equilibrium.
And when anger’s absence—that special rush of liquid fire—is obvious to everyone except the writer, I sometimes ask what the other students might feel if placed in the same position as the writer’s narrator or character. Consensus of opinion provides not only verification but also the sense of solidarity and commiseration necessary to approach painful material.
Even when camouflaged or diluted with satire and comedy, I’ll point out, anger is prominent in many of the great works we study in craft class: Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse,” Yeats’s “The Second Coming” and “Easter 1916” (“What is it but nightfall? / No, no, not night but death; / Wasn’t it needless death after all?”), and Blake’s “Morning” (“To Find the Western path / Right thro’ the Gates of Wrath / I urge my way”); in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and Dante’s revenge fantasies in The Inferno.
Writers are in the business of divulging secrets, confessing to shames and regrets, but doing so often means using oneself as an example, as Keats does so powerfully in “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
Yes, Keats knew how emotionally expensive the exquisiteness of beauty and truth were to attain. Is this why it’s not “possible to live in the bare present,” as Martin Buber tells us in I and Thou, because the present would “consume” us if we didn’t take precautions to defend ourselves against it? Why we can live only in “the bare past,” where life can be organized, tolerated, and enjoyed?
Keats would’ve agreed with Buber that writing is a way of organizing the past well enough to find meaning in the present, where most of us want to live, even though it’s where most of our pain and anger also reside. In that it makes us honest witnesses to our own acts of self-betrayal, suffering can be redemptive. And Keats had much to be angry about.
These lines are written on his tombstone in Rome: “This grave contains all that was mortal of a young English poet who on his death-bed in the bitterness of his heart at the malicious power of his enemies desired these words to be engraved on his tombstone: Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” He died of consumption at the age of 25, having suffered scalding reviews of his work and perhaps, in his bitterness, desired the anonymity of being remembered only as an English poet to mock the way his critics viewed him.
It’s difficult to imagine such a self-regard for someone who wrote and left intact some of the most beautiful poetry ever written in English, but Keats obviously had his own shitbird to contend with, one that perhaps got in this last word. His acclaimed notion of negative capability, an idea that suggests that uncertainty and confusion can and will inspire, rather than oppose, creativity, isn’t all that far removed from our notion that despair and self-contempt are opportunities for creative initiative. And nothing breeds uncertainty more than anger and the shame it so often creates. Nothing.
The black bird thrives in a state of permanent uncertainty, which it uses to anticipate and then smother creative excitement and appetite. Imagine then the force of will, the strength needed to inspire and sustain the refined lyrical resonance and creative intelligence that went into the creation of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” which so sensuously deals with that most tenuous, eternally resourceful state between sleep and waking, despite all the “bitterness of his heart.”
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
I once became incensed while visiting the grave of a friend whose encouragement and criticism helped me write my book of poems Failure. Though I’d always loved the Baudelaire quote friends had put on his gravestone—”The dispersion and reconstitution of the self. / That’s the whole story”—I now saw it as blatantly obscure and personally insulting. Yes, epitaph as slander. Why would he, so gifted, wise, and assiduous about all matters literary, want such an emblem to represent him for eternity? And how had I allowed it? I felt overcome with remorse and chagrin.
My friend had died abruptly of cancer shortly before my book was published and though I couldn’t acknowledge it, I was left feeling abandoned and betrayed and, yes, angry. And having buried the anger along with the shame it created, I wasn’t able to complete an elegy I’d spent years trying to write for him.
Without realizing it, I’d come there that morning begging for inspiration and, perhaps, permission to finish my poem for him. And now, having erupted in anger for no real reason I could understand, I was overcome with shame and bewilderment, and began weeping. What sort of wretched person was I to be angry at a dear friend for dying two weeks before his 52nd birthday? And just as suddenly as it’d erupted, the anger was gone, and these lines came:
I’ve forgiven you, finally,
for not living to see the book you helped me write
get published. Only now do I understand that
it’s not the resentment I regret, it’s the shame.
Lines that opened up into my elegy, “Welcome to the Springs,” for my friend Robert Long. Anger, and the shame it caused, had blocked not only the grief but the forgiveness I was seeking. And then, not long after I finished this poem, I began wondering if there wasn’t another way of helping my students overcome their own fears and misgivings. To confront in this same way emotions so difficult to even recognize.
Yes, the same ominous emotions and the gravitational forces they created around them to repel further inspection seemed to discourage so many from even recognizing potentially powerful subject matter; once again, the shirtbird’s most perverse and persuasive weapon, its invisibility. If you can’t recognize your desire to deal with material that so often proves to be inspiring, you most certainly can’t find the will to do so.
Excerpt from Comforts of the Abyss: The Art of Persona Writing by Philip Schultz. Published W. W. Norton. Copyright © 2022 by Philip Schultz.