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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Shame, Dignity, & Writing

The Believer Magazine has published an interview with the young but prolific poet Ben Lerner, whose work I first found in the pages of the Beloit Poetry Journal, and whose career I have followed closely every since. Here is the portion of the interview that caught my attention today.


BLVR: Are there parts of yourself that you try to keep out of your writing?
BL: That’s an interesting question. It depends on what kind of writing. Generally I think I probably go at those parts of myself about which I might feel most ashamed or uneasy. Which is not to say I “write from experience” in any conventional sense, but certainly some of Adam’s [his character's] more contemptible aspects and his tendency toward a kind of self-contempt and anxiety shade into my own. I think there is a strong relationship between writing and shame. My friend, the brilliant Aaron Kunin, has organized much of his writing around the idea that the part of yourself that you’re most ashamed of can and perhaps should be used as material for art.


These days I have a strong interest in shame and dignity. The reason is that I had a terrible experience with a client about a week ago in which I was treated in an unprofessional manner, and my boss had to step in to stop the escalating situation. Even though it's now been resolved and the association with the client ended due to his own unreasonable behavior, I feel a persistent sense of shame at my inability to have handled the situation better, and a week later, I cannot get my centeredness back. I feel bereft, as though I lost something in the devastating exchange. And I suspect that what I have lost is my dignity.

Today I saw this article on "The Power of Dignity" by Donna Hicks, author of the recently published book Dignity: The Essential Role it Plays in Resolving Conflict. In the article, Hicks says, "Everyone desires dignity. I believe that along with our survival instincts, it is the single most powerful human force motivating our behavior, and in some cases, I think it is even stronger. People risk their lives to protect their honor and dignity all the time. You violate people’s dignity and you get an instinctive reaction: people feel humiliated and get upset and angry. You violate people’s dignity repeatedly and you’ll get a divorce, war or a revolution."

Or the end of a client relationship. And a persistent loss of self-worth.

So what I want to do is to take that sense of pervasive shame that I cannot shake, that is leaking into my personal life, my writing life, and my sleeping hours, and make something of art out of it. Something I can share with other people who have had their dignity violated. Or have allowed their dignity to be violated (part of me persists in believing that I allowed this to happen to me...I want to take responsibility it, because that means I can stop it from happening again. Theoretically, anyway. Right now I cannot stop it from happening over and over in my memory, though it is temporally over, this incident anyway.)

It's good news that a poet I admire as much as Ben Lerner finds shame and writing to be so closely linked. Good news for me, anyway, during these recent days of shame.

PS Don't you think an ampersand looks weird with the Oxford comma (see title of post)? Maybe that combination is never supposed to happen. If so, I guess I'll have to give up the ampersand, as my devotion to the Oxford comma runs very deep.


Carol said...

Hi Jessica.
I hope you don't mind me responding to another of your posts, but this brings up a lot of personal stuff for me. In my situation I asked myself over and over, Did my action bring about this reaction from another person? Was it my fault?
I guess I've decided there is no way for me to know. And that I have to still act the way I do without worrying too much about having that response happen again. Of course I say that, and then have days of self-doubt wherein I can't help but feel like I was completely at fault, even when logically I know I wasn't.
I hope I'm making sense, somewhat.
I'm really sorry that happened to you. But I do hope you write about it and use it. I did.

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Hi Carol,

I appreciate your response. I'm in a bad space in my head right now, though I know I will get over it. Like you, I try to figure out how responsible I am for what happened, and am torn between wanting to accept no responsibility for the comfort of not being wrong, and wanting to accept full responsibility for the illusion of control it would give me in the future.

I know I have to let go of this and move ahead, but it's going to take some time. It's helpful to be reminded that these experiences happen to everybody. And that everybody survives. Thank you.