The Writing Cage

What holds you back from experiencing your creative potential? How can you work with your inner critics?

The Writing Cage

I grew up admiring my dad’s work as a political analyst and a syndicated columnist. When the college newspaper announced it was looking for writers, it seemed like an excellent opportunity to explore my passion for writing and to examine a potential career in journalism.

I attended my first meeting at the college newspaper. The editors assigned me my first story. With enthusiasm, I scheduled several interviews and wrote a draft of my first story. I asked my dad, an accomplished journalist, to review it.  He read it slowly, and his brow furled. Sitting behind his enormous desk, he pulled out his red grease pencil and crossed out words, sentences, and then paragraphs. He asked me questions that I couldn’t answer. He pulled out a yellow pad and started to re-write the entire article.  He then loaded paper into his Smith Corona typewriter and quickly typed a masterful article. He pulled the article from the typewriter and read it triumphantly. I recognized a few of my phrases, but it had become his article, not mine.

I turned in the article to the editors. It thrilled them. The editors gave the article a prominent position in the paper. It felt good to see by Steve Scott in the byline, but I also felt like an imposter—I had a secret that no one knew. I could have published the college newspaper article in the Los Angeles Times. The editors were excited; they wanted to enlist me to write again.  I declined. I didn’t return their calls and never wrote another article for the newspaper.

My dad’s “generosity” created an impossible situation. How could I evolve if I had already written such a flawless article? How could I incrementally improve and seek mentoring from my peers? How could I write, in the words of Anne Lamott, a “shitty first draft” when I had already submitted a professional article?

There are many lessons that I can draw out of this anecdote, one is to allow others to grow at their own pace. Give suggestions and feedback, but don’t take away someone else’s work.  Despite my dad’s brilliance, he lacked the skills, in this situation, to mentor me.  His fear of allowing me to fail, or even be mediocre, created a burden. I, too, have the impulse to do too much and overreach when I teach, parent, and mentor. When I do this, I deprive others of their own path of growth.

My dad wanted me to succeed, yet his methods actually made it more difficult to do so.  I honor him for his brilliance and eloquence. I’m also sad for that idealistic college student that walked away from potential growth opportunities out of fear. I’m grateful that my dad inspired me to express myself through writing. I’m proud of his accomplishments. I marvel at his mastery of words. He committed himself to the craft of writing. Despite this, I have inherited a burden. When I write, I hear his critical voice, and imagine the red grease pencil in his hand, ready to revise. I’m in a cage. I have a deep desire to write and share myself with the world, but I am often hampered by an inner critic.

Gay Hendriks coined the phrase “upper limits,” which is the idea that we have an inner thermostat that keeps us from experiencing our full potential. There are unconscious barriers that keep us from experiencing the fullness of our gifts and our capacity. He writes in The Big Leap, “This belief tells you to play it safe and stay small. That way, if you fail, at least you fail small.” The challenge is to notice your upper limit and share it with a trusted friend, so you can loosen the grip of fear. You can then make the invisible barrier, visible.

How do we work with both our upper limits and our inner critic? We can draw inspiration from The Buddha. Before his enlightenment, a demon named Mara attacked Buddha. Fear, doubts, anxiety, and unworthiness flooded the Buddha. Faced with these temptations, he grounded himself by putting his finger into the earth. By grounding himself in truth and reality, these demons departed, only to return again. When the Buddha’s loyal servant Ananda noticed the return of Mara, he would panic. The Buddha would smile and say, “I see you, Mara!” By accepting and naming these difficult energies the Buddha could dissolve the impact.

We can’t eliminate our inner demons. If we do, we give them energy. Instead, we are invited to name our vulnerabilities. When I write, I’m better served to say, “Oh, I hear your voice, Dad. Thank you for wanting to keep me safe.” With practice, I hope to embody the genius of my Dad’s writing, and to honor my own voice and wisdom. It’s better for me to produce something that is flawed than to hide in a writer’s cage of fear and insecurity.If you aren’t happy where you are today, why?

I'm reminded of Rumi, the great Sufi mystic who writes,

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

For Reflection:

  1. What cage constrains you and your potential?
  2. Do you have an inner critic? What does the voice tell you?
  3. What fears keep you from expressing yourself or from developing your potential?
  4. What is your experience of effective or ineffective mentoring?
  5. Based on your experiences of being mentored or parenting, how do you want to mentor or parent others?
  6. How can you release the power of your fears and upper limits?