NO SUCH THING AS A NICE LITTLE OLD LADY

Diana Goestch on Free-Writing, Ego & Working with Emotion

Interview by Sylke Jackson

Diana Goetsch returns to Cuppa Pulp Writers’ Space at CILK119 to teach the third installment of the Free-Writing Intensive on Saturday, February 6.

Sylke Jackson: You have mentioned ego and the need to get it out of the way in previous interviews. Recently you’ve come out as a transitioning woman. Do you have any thoughts about how our concepts of ourselves can hold us back or free us to access imagination and perhaps power in our writing? 

Diana Goetsch: William Packard, one of my root teachers, used to say that, while writers aren’t better than anyone else, they do need to know themselves better than most. I agree—in the sense that the more you understand yourself, the more you can put the egotistical urge to “self-express” to rest, and fix your attention on your subject. I’ve always felt the freedom and license to write on any subject under the sun, and now that I’m out to myself and others as a trans woman, I feel even better equipped to do just that.

SJ: What is the mechanism or motivation of the ego? Why is it such a problem in relation to writing?

DG: Well if we’re talking in Freudian terms, our ego involves some sort of balancing of instinctual id and parental shoulds in the name of mental health. But I use the term in the Buddhist sense, which sees ego as basically a trauma response: we get so overwhelmed by reality we must construct a rigid identity to filter out most of the stimuli. It’s complicated, but suffice it to say that the artist must let in the stimuli others don’t, bear witness and turn nothing away. The artist also needs to change and individuate, not to be some sort of Bohemian, but because change is a mark of reality, and sanity. We need to be porous, flexible, brave, and curious. Egos are tense, afraid, and self-involved. They are to be abandoned. (I’ve always thought this is why Hemingway wrote such great short stories, but such third-rate novels: he could abandon his monumental ego only for short spans. He couldn’t sustain that freedom over the course of a novel.)

SJ: When you say “bear witness” are you talking about bearing witness to our experiences? Do we bear witness when we write from imagination?

DG: This gets us into interesting territory: do events of imagination count as experiences? I say yes. Dreams, for example, affect heart rate, hormone release and eye movement, not to mention our brains, and are as fully experienced—perhaps more so—as events in waking life. It is just as important for a piece of non-fiction to be fully imagined as it is for a poem or novel, which is why the early Joan Didion, who wrote groundbreaking essay collections such as Slouching Toward Bethlehem, is superior to the more recent Joan Didion, who settles for sentimental memoir. On the subject of imaginatively bearing witness, I think of John Irving’s novel In One Person, which contains the most nuanced and harrowing depiction I’ve seen of the AIDS crisis at its height. I lived a block away from St. Vincent’s Hospital, and had friends who died of AIDS at that time, yet Irving in his fiction witnessed far more than I. I think what he did was fully explore the possibilities of the human person, to the point where he himself might be shocked by what he discovered, and humbled beyond judgment.

Most writing fails due to failure of imagination. People are afraid of their own wilderness, and they tame their writing, lest anyone think they’re too out there. I remember an elderly woman at a workshop in North Carolina who wrote a mischievous poem where something was going on under her skirt. But it turned out to be just the wind, and I had to challenge her. “I hope you know there’s no such thing as a nice little old lady,” I told her. (I myself have no such plans.)

We’re all out there, but only the true artists seem to know this.

SJ: From what you are saying (and from my own perspective as well) writing seems an almost heroic undertaking that asks us to tolerate intense vulnerability. What can people do when they want to write but are feeling overwhelmed by fear of what they might face?

DG: They can take The Free-Writing Intensive I’m teaching at CILK 119 on Main Street in Nanuet on February 6. I’m only half joking. This day-long session will be devoted to working with the emotions—such as the fear you mention. If we approach them improperly, which is almost always the case, emotions become toxic, and we either rant on the page (vomiting), or cut emotions off, or tame ourselves into sentimentality (what W.C. Williams called “the failure of feeling”).

The way to harvest the power and inherent creativity of emotion is by transforming it, and that’s what I’ll be teaching in The Free-Writing Intensive. In the East, this process is called Co-emergent Wisdom. Co-emergent Wisdom protects us from being overwhelmed by our emotion, while allowing us to communicate its wisdom. It’s at the heart of creativity, and it’s deeply liberating.