“The Overly Sensitive Writer”

Anne Lamott recently wrote an article titled “Me, the overly sensitive child,” adapted from her book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair. In it, she discusses the perils of being the “overly sensitive child,” a term coined in the 50’s or 60’s for children who were overtly emotional and empathetic. Lamott says, “What the term meant was that you noticed how unhappy or crazy your parents were. Also, you worried about global starvation, animals at the pound who didn’t get adopted, and smog.”

These children were the worry-warts. The tree-huggers. The saps who just needed to toughen up. But as Anne says, “you couldn’t go buy thicker skin at the five-and-dime.” And, like me and Anne Lamott, a lot of these kids probably grew up to be writers.

When I tell strangers I’m a writer – or worse, a creative writer – or the worst, a poet – I see the confusion, see them imagining me as some granola-eating, Baja-hoodie wearing hippie doomed to eternal joblessness (only two of those are true.) I’m often asked “what do you plan to do with that?” or “do you write anything besides poetry?” My favorite comment, from a doctor who asked about my husband’s profession: “so I’m guessing he’s the one who will make the money?”

The truth is that despite the growing prevalence of creative writing programs and opinion blogs like Thought Catalogue or Upworthy, writers are still often viewed as existing in a separate sphere of deep emotions, incomprehensible to the layperson. And as Lamott points out, separateness can be painful.

Lamott says she wished someone had told her it was okay: “‘Some people have a thick skin and you don’t. Your heart is really open and that is going to cause pain, but that is an appropriate response to this world. The cost is high, but the blessing of being compassionate is beyond your wildest dreams. However, you’re not going to feel that a lot in seventh grade. Just hang on.’” None of my teachers ever gave me advice like this. At least not until I fully committed to being a writer.

In most professional fields, emotional detachment is encouraged (we’re always told to "think like a boss" or to separate oneself from the job.) But for a lot of writers, authenticity is dependent on dredging up difficult feelings and fears. Some of the best writers don’t survive it (Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton – the list goes on.) However, it is possible to strike a balance between intense emotional expression and allowing one’s emotions to consume them. By striking this balance, the process of writing can be liberating instead of burdening. Taking a page from Lamott’s experience, I’ve found that the steps to accepting one’s own vulnerability and sensitivity are closely in line with developing as a writer:

1. Discovering who I was born to be.

As I said, being different can be painful. From a young age, I was a daydreamer who liked art class, made up fictional worlds for my dolls and read a lot. I was often lost in “Kara-land.” I knew that I was a sensitive kid. But other kids were not as sensitive, and after getting my feelings hurt enough times, I did my best to channel my passion into something more concrete. I joined high school debate, tried majors like journalism and economics, and went to law school before realizing I needed to write to survive as an overly-sensitive person. Like Lamott, I had to “discover who I had been born to be, instead of the impossible small package, all tied up tightly in myself, that I had agreed to be.”

2. Telling the truth.

When I was younger, I made a point of writing outside of my personal life because it was too upsetting to write about the various things I’d confronted – divorce, addiction, depression, failed relationships. Not only was I failing to confront my past, but for me, writing purely out of external interest left something to be desired. It wasn’t until the emotions I’d chosen to push under boiled to the surface, and I allowed myself to write about them, that I finally discovered my voice.

Although expressing difficult emotions in writing can be painful, these struggles are at the heart of great fiction, as they are what makes a story memorable to a reader. Books like To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice or Moby Dick are most remembered for the emotional struggles and intense desires of their characters. Great poems like Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Dream Within a Dream” are timeless for their ability to capture passionate emotions. As Lamott says, “Until I began to deal with my anger and sadness, there had been an invisible Gardol shield between me and life, wild true beautiful hard crazy life.” As writers, our job is to reflect our difficult, crazy lives and experiences in the characters, stories and poems we write.

3. Accepting more and more of yourself.

Like most other writers, I have an unbelievable amount of self-doubt. When you start writing about deeply personal experiences and sharing them with the world, the stakes of that self-doubt grow higher. To combat this, I found certain idols in the writing world I attempted to emulate – Anne Lamott is definitely among them. This is a helpful tactic in the beginning, a starting point to discovering what it is you want to write about. But at some point, the writing will not feel like “you,” and to grow as a writer you must discover your personal style. As Lamott relates in her article, “self-acceptance is freedom.”

Acknowledging my own pain and considering how a reader might relate to my experiences has helped me to find my voice. All of this, in turn, has helped me to accept more of myself, and to recognize my struggles as a means of reaching others.

4. Wasting time and paper.

As any child who was pushed to get A’s, perfection was ingrained in my mental fabric. Unfortunately, in many cases, perfection is creativity’s kryptonite. In order to create anything, you must rid yourself of the slush, the clichés, the self-conscious drivel that creeps into everyone’s writing. You have to write the bad stuff in order to get to the good stuff. As Lamott says, “in order to become who I was meant to be, I learned I had to waste more paper, to practice messes, false starts and blunders: these are necessary stops on the route of creativity and emotional growth.”

5. Accepting help.

Writing in a vacuum is lonely. I’ve learned that having a group of writer friends is essential, whether it’s for sharing your work, getting meaningful feedback or just finding friends who express themselves in similar ways. Lamott says that in being true to her overly sensitive self, she was going to need a lot of help. “[M]aybe we don’t find a lot of answers to life’s tougher questions, but if we find a few true friends, that’s even better.” In making friends among writers, you are likely to find other overly sensitive people who understand you.

None of this is formulaic or black-and-white. Even after starting to accepting myself, I still encounter things I’m unable to write about. I still have days of nagging self-doubt and retreat to writing “safer” things. But embracing my sensitivity, or as Lamott says, recognizing that I had “been exposed to the world as being flawed, and human” — that was my first step to really becoming a writer.

Source: Anne Lamott, “Me, the overly sensitive child.” http://www.salon.com/2013/10/28/me_the_overly_sensitive_child/

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Kara Cochran

About Kara Cochran

Kara Cochran is a poet, writer, teacher, and editor. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College, and a BA in Creative Writing and German Studies from Denison University. She is the Assistant Managing Editor of Philadelphia Stories, Jr. and the former Managing Editor of Rathalla Review. She is a Fiction Southeast columnist and volunteers with Mighty Writers, a Philadelphia nonprofit dedicated to teaching children “to think and write with clarity.” She writes poetry, fiction, and articles about the craft of writing.