New book by Philip Kenney

Only This Step
haiku by Philip Kenney

Only This Step, haiku by Philip Kenney

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In Conversation With Philip Kenney Author of The Writer's Crucible: Meditations on Emotion, Being, and Creativity welcomes as our guest Philip Kenney author of The Writer's Crucible:

Norm: Good day Philip and thanks for participating in our interview.

Please tell our readers a little bit about your personal and professional background.

Philip: I was born in Loraine, Ohio. I only say this because Loraine was the home of my favorite author, Toni Morrison when she began her writing carer.

My childhood was ordinary and I lived a rather plain, mid-western life until we moved to the New York City suburbs in ’62. There I felt like a total misfit—utterly out of my cultural comfort zone. But I soon became infected with the crackling culture of the Big Apple and my life was transformed.

I remain somewhat divided at my core between the two cultural poles of my youth. Those poles began to splinter during the wild upheaval of the 60’s and the clash over civil rights, Vietnam, assassinations, free love, long hair, drugs—it all broke loose—and by the time I was 25 in exile to Oregon, I was a mess.

High anxiety took over. I went into therapy, gradually found myself and got more and more interested in psychological life. A few years later I became a psychotherapist and that has been a lifelong interest and privilege.

In 1994 I went through a painful divorce and then had the extreme good fortune of meeting my wife, Lori and having two incredible boys at the ripe age of 48. Writing was no different. It arrived unexpectedly in the midst of a very difficult time. I came to realize that the best things in my life came in the wake of personal crisis. Suffice to say, I consider myself a fortunate man and am grateful to have found the resilience within to make good out of suffering.

Norm: What do you consider to be your greatest success (or successes) so far in your career?

Philip: As a therapist, my greatest successes have involved working with people severely traumatized and derailed in their early development. Helping them undo the emotional constrictions of the past and realize their real potential has been enormously satisfying. One person stands out. I have altered her story so as to protect her identity.

This person was a writer and painter and truly a beautiful soul. Severe abuse by her father and step father surfaced early in our work. She developed symptoms consistent with Multiple Personality Disorder and became extremely fragile and suicidal. We hung in with the therapy for a number of years and her personality gradually gained cohesion and she went on to live a very fulfilling and happy life. As I said in my book, therapy works! And I have been so fortunate to work with countless individuals of enormous talent and heart who have been freed to be their best self and pursue creative pathways in the world.

As a writer I would say the greatest success has been sitting down at the table every day to write. I consider myself the most unlikely of writers. I didn’t really learn to read until I was a senior in high school. My English teacher that year, Warren Allen Smith, taught me to understand that writers like Faulkner and Shakespeare had something important to say about life. This was news to someone from Main Street, Ohio. I was hooked.

Mr. Smith went on to write 5 books between his 80th and 90th years! What a teacher and what a model! When I turned sixty I made a list of things I believed myself incapable of doing. At the top of that empty bucket list was writing a novel. I will always consider publishing Radiance in 2013 my greatest success as an author.

Norm: What has been your greatest challenge (professionally) that you’ve overcome in getting to where you’re at today?

Philip: Whether in psychotherapy or writing, my greatest challenge is in resisting the impulse to give up. Therapy always has its dark hours of hopelessness and writing is no different. I have come to appreciate this reality, when not overwhelmed by it, as indicating that the work has arrived at the cusp of something new. The known world—that is identity structures that have been reliable, even if negative, and tried and true writing techniques, even if successful, must give way for something new to emerge and flourish.

This can be a tough time and misunderstood as a dead end. (I have a manuscript in my desk I nearly burned.) But it can also be the most generative moment in the growth of an individual as well as the life of a book. Hard to trust, but worth the struggle if one can hang on and welcome the birth of something new.

Norm: How long have you been writing and why do you write?

Philip: I’ve been writing since a Saturday morning in 1992 when following a 6 week experiment with Prozac and a 2 week cold turkey withdraw I woke up to a full scale anxiety attack. To my surprise, attached to the anxiety was a poem. I’d never written a poem in my life. I wrote that one down even though it was terrible. Shortly thereafter, as fate would have it, I ran into William Stafford, America’s Poet Laureate of 1970. His sage advice was to write a poem every morning first thing. And so I did, for ten years. Most were as bad as the first, but every once in awhile…Ah, it feels so good.

And that’s one reason I write, because I love what it feels like to be in the groove and be taken by that ineffable creative force that is me and not me. Those moments are amongst the most lively I know. There is nothing like it, except meditation or making love or being amongst beauty—When the small self disappears and the vibrant field of creativity is free to move as it likes. One is taken into another field of consciousness that is beautiful.

Like most authors, I write because I feel something important within that longs for expression. Once that has become a real piece of writing, it looks for someone to receive the message and be moved by what has been said. In writing The Writer’s Crucible it was my heartfelt intent to offer something to writers and artists that might be uplifting and of help with the pain inherent in creative work.

I also write because my brain seems to work best in that state. It seems I don’t know what I really think until I write. This makes writing a lot like meditation. You write to find your real self. First you have to wade through all the debris.

Norm: What advice can you give aspiring writers that you wished you had gotten, or that you wished you would have listened to?

Philip: Get the best independent editor you can find. And listen to what she/he says. Slow down. Slow down, and don’t try so hard. I never listened to either of those bits of advice for a long time, but now I do. Sometimes.

Mostly, I don’t care for advice. William Stafford was suspicious of it and wasn’t altogether crazy about writing workshops either. Particularly if you are a sensitive type, it’s not so easy to find, connect with and maintain the connection with your own voice. Many of us lose ourselves to the pull of what moves others and the internal demands of what we think should be said. Meditation helps with that. I suggest writers try it if they haven’t.

It definitely supports that connection to being that is so essential to staying within yourself. I meditate first thing every morning and then I sit down with the computer to write. Many a day, before I finish meditation (about 20 minutes) I am bursting with inspiration to get up and start pounding the keyboard. Having just come from dream world and then meditating, I am hearing very directly from the muse.

Norm: How many times in your career have you experienced rejection? How did they shape you?

Philip: I experience rejection everyday. More often than not from my own mind! I think most writers suffer terrible self-attack regularly. These critiques often sound something like this, “You suck. Who are you kidding, you’re no good. Give it up—get a day job.” The beat goes on, the same refrain pounds on a writer’s self esteem most days. One minute you’re really on fire and the next you’re a failure. The Writer’s Crucible pays a lot of attention to this kind of self-talk and offers many approaches to being compassionate with yourself.

Like every writer, I have my share of rejections from agents and publishers lining the walls of my office. Who doesn’t? I like to think that I have learned to shape my own world and not be defined by the inevitable negativities of the trade. But I am as vulnerable as the next writer to being taken down by a discouraging word. Of course it’s easier for me because I’m not attempting to make a living off of my books or become famous so I take lots of satisfaction in the small victories. For instance, my neighbour Jack, at the age of 90 and dying a slow death from prostate cancer, read my novel Radiance and told my he was not so afraid of dying any longer. Wow! That’s worth more to me than selling a thousand books!

In other words, it is imperative that you take in the good whenever it presents itself. Start with a good sentence. A good metaphor. Pause and feel the joy in that one moment of hitting the mark. Writers are so vulnerable to internalizing bad stuff. All the rejections hurt and can become terribly painful narratives running through the mind creating all sorts of awful feelings. I have learned to work with rejection by remembering that in the end what matters is connecting with people. Writing is a great way to practice that as well as nurturing the relationship with your inner self, the plentiful source of being and creativity. When that connection is intact, rejection is hurtful but not undoing.

Norm: What motivated you to write The Writer's Crucible and what were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them? As a follow up, what makes your book stand out from the crowd?

Philip: I see many writers and artists in my therapy practice. Many are burdened by emotions that interfere with the creative process. In addition, all too many feel unworthy of success and good in their lives. They are plagued by an internal narrative that they are not good enough. This translates into feelings of shame and self reproach. My desire was to help writers lighten the load. I wanted to write a book that would explain in depth the psychology of vulnerability. But it was my intention to go further and offer reflections to help undo some of the emotional constrictions binding creative energies and meditations that help connect with the source of well being inside.

This book is different because it offers methods proven to help transform crippling shame into workable energy. Most books on the subject offer cognitive solutions and or, a different perspective to the problems writers face. These are fine, but they don’t go deep enough and address the complexities of these emotional quagmires. Moreover, I don’t know of books that integrate psychological and spiritual domains with creative work. My thesis is that by connecting with one’s inner core, which I equate with the creative source, it is possible to transform negative emotion into creative juice. I think I did quite well with articulating the incredible relationship between self, being and creativity.

Norm: Where did the title of your book come from?

Philip: Writing and making art is serious business. I thought the notion of the crucible communicated this nicely. The metaphor of a crucible offers hope that the heartache and suffering we undergo writing our books is not wasted, but is integral to the creation of something new and unimaginable from the outset of the work. This has certainly been my experience and the writers I work with agree.

The subtitle, Meditations on Emotion, Being and Creativity, is intriguing to me. I did not want to write a didactic or academic book and identifying it as meditations appeals to the poet in me. A primary tenant of the book is that psyche, spirituality and creativity are not three separate domains, but are rather three aspects of one incredible force pulsing through our lives. I trust the title is suggestive of that. I believe the primary challenge we face is not in whether we can write or not. What is primary is the capacity to deal with the often turbulent emotions of the creative process and ultimately transform those emotions into generative energies in service to the work.

Norm: What are some of the references that you used while researching this book?

Philip: I used a number of my favorite sources from contemporary psychoanalytic theory, which is far different and more relational than traditional Freudian thought. Amongst those I have referenced throughout the book are D. W. Winnicott and Joyce McDougall and Christopher Bollas. Each has made major contributions to our understanding of the complex intricacies of the mind, and in particular, the multiple dimensions of what we call self. Winnicott was, in my estimation, the first psychoanalytic mystic. His work recognized resting in being, not the mind, as the primary goal of human development.

As for literature, I have been influenced by the poets William Stafford, C.K. William, and the novelist, Toni Morrison and used each throughout the book. Unbeknownst to him, Mr. Stafford changed my life with just a few deft touches. Such was his style. I tried to pass on that wisdom in the book. And Mr. Williams amazes me not only with his writing, but with his understanding of self, which closely mirrors my own and those of the psychoanalytic thinkers I admire. See his poem, “The Clause.” His book of essays, Poetry and Consciousness, is also must reading, and not just for poets. I referenced it extensively in the chapter on narrative. 

Perhaps the most referenced was Ms. Morrison. Her masterpiece, Beloved, is a treasure to me and especially the voice of Baby Scruggs in the woods lifting the hearts and minds of her people back to life after years of bondage.

As for consciousness itself, I have been pollinated by any number of sources, old and new. Vedantic literature has been my guide for many a moon and continues to shine though over 5,000 years old. I referenced Thomas Merton because he is not only a man of letters but of the spirit. His concept of True Self and False Self dovetails nicely with Winnicott’s. The premise of my book, what I call “The Self Project,” is a personality structure dominated by compensatory strategies designed to adapt to an unreceptive environment and protect a fragile self from further injury.

Integrating these disciplines is the referencing of my own experience over the past forty years that has included the study of psychoanalytic thought (as patient and therapist), the study and practice of ancient spiritual practices and the immersion into what seems to me the eternal dance of creative pleasure.

Norm: What was the most difficult  part of writing this book and what did you enjoy most about writing this book?

Philip: Honestly, this wasn’t a difficult book to write. I knew what I wanted to communicate from the beginning and loved writing it in as interesting a way as I knew how. My patients confirm the thesis nearly every day and the work flowed freely. Understand, I don’t have much time to write. I have a full psychotherapy practice, and at the time of the major writing I was parenting two teenage boys, caring for an aging dog and trying not to become a stranger to my wife. At most I have an hour in the morning, usually less. I write in my sleep, literally, on the fly and on weekends as I can. I like the sense of urgency and not wasting time trying to make it all just right.

The hardest part for me is editing and revising. For some reason, that is always a struggle. It could be a narcissistic part of me that falls in love with my creation and can’t bear to give up a single word. I also think it has something to do with writing poetry. I’m an emotional guy whether writing or tying my shoes. It’s just somehow difficult for me to capture the emotional spirit of what I’ve been writing at a later date. 

I better work on that. The other hardest thing was to put myself on the line and say what I really think. “The Writer’s Crucible” represents my life’s work to date and I feel pretty vulnerable at times anticipating that psychological readers won’t like the links to spirituality and literary people won’t like the links to psychological or spiritual material. My work has been an attempt to identify not just a link but a shared identity between emotion, being and creativity. We’ll see how that flies.

The most enjoyable aspect of writing this book is the same as that of anything I write. Being in the groove with the muse is amongst the most enlivening of experiences. It is nectar from the Gods. I love to disappear and participate in the merger of the creative spirit with my own knowing. I love to be found by the unbidden images, words and metaphors of the unconscious. An unconscious that in my view is connected to something far larger than what we typically think of as mind.

Norm: Are there vocabulary words or concepts in your book that may be new to readers? Define some of those.

Philip: The most critical concept in the book is that of “The Self Project.” The Self Project is what takes over when we feel we aren’t good enough and must compensate for this lack by making ourselves into something that matches an ideal image of what a good writer is, therefore hiding the shame shadowing the work. The Self Project is analogous to what Winnicott termed The False Self. This doesn’t mean you’re a phony or inauthentic narcissist. It means you have been occupied by shame and a story of your unworthiness that interrupts the connection with the creative energies trying to be expressed. It means you are vulnerable to mistaking the directives of the Self Project for the promptings of the muse.

There are some psychological terms that may be new to people, but they are well explained in the book. The toughest concept to really appreciate may be trauma, in particular, the developmental traumas that profoundly effect emotional regulation. Those are related to what we call traumatic aloneness, which is a state many experience in early childhood and infancy. This state causes overwhelming feelings in the infant/child that are not recognized and processed by caregivers. In adult years, people who have this history are easily flooded by emotion and/or develop an aversive response that leads to avoidance or shut down.

If you have suffered trauma of this type or any of the more common forms, please find some help. Don’t try to manage it by yourself. That only recreates the conditions and experience of the initial wounds and perpetuates the same self-defense systems that were originally employed. We know so much about trauma today that we didn’t just a few years ago. Most of us are trying to cope with nervous systems that are overloaded. These states of chronic stress rob the body and mind of energy meant to be used by the creative impulse that moves us. I hope my book will help writers with this condition, but please also look into the many therapies and yoga practices available now to undo chronic constrictions in body/mind/spirit.

Norm: What is the most important thing that people don't know about the subject of your book that they need to know?

Philip: The most important thing, by far, that people don’t truly know at their core is that they are good enough. That they are far more than what they may think themselves to be and that the real self is worthy and the stuff of basic goodness. In the book I have a section entitled, “You Are A Poem.” This is my way of highlighting the beauty and profound mystery of who we are. Moreover, the book identifies the wayward distortions of the anxious brain that produce volumes of negative narratives capable of waking us in the middle of the night with dread in our belly. They plague us in the dark hours of the day when engaged in the demanding process of making art.

Because we are the product of a monotheistic culture, most people don’t realize the staggering complexity of the mind/self constellation. They vastly underestimate the difficulty in changing old habits of being and the nature of our multidimensional self. The Greeks understood this phenomenon. We have lost our connection to this basic reality. I talk about our basic nature as being more akin to the weather than to a singular defined “Me.” 

One trouble we have is that we have come to believe too steadfastly in narrative. People must come to challenge their personal story, particularly the one that ends with the punch line, “I am not good enough.” The shaming we endure when that story has free reign is the basis for much of the psychological/spiritual suffering of our time. Writers and artists are very susceptible to that type of judgement.

Norm: What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?

Philip: Read my book! I feel strongly it will help you. It isn’t the ordinary book full of advice that sounds good and then evaporates into thin air. The Writer’s Crucible will help you be a writer. It will begin a process of transformation whereby the shroud of shame will begin to dissipate and the glow of being will shine more and more.

My life turned around because of psychotherapy. I shudder to think where I might be today without it. Therapy keeps getting more and more sophisticated as we learn about the nervous system and how it relates to our day to day experience. If you are suffering from big anxiety, depression, and/or you have suffered trauma of one sort or another in your background, I urge you to find a good therapist. Not all therapists are helpful. Do your research. I wouldn’t recommend Psychology Today as a resource. Ask around.

Even the Harvard Medical School has a lead story in their newsletter, “Meditate don’t Medicate.” Medication is fine and many times essential. But meditation is proving to be an essential way to calm the nervous system and connect with deeper states of being. I offer a number of ideas about meditation in the book, but you don’t have to look far these days to find a class or podcast that can help you get started. Again, meditation, yoga, exercise and diet are as important as a regular writing practice to keeping your equilibrium in the midst of shameful declarations from the shame brain. These practices enable you to see through the repetitive claims of these psychic bullies. More importantly, they enable you to connect with your inner self and the bounty of goodness and love that is your real self.

You are precious, and an ancestor of all the wonderful writers that came before you—Virginia Wolfe, Tolstoy—all of them. Remember that. Let that lineage remind you of the integrity of your vocation. Let that ancestry support you. Beware of isolation! A writer is alone a great deal of the time. Get out of your office and find a community to give to and receive from. What you know and have to say will only add to the body of wisdom that is the collective unconscious. You don’t have to be the greatest, in fact that distorts the field. You only need to be you. That’s plenty good enough.

Norm; What is next for Philip Kenney and where can our readers find out more about you and The Writer's Crucible?

Philip: I’m eager to get the book publicity moving so I can get back to writing. As of late I’ve written a few essays I’m happy with. One on Harvey Weinstein and Co. and the problem of male sexuality, the other a review/essay on the incredible film “Get Out.” Most of all, I am eager to get back to a novel I began a few years back that I think I know how to salvage. It is very relevant to today’s crisis in male and race relations. My website is being updated, but should be up and running soon at philip-kenney-com

Norm: As this interview comes to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has?    

Philip: Good one. I wish someone would ask me how I am disciplined enough to write this book considering the limited time I have available. This is an important question to me because I don’t consider myself a disciplined person and don’t really believe in it as a sustainable force. What I do trust is love and desire. I love to write and when I’m in the groove I really can’t wait until the next morning to get up, meditate and start writing. Love works. 

It is the opposite to the striving of the Self Project which grasps for success rather than loving the work. Loving the everyday sacredness, yes sacredness of taking pen to paper, paint to canvas. When I think of the number of books published every month in our country alone, and when I think of all those who write and make art that are not published or represented in galleries, I get goose bumps. I want to bow to them and the untameable, uncontainable creative spirit that has touched each of us, with its eternal breath. What more could humans want? And so I suggest in the book that we begin our writing practice with giving thanks and release the bindings of the Self Project by dedicating the day’s work to those who have helped the book come alive. 

Love will carry you places discipline will not. Highlight--It will carry you. This incredible ride is not about self-will. That has its place, as does discipline. Sometimes we just don’t want to get out of bed. Right? Or we’d rather watch Seinfeld re-runs. Sure! So then you call on will. But love, not the mushy kind, is what brings you home. Love helps us get out of the way and let the creative impulse move. As Baby Scruggs said, “Love it hard!” Love the sounds and scribbles, the rhythms and rhymes, the structures the meanings—Love it all and it will love you back.

 Norm: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. It's been an absolute pleasure to meet with you and read The Writer's Crucible.

Thanks, Norm, I always enjoy working with you and Bookpleasures. All the best.

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