Self Esteem


My primary care doctor is Czech. I had my yearly physical last week. The doctor is always interested in talking to me about writing. I was in a mad hurry because I had a life drawing session right afterwards, and I couldn’t get out of his office for all the stories he wanted to tell me.

Meanwhile, for weeks I’ve been doing a self-study course on Self Esteem, based on the work of Caroline Myss. She has a four CD set out called, cleverly enough, Self Esteem. I’d highly recommend it; if you can see beyond her school marm lecturing side, there are some powerful truths in it. She believes that all of the world’s woes can be traced back to a lack of self esteem.

I believe self esteem is a crucial factor in the writing process. If you don’t believe you have a right to speak your truth, you will find it difficult to write. This is true for all art forms. I’ve met visual artists and writers who write or paint in a ‘graduate school’ style, a predetermined mode that has little to do with their own voice or eccentric style…even folks years into the process still haven’t really found their own voice. It’s been the biggest surprise to me as I go along my writer/artist path — that so many Artists still have such problems with voice and basic self esteem.

Back to my doctor. He told me that he grew up under Soviet rule, and although Czechoslovakia didn’t have it as oppressive as some countries, they still had to be very careful. He was given a report to write in second grade discussing socialism and capitalism. He took it home to his parents. How they answered this child’s report would make or break them later, he told me. The answers they put on a little boy’s school pad would affect the schools the boy would be able to get into, would affect the job the father could get. It was a minefield.

He sat writing a prescription for me, and told me about his son in the U.S. now going to school, and how they’re actually cultivating the boy’s voice.

Sitting on the exam table, swinging my feet, I said: “You should write about that. About your son being cultivated like that.”

He didn’t answer, just looked down at his prescription pad. Later, as I was leaving, he said: “Americans have self esteem. I think the problem in Eastern Europe is no self esteem.”

(I love how serendipity works — I had not discussed my course in self esteem with my doctor, but here he was taking it all global for me.)

Later I went to have pizza and beer with a friend at her studio, Lisa Mehlin, art conservator, Sitting amidst dozens of ‘broken’ paintings, and the chemicals, brushes and other objects of Lisa’s trade, I told her about my doctor’s stories, about going to Hungary and now Armenia and seeing some of these dynamics first-hand, how shut down the older generations are around telling their story.

Lisa said, between bites of pepperoni pizza: “They probably can’t tell their own story, yet. Too painful.”

I took a swig of MGD. “Yeah, it’ll be a Westerner telling their story first. I’d like to tell it, but is that too presumptuous of me?”

I work with a lot of new women writers. One of the exciting parts of this work is developing their right to tell their story, as it happened, without making it palatable. This process of growing this self esteem around their writing, pointing out to them where their voice shines, telling them that their story matters, lasts about three to six months. Watching them fly with the written word after they’ve given themselves ‘permission’ to speak their truth, is one of the most magical aspects of the work I do.

Understanding storytelling and self esteem from a global perspective has long been a fascination for me. As the Hopi proverb goes: The one who tells the stories rules the world.” Whose truth is being most heard right now in the world? Why? What about those with the softer voices? What about those with little or no voice?

I think of this cacophony of voices all over the world like the rainforests I’ve visited in Costa Rica, full of thousands of genres, twittering with sensual riches, multi-colored in language and form. I think of those countries that have been shut up for years as a massive clear-cutting. Not a death, because death is full of mulch, more an emptiness, a void.

How about your self esteem? What do you need to nurture it? What books can you read, films can you see, where the storytelling is far outside the Western/Hollywood norm?


2 thoughts on “Self Esteem

  1. Hi Carrie,

    Thanks for posting this story, it’s amazing!

    Having spent years living and working in the former Soviet Union, I think you and your czech doctor are right on: people still don’t think they have a right to speak the truth here, which goes back to a basic self esteem problem.

    Communism was very, very traumatizing to people. The soviets twist the truth like no one else I know, rewriting history to completely warp and change everything. I’ve been working with journalists in the fsu and I can tell you that the truth is a very confusing concept for them. It’s their biggest struggle here. I’m not talking about deeper truths, either: I’m just talking about the difference between a fact (the man is wearing a hat) and an assumption (the man is happy).

    I don’t think Americans can truly get how deep this self censorship went into people’s bones. The best book I’ve read that truly documents how much people’s sense of truth was twisted is The Haunted Land, by Genius grant winner Tina Rosenberg. It was written early in the 1990s, but the stories of people she interviewed in East Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic get close.

    The most interesting artists I’ve met in the former Soviet are all painting in a very fractured way: using photos and other image from the past, then painting over them to slightly obscure them. I’ve seen artists from Moldova, from Ukraine, from Armenia, and from Georgia doing very similiar things with these fractured images. It’s as if they are trying to recapture a piece of the truth about the past 70 years, trying to rebuild it from fractured memories.

    Here are a few webpages if anyone wants to look:

    Anyways, thanks, Carrie, for posting this very important story.



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