The Sound of a Voice Thinking The self-explorer, whether he wants to or not, becomes the explorer of everything else. —Elias Canetti
It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” In the one hundred and fifty years since he issued his once radical decree, self-trust, in the guise of “self-esteem” and “self-confidence,” has become a commonplace goal. But that trust is still elusive for most of us. Despite our openness to self-exploration, efforts to acquire it often fail.
Yet so much of what is worthwhile in life is grounded in self-trust: relationships, finding the right work, your ability to learn and create, your willingness to take risks, connection with your desires and your ideals. Self-trust allows you to appreciate the quality of your own mind as well as the minds of others. Through self-trust you gain the gift of yourself.
By self-trust we mean having an intimate feel for the person you are and the way your mind works. Imagine visiting the country of You and becoming comfortable with its language, its customs and idiosyncrasies, the contours of its landscapes, its unique history. Imagine discovering what it’s like to be you, how it feels to be in your skin, to think your thoughts, to possess your memories, to be shaped by your stories, to be driven by your obsessions, to be happy or unhappy as only you are, to perceive yourself and others as only you do. Self-trust begins with an honest exploration of your thoughts and feelings, which are as close to you as the food you eat and the air you breathe.
Sadly, many people are too fearful, anxious, or rushed for such intimate self-exploration. They feel disconnected from their subjective experience. This condition leaves them in a state not of self-trust but of self-doubt. In fact, it was an agonizing state of self-doubt—a feeling of being completely cut off from her own inner life—that more than twenty-five years ago led Linda to create Proprioceptive Writing. How It All Started: Linda’s Story
If necessity is the mother of invention, it was need that forced me to invent Proprioceptive Writing. Soon after my mother died, when I was seven, I had started feeling as if I were locked inside myself and couldn’t get out, or locked outside and couldn’t get in. Psychologically, I was suffering from what I now call proprioceptive deficit, a breakdown in communication between a person and his or her subjective thoughts. By some strange act of compartmentalization, I kept my private thoughts secret from myself and so felt cut off from them. Most days, this condition was my prison.
A year after he was widowed, my father remarried. The tension among my father, stepmother, older sister, and myself seemed to me an unchanging aspect of life, like a gloomy weather system that blows in and won’t blow out. During certain moments, however, I would feel a brief reprieve.
Before I fell asleep some nights, I entered a state of mind that compensated for all my daytime hardship and taught me how to live with it. As I lay in bed, reviewing the past day or planning new escapes, something clicked inside my head that altered my perspective on myself in a startling way. With my inner eye I pictured my thoughts; with my inner ear I heard myself speaking them, and suddenly I knew myself as a thinker thinking. “I think, therefore I am,” as Descartes famously said. This spontaneous awareness brought with it a feeling of harmony and love. Contentment washed over me at those times.
Everyone has experiences of heightened consciousness; they come unbidden. Mine taught me two of life’s great lessons: that as thinker I had power, and that the thinking process could be my pleasure. But this pleasure was mercurial. It came and went. Sometimes I’d lie awake for hours, waiting for that special feeling to kick in, and nothing would happen.
The first time I became aware of how cut off I was from myself I was eleven, and all the other kids at summer camp were writing in journals. “Dear Diary,” my friend Karen wrote blithely, lying on her belly in the bunk bed below and kicking her legs in the air. “Today we went on a hard hike up Mount Kildare and Andy kissed me but no one saw us. He’s the best boy in the group. Maybe I love him. I’m not saying yes.” I hung over the side of our double-decker, watching Karen write, and felt a stab of emptiness. Not three feet from me, she was lost in her imagination. Some kids gave their diaries names, like Louisa or Amy or Rebecca, but we all knew that when you wrote in a diary you were your own audience. Who was this alter ego to whom Karen spoke her thoughts for the pleasure of it? I hadn’t a clue how to have the kind of imaginative presence to myself that my friend had that day.
Years later, when I was a college student writing papers, a moment sometimes came (rarely, but remarkably) when my thoughts absorbed me totally, and I felt engaged, both emotionally and intellectually. A warmth suffused me in that instant. I felt that universal love and personal well-being I had known as a young girl thinking in my bed. But more usually my mind felt impenetrable to me. I wanted to reflect on my thinking, carefully and deeply, but writing with the purpose of self-discovery was an alien concept then. We were encouraged to analyze, that was all. However competently I could dissect a writer’s thoughts, I could not narrate my own.
How could I free my mind and become available to what actually interested me? How could I recognize desire, move on impulse, develop will? How could I exert myself on my behalf? How could I be less afraid of difficulty and choose the thing that was harder but more personally rewarding for me? Where to begin? The answers came during the summer of 1976, when the doors to my consciousness opened and the distinction between inside and outside dissolved.
I’d been teaching English literature at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for six years and needed to write my Ph.D. dissertation to stay on a tenure track. While I was looking through my card file of authors on whom I wanted to do research, I came across a book that had struck me as extraordinary when I’d read it several years earlier. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a short novel by Shirley Jackson, best known as the author of “The Lottery,” a short story originally published in The New Yorker in 1948 and frequently anthologized since then. The book is a psychological portrait of a young girl named Mary Katherine in mid-twentieth-century New England, a brilliant depiction of female terror and subverted aggression, but also a spoof of a traditional whodunit. In this case, Mary Katherine had done what many young girls only fantasize about: laced sugar with cyanide and eliminated mother, father, an annoying younger brother, and a useless aunt, all in the time it takes to drink your after-dinner coffee. Thereafter, she remains in the decaying family estate, behind tall wrought-iron gates, along with her adored older sister. With nothing more to do than light dusting once a week, she has all the time in the world to dwell on her thoughts.
Reading the book over again brought back the sound of Mary Katherine’s voice, which had struck me when I first read it and stayed with me over the years. The novel is written entirely as Mary Katherine’s internal dramatic monologue. Throughout the book she is holding a silent, one-way conversation with her chief admirer: herself. To this self she speaks her thoughts in the order that they come to her, making side remarks for her amusement, rehearsing insults she’ll deliver, loving whom she loves, hating whom she hates, recalling as if for the first time what she’s said a thousand times before. No one notices her deceptions or self-delusions—except, of course, the reader. She’s safe in her seclusion, free to travel where her thoughts take her, obsessing to her heart’s content.
This thinking voice sounded amazingly alive to me. Jackson had found a narrative voice—it was the sound of a voice thinking. I repeated the phrase to myself; it was like a koan or a riddle. Back then I felt so cut off from myself that I’d forgotten the connection between silent inner thought and spoken thought that every child takes for granted and that Jackson had captured so deftly. There was something here I needed to understand. My goal, my obsession that summer, was to learn how Jackson made that connection and captured that sound for her narrative voice. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I might find my own thinking voice in the process.
It was early June when I lit a candle and flipped on a tape of Bach cantatas—just an inspiration to support the morning’s work. I opened the novel and began to read Mary Katherine’s “uncensored” thought. Her voice came in loud and clear. Taking my cue from her, I wrote down my every thought, without letup. I interacted with Mary Katherine, reacted to her, advocated for her, and, in my fashion, imitated her as well. When my thoughts wandered away from Jackson’s text to my life or emotions, I wandered with them. Without a reason to edit my thoughts, I elaborated on them all, exploring in a leisurely fashion every psychological event aroused in my mind by my sense of the words I was using. Three hours later I awakened to the room I was in and looked around. I turned off the music and blew out the candle. I felt uncommon calm. I had lost myself in time, but never had I felt as much myself. Something wonderful was happening to me and it took place through this writing: I was writing solely for myself while addressing a listener who shared the same sense of the subject as I did. For the first time in my life I was following my thoughts wherever they led me, no matter what the terrain. I was entering into my own life by exploring my own thought flow.