Why I Love Shame

March 28, 2023 § 10 Comments

Connect connect connect connect.

By Nerissa Nields

How to fall into a shame spiral:

1.  Rent your AirBnB studio for 30% off. Forgive the guest for nicking your van. Give him a 5-star review anyway. Watch as the ingrate gives you your first ever 4-star review. The kicker? His comment: Not worth the value.

2. Come across a high-school paper for a course you excelled in. Think, I’m going to show my 16-year-old so she can see how smart her old mama was. Turn to the last page to admire the A. Be appalled to see, instead, a B+. Teacher’s comment: Does not quite rise to the next level.

3. Observe the vortex forming at the center of your chest, pulling all of you into it, like one of those puppets that disappears into a hand-held cone. Like a black hole, it feels as weighty as…well, as a literary rejection. Your writing is beautiful, the agent says. It’s a really hard call for me, but I’m going to have to pass. I just don’t feel the passion I’ll need in order to represent you.

In other words—B+.

My husband doesn’t like the novels I’ve been writing for umpteen years. He wishes I would stop polishing sentences, deepening the characters, creating new plotlines, and just self-publish the damn things already. Generally, he loves my writing. Just not these novels.

“Be done with them,” he says. “Move on to other things!” Most days, I tolerate this betrayal. After all, they’re based on my life as part of a folk-rock band, which I co-founded with my sister and my first husband. Would I want to read about his former marriage?

Then, I see a dedication in someone else’s novel: I want to thank my wife who believed in my book when I could not.

So I rip the scab off, trying once again to figure out why my husband doesn’t like my books. Too much about the music business? Was he threatened by my past? Could it be he’s an asshole with a terrible personality and bad taste?

This only wrecks the day for both of us.

I Google, Spouses who hate their partners’ art but instead of discovering happily married folk who blithely disregard their spouses’ genius, what comes up are images of storied literary marriages: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. Even Catherine Blake, illiterate when she married poet-artist William, believed in his genius unconditionally. I conclude I am either the only great writer who has chosen a witless partner, or else…my partner must be married to a witless writer.

I begin to wonder if my anger at Tom is really just my own self-doubt. Reading over a draft, I saw how many ways I’ve failed. At the moment, it’s a definite B+.

What if I knew that it might never get above a B+ no matter how many years I work on it?

Would that be liberating? What if my best work really is ahead of me and I can’t write it because I’m obsessively tinkering with these books?

On the other hand, would I self-sabotage by pulling the trigger too soon? The idea of self-publishing depresses me. I think highly of self-publishing—but I would miss working on the books. This fictional world is my playhouse. If I publish these books, I can’t change them. Then what am I going to do for fun?

It used to be fun to send my work “out there,” throwing CDs of my band’s demos to the wind. We got lots of rejections but enough valuable connections to build a 30-year career. I used to post silly videos, half-edited blog posts, incessant questions to my social media followers. What’s stopping me doing the same in my literary life? And why, come to think of it, have my various profiles all gone silent?

Trusting a suggestion to visualize “my life’s purpose,” I saw a view of Earth from space. There I was, a dot on the east coast, em-dashes of gold shooting steadily in multiple directions––like a graphic Internet companies use to demonstrate that the modem is connecting to the router. Steady on, these little golden flashes of mine, all over the world. Blink, blink, blink. Connect connect connect.

What’s keeping me from this simple job of sending out my words, music, novels, essays, videos? Nothing but my old acquaintances Fear and Dishonesty.

I don’t want to tell you about my husband’s dislike of my fiction. I’m afraid you’re going to think I’m merely a B+ student, 4-star AirBnB host, and an average writer. The lie I try to get you to believe is that I’m brilliant, extraordinary, essentially the cat’s pajamas. But why? Don’t I know by now that the safest place is also the most vulnerable place?

Tom’s inability to see that my novels are the cat’s pajamas means that every single day I get to practice toughening my skin, an essential attribute for any writer. It’s no one’s job but mine to love them. Moreover, that stuff inside my black hole of shame is the primordial ooze of me, the very material stories are made of. There is a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in, writes Leonard Cohen. Each little dash of light emanating from my spot on the planet is my own unique morse code that sings the world’s song, endlessly noble, endlessly humble: connect connect connect connect connect.


Nerissa Nields is a musician and writer living in Western MA. Her work has appeared in J Journal and Maine Review. She’s the author of the YA novel Plastic Angel (Scholastic); All Together Singing in the Kitchen: Creative Ways to Make and Listen to Music as a Family (Roost Books/Random House) and How to Be an Adult (Leveller’s Press). She is the director of Writing It Up in the Garden Workshops and Retreats and holds an MFA in Creative Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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