Voices in Our Heads

This week’s post follows up on last week’s discussion of Jane Anne Staw’s talk on the five components of a writing practice, given at the Fiction Writing Intensive this past July at UC Berkeley Extension.  Last week, I wrote about her tips on creating a safe place – both external and internal – for writing.  Today, we’ll look at the next component:  No Uninvited Guests.

Some years ago, in grad school, as a T.A. preparing to teach my first class, I went a little nuts.  I spent months reading every book I could find on craft, scouring anthologies for the best short stories to illustrate Setting or Point of View, even reading lesson plans out loud to myself to time how long each activity would take.  (A futile exercise, I soon learned, as what I’d allotted twenty minutes for took about three, and vice-versa.)

The books on craft discouraged me.  Yes, the writers offered good information and made many important statements about what fiction needed to do.  They were full of examples.  But I put them down feeling burdened — or discouraged. John Gardner’s exercises, especially, in Art of Fiction, did little to boost my confidence as a writer or instructor.

And then I found Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott.  She’d been writing fiction for years – excellent fiction – and was just on the cusp of becoming a household name. I almost cried with relief when I read Bird by Bird.  Here was the first book I’d found to demystify the writing process, to talk about the gremlins of insecurity, the internal critics, the pitfalls.  Here was someone who could address writer’s block (and overinflated fantasies of success) with humor.  I felt restored – and hopeful.  Maybe I couldn’t yet describe a barn as seen by the eyes of a murderer (do not mention the crime!), but I could fantasize about banishing my judgmental relatives to the inside of an upside-down water glass.

That’s one of Lamott’s suggestions, when the voices of the internal critic – whether it’s your mother, your grumpy uncle Ed, your second-grade teacher who called you on the carpet for spelling errors, or your own special amalgamation of all three – get in the way.  Zap them down to the size of the Borrowers and trap them under a glass.  Imagine them screaming and beating their little fists against the glass, but don’t let them out.

I recalled that water glass while listening to Jane Anne talk about uninvited guests.  In your writing space – whether you have an office or a corner of the dining room table – you get to decide who comes in.  True, people don’t always obey orders.  Spouses and children will interrupt, friends will phone you (“I knew you’d be at home”), the cat will stride back and forth across the keyboard.  But you have a say.  You can close the door and hang a Do Not Disturb sign on the knob.  You can (and must) turn off the phone (or the little bell that signals a new arrival in the In-Box).  Unless you do this 24/7, your family and friends will accept it.  They might not always like it, but they’ll learn to take you seriously.  (The cat, on the other hand,…)

The tougher uninvited guests are the ones who dwell in our own minds.  You can’t write that!  No one cares!  It’s a cliché.  This has all been said before, by better writers… Etc.  Those won’t knock or announce themselves.  They’ll just barge in.  We know these voices well, and we know how quickly they step on the most eager little sprout of an phrase.

Here’s what Jane Anne said that I found especially helpful:  “Dialogue with your critic.”

I know.  I groaned, too.  It sounds awful.  (And, the critic asks, Isn’t dialogue a noun?)  But, like the counter-intuitive advice a therapist once gave me to accept my anxiety,  it works.  The voices (like the anxiety) don’t go away, but we learn how to live — how to write — with (and despite) them.  Jane Anne had us take out a sheet of paper and draw a vertical line down the middle.  She gave us a writing prompt – light from the window – and told us to follow the prompt on the left-hand side of the paper, and write down every little thing the critic said on the right side.  This is dumb, I’m too tired to write, etc.

I’ve encouraged students to write it all down, but I’d never thought of the two-column approach.  It creates a back-and-forth, a dividing line.  You can talk back, perhaps not with cruelty – the critic will always best you there – but with negotiation and even (gulp) compassion.  Hey, I know you’re worried I’m going to make a fool of both of us, but hear me out.  Or:  I know you’ve got things to say, just give me ten minutes and then I’ll come back to you.  You’ll get time to edit later.

Try it.  And if you find the right-hand column is still holding forth loud and clear, and drowning out all the good ideas, go find a water glass.



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