Return to PART ONE
Here are some of those voices and what they sound like.
1- Lack of Faith in the Process (Sounds like "Gotta get this right." "This isn't good." "Start over....again." "You made a mistake....why don't you just forget it." "Gotta make this perfect or why bother?" "This isn't as good as you thought. Abort! Abort!")
I can't stress this enough.
More writers are blocked (voices or not) because of this ONE thing than for ALL. OTHER. REASONS. COMBINED.
The thing that sets apart professional writers (and those who have "made it,” for whatever value of "made it" you might want to use) from those who who dream of being writers but have trouble getting past chapter two or spend days worth of writing sessions starting in bitter agonizing frustration at a blank page (or screen) is a FUNDAMENTAL DISTRUST IN THE PROCESS OF WRITING.
Let me say that again. It is a fundamental distrust in the PROCESS of writing.
They want to write. They may even like it. But when someone tells them the messy slog involved in a book going from an idea to some stranger's shelf, they don't want to do THAT. They don't want to write (almost) every day. They don't want to read prolifically. They don't want to believe that their first book will probably suck and should be shelved, at least for a while, while they get to work on book two. They don't want to do multiple drafts. They don't want to have to make big changes. They don't want to kill their darlings.
The most common mistake I see among writers who are frustrated by where their writing career is (or isn't) isn't an unknown comma rule or a prose problem or even a lack of a killer FB page audience.
It's that they believe they will be the exception to the most BASIC of advice in writerdom.
When I (and basically every other working writer in the world) tell you that your novel will probably have to be rewritten from scratch at least once and have four other major revisions that may include huge changes like cutting out whole sections or removing a character, what is your reaction? If you're a veteran writer, you probably nodded sagely and said, "Yep. Art is messy. Very rare to nail anything on the first draft." Or did you think, "Not *MY* novel! I've really thought hard about it"? When I tell you that you probably need to write for about ten years before you are at the level of publishable work, what is your reaction? Does that sound about right? Or are you trying to buck that conventional wisdom because your book is going to be really, really good?
This "mode" of thinking comes out when one sits down at the page and expects perfection. If a writer is not trusting the process of a zillion drafts and big changes, they'll often be frozen in front of a blank page.
Because it has to be perfect the first time.
When they are really, truly, in-their-guts confident that they're going to rewrite everything and put it through multiple drafts and this might not even be the first chapter of the final edit, not so much hangs on getting it right the first time.
If you have to get it right on the first shot, of COURSE you're going to sit there and fret about it.
These voices can't be turned off or out-thought, necessarily, because they require a person to truly believe something that they probably don't TRULY believe. (A lot of people will intellectually accept that five drafts is a good start but that they're going to be the exception.) However they are very easy to "trick." ("Well, let's just start on the second paragraph and see how it goes.")
2a- Lack of Confidence (Sounds like "You're not a good writer." "This will never be published." "This is crap." "You don't have the chops to write this." "This is too big.")
Writers tend to have two modes.
"I am the best thing to happen to the written word since Shakespeare!"
"I do not know how to write and my every word choice is a travesty."
As bad as it is when someone's second voice is running the table most of the time, trust a veteran of this industry when I tell you that in many ways, it can be a lot worse when it's the first voice. ("I'm going to self publish my Nano book since those philistines over at HaperCollins wouldn't know genius if it bit them in the ass. Any chance I can use your place for my release party tomorrow night?") But that's once you have to deal with someone who thinks their shit doesn't stink. When you're sitting there in front of the keyboard, hoping to get a page or two punched out on your work in progress, a dollop of overconfidence would be quite nice.
Why can't writers (and artists….and shit, really everyone) just cultivate a middle-of-the-road voice that has a reasonable amount of confidence but also acknowledges the need to improve?
I don't know, but if you come up with a pill, you'll be rich by this time tomorrow. TO-MOR-ROW. (So don’t forget who inspired you, and toss a coin to your blogger.) In the meantime, we have to settle on recognizing that either of those voices operating too long in a vacuum needs the other to keep perspective.
When you are dealing with the voices that find you inadequate and incompetent, it can help to remember that they are just part of the creative process. (And in some cases, perhaps to a lesser degree, part of almost every process.) Everyone deals with them. If your reaction is less like "Oh my god, this is a totally valid internal critic that is absolutely bringing up the truth that I had not considered before––that I actually have zero skill!" and more like, "Oh it’s…you. Not now, okay?” then you may be better able to handle it.
2b- Lack of Confidence in Current Ability (Sounds like "You're not a good writer yet." "This will isn't ready to be published." "This is still crap." "You haven't developed the chops to write this." "This is too big to finish.")
So this is a little like the one above, but those voices are saying something juuuuuuust a little bit more specific. They're saying that you're not ready. They are not saying that you'll never make it. They are not saying that this is always going to be crap.
They're saying you can't do it YET. They aren't necessarily saying that you will always suck, but only that you do right now.
See, that's totally better, right? *flips table*
I wish I couldn't tell you this story, but I will. So don't even attempt to contain your tears. I know way too many people convinced that their manuscript was marketable who bypassed gatekeepers and went the self-publishing market without getting enough editing and beta reading. They were then "Published Authors™" and they felt really good.....for about two weeks. And then, slowly, inexorably, like Obi Wan realizing that was not a moon, they realized that no one was going to buy their book beyond their family and some close friends and that a few hundred dollars was pretty much where they capped out for all that effort. Most of them gave up on writing. A couple went and did the same thing again with another book. I only know one writer who I can say learned their lesson and edited the shit out of their next book.
This voice can get tricky because your brain is usually a troll that lives under a bridge and hates goats. But every once in a while, it's your pal trying to tell you the shit that you really don't want to hear........but still hates goats. A really careful ability to objectively evaluate your own work (or some compassionate, but totally non-bullshit, friends you trust) will help to keep yourself from falling into some traps that are really painful and really demoralizing.
Of course, as if life weren't already fucking complicated enough, it is ENTIRELY possible to get caught in the "I'm not ready yet" loop. That's where you are constantly doubting your own skill forever and never think a work is ready to be submitted without one more revision. I had a professor who was forever retooling that one novel of theirs the entire time I was at SFSU (four years). It was always almost ready.
On the other hand....ARE you ready? Is this little voice holding you back or giving you good advice?
The great thing about this particular little voice is that it is absolutely possible to A) find out if it's right or not and B), if it is, agree with it and move on. See, most people hear they're not ready and then they just quit the field. "Oh well. Voice said I'm not ready. Guess I'll keep practicing for another two years." But you can run that work past an editor or some beta readers and get their opinion. Maybe you're doing better than you think you are. We are usually our own worst critics.
However, let's ask ourselves what if it's right?
Stop for a minute and think about what if that voice is absolutely right. Absolutely.
What are you going to do to get better? How would you deal with the information that you are indisputably not YET a good writer.
If you answered anything but "KEEP GOING!" that is the wrong answer. So the way to handle this little voice, whether it's lying or telling the truth, is to go right on writing. I mean....... maaaaaaaaaybe you have to decide that your cyberpunk vampire love triangle that you first wrote in high school isn't going to be picked up by Simon and Shuster no matter how many times you revise the beginning, but it's not like even that manuscript (and you as a writer) won't be better if you spend some time getting some feedback and going back to rewrite it one more time.
3- Fear about Reception. (Sounds like "No one will like this." "They will laugh at you." "You're not as good as Soandso Author." "This will never sell.")
Fear of rejection can look like an endless comparison game to where you think you should be or where other writers are. You will never be as good as as you want to be so why bother? You will never be as good as they are, so why bother? Your thing will never be as good as it needs to be. Unlike not being up to the task YET, in this situation you will never be. No matter what you do or how much time you put in or how much effort. You will never be good enough to be liked.
Fundamentally, this isn't an internal critic grounded in your actual ability. (If you listen carefully, your actual ability is irrelevant.) It is more about how your work will be received––who will love it (and you) or possibly who won't.
Thus, one of the things that can be useful is to carefully examine what you want to happen and why you think it won't.
Do you want everyone to love you? (That's never going to happen.) Do you want your critical reception to be gushing adoration? (I would try to manage your expectations.) Do you never want to be shown a link by one of your friends (“Hey, did you know about this?") that goes to a review so scathing that you have to take a day off and eat an entire chocolate orange while crying? (I…um….well, that EXACT thing probably won't happen to you, but it's unlikely you'll avoid every similar situation.) How much of your ego is invested in what other people think about you?
Are you comparing all the good and glowing reviews of Soandso Author to your own bad ones? (They get bad reviews too, you know?)
One of the worst things you can do is to try to put your work out into the world before first having it reviewed by peers and beta-read because you don't like hearing bad things. These are like the "toughen you up" experiences. (Or the "lowest difficulty setting" versions of bad reviews.) They give you practice in what it's going to feel like when reality intrudes on your pleasant fantasy of cheering crowds. You're not going to be able to avoid bad reviews and negative feedback.
But more to the point, if you're trying to work your way around anyone saying anything negative to or about you...ever, why are you doing that? It's fine not to be a fan of hyperbolic shit gibbons trashing you or people sliding into your inbox acting like the worst humanity has to offer, but if one of those voices is our ego wanting NEVER be criticized, it's important to our ability as writers to ignore it.
4- Imposter Syndrome (Sounds like: "You are fooling yourself that you can do this." "People are going to realize that you can't write." "This is never going to fool anyone with any actual skill.”)
Even the writers who HAVE made it tend to think that they have somehow managed to "trick" everyone, and that any second now, someone is going to tap them on the shoulder and say, "Okay, that was fun, but it's time to pack it in and go home."
Success of any degree or proof of competence will not quiet this voice––the people with whom you have success just get added into those with whom the feelings of who has been "tricked." ("Clearly I've fooled the entire world and even a few literary critics!") In fact, if anything, the more successes come, the worse the imposter syndrome can be. Further (as if that irony weren't enough), it is those with almost no ability and success who are often far FAR more confident.
Imposter syndrome is on the "impossible" side of "Difficult" to get rid of permanently, but hope is not lost. About half the time, it responds very well to reverse psychology. (“Yeah, you're right. Most undergrads know more about this than you do." "Now wait just a second, I didn't say THAT....") In that way it can kind of be set to the side in a sort of "No one picks on my little brother but ME" moment. The other half of the time, it can really be helpful to acknowledge what your imposter syndrome is saying but also point out that it shouldn't stop you from trying. ("It's true that I have more to learn about writing, but I have been studying it for twenty years, and have a paid blog ABOUT writing, so I can probably finish this article.")
5- The Editor (Sounds like "That sentence needs to be reworked right now." "Is it subjunctive or not?" “Does a comma go here? Better stop writing and check." "How are you ever going to make it with grammar like this?"
The Editor is very similar to lack of faith in the process, but instead of trying to get you to throw in the towel completely because it's just not perfect, it just wants you to spend hours MAKING it perfect before you can move on. The Editor forgets that you are probably going to change the content anyway. The Editor forgets that there is an entire part of the process in which it will be the principal voice you will listen to. The editor is showing up out of order.
The editor is a fucking time-wasting a-hole.
Somewhat analogous to a writer cleaning their desk, then whole room, and even entire apartment before they write or a child who asks for six last drinks, a snack, ONE more story, you to check the closet for monsters, and to be tucked in again after each drink, the Editor is in a last desperate bid to buy time and run out the clock so there's none left for writing.
The Editor is acting like a little kid, and funnily enough it responds well to being treated like one as well. A firm voice to the Editor that NOW IS NOT THE TIME can often work. Or trickery works particularly well. ("Just let me finish this one paragraph, and then I'll come back and look up that esoteric comma rule.")
6- Constant Intrusive Thoughts Chronic Anxiety. (Sounds like: "You are worthless." "You'll never be good at anything." "Why bother trying at all?" "You are not worthy.” [Note that these go beyond just you as a writer or your work.])
For some people, these voices aren't just there when they sit down to be creative, and they're also not just talking mad smack about the work and doing that quirky artist thing that all artists must artfully art their way through like winged fairies flitting between leaves in a sylvan glade.
And folks, that's above my paygrade. Some of the shit in this post MIGHT help with those kinds of voices, but you may need to talk to a professional therapist if you are having intrusive thoughts all the time or they are focused on your entire worth as a person. We all deal with these thoughts from time to time, or an unbidden image or something deeply unpleasant, but if it's disrupting your life beyond the page or REALLY rattling you, or if they lead to powerful anxiety while they’re happening, or depression (that you could have had such thoughts) afterwards, you may be dealing with something bigger than what a plucky blog post can talk you through. You may have a chemical imbalance in your brain, and need to take some medication to help you out (if you can’t make your own chemicals, store-bought are fine!). Or you may need to find some cognitive behavioral therapy to help you break the pattern. And while you may still do something like "sit and listen" to your thoughts, it might be important to do so under the supervision of someone trained to handle the big stuff if and when it comes up.
Of course there are lots more than six melodies these voices can sing, and even these have lots of harmonizing and variations on a theme, so it's up to you to listen close and decide what techniques might work the best.
NEXT UP: TECHNIQUES
[We will conclude this post next Friday, but Early Access Patrons will get the final part today.]
How being a writer helped me rewrite a sexist trope...for real. [Edit 3 (7/25/13): I speak to some of the more common comments, questions,...
Well....it finally happened. My "can't even" about the comments on my Facebook page went from figurative to literal. At o...
So if you've been on Facebook sometime in the last fifty years or so, you've probably run across this little turd of a meme. I...
My suspicion is we're going to hear a lot about mental illness in the next few days. A lot. And my prediction is that it's going to...
Come see the full comic at: http://jensorensen.com/2016/11/15/donald-trump-election-win-reactions-cartoon/ If you are still trying to ...
Image description: A fountain pen writing on lined paper. These are the brass tacks. The bare bones. The pulsing core of effective writi...
I don't normally mess with author gossip here on Writing About Writing . Our incestual little industry has enough tricky-to-navigate g...
Ready to do some things for your craft that will terrify you even more than a sewer-dwelling clown? Oh what I wouldn't give for a si...
This might be a personal question, but I saw that you once used to be Muslim on one of your other posts. Why did you leave? It's fun...
1. Great writing involves great risk–the risk of terrible writing. Writing that involves no risk is merely forgettable–utterly. 2. When yo...