Hate on you, hater: How to make peace with that voice in your head
This is going to be one of those meta writing post things, but it’s probably one of those deals where it applies to life in general as well. So if you’re a writer, you can take it literally, and if you’re not, you can take it metaphorically or however it pleases you.
I’m writing this because of a conversation on twitter with @Asrion. He was getting stuck with writing, and I suggested he just keep writing because that’s how you get through it, by just writing so you get better and more confident. And he said:
And I said, yeah. That reply is longer than 140 characters.
It’s also going to take a tich of backstory. If you have been here since last year about this time, you know that it was then when I started to melt down. I had thought I’d melted down a bit prior to that, but life in its way said, "No, THIS will be the time when you nearly come unglued," and yessir, that was so. For a good eight months I’d been careening slowly towards chronic pain, and then for Christmas I landed smack-dab in it. At this time last year I was standing in the doorway of my office, pressing my forehead to the wood and screaming. And then I thought, "Hey, now would be a good time for therapy!" So off I went. And I also went to every doctor I could find, and by March I was well on my way to where I am now, which is holding hands with pain and living with it. But back then I wasn’t, and so I went to see Maura, and we talked. A lot.
The thing with pain is that it’s a bitch in its own right, but the side effect is that if you have any other issues, when the pain hits, so do the other issues. I didn’t realize how much I had packed away, not just saying but believing I was fine until I needed every reserve crevice for storing resolve for arms that ached and hips that screamed and necks that swelled and made my head feel like it was going to snap off. So therapy quickly became not just talking about how do I live with this not-well-named pain thing and the uncertainty of the treatment (which still remains, "I dunno, whatever works"), but we also quickly moved to "Okay, so this writing thing is getting me down," and we even got to social stuff too. Right now we’re talking a lot about when I was twelve. We also talk about when I was eight, and six, and sixteen, and twenty.
(If you are sitting there thinking, how the hell does this have to do with writing? just hold on. I promise, I come around.)
In these conversations we talk a lot about what happened then, or rather, I talk and Maura finds my landmines. I tell a story for twenty minutes, and then she yanks out a word or a phrase. Like, "stupid." In Special Delivery, Sam got a spanking from Mitch for saying he was stupid, and I get Looked At Sternly by Maura. Sam has more fun. But Maura’s right. I’m a bit too liberal in calling myself "stupid." I am also, as she says, way too hard on myself. This is because, I have learned, that in my youth and childhood there were A Series of Unfortuante Events, and I had to make some choices, and my choice was that I decided I was going to be really fucking competent. Except I was about six and didn’t know the word "fuck" even existed, so I decided it with G-rated vocabulary. But competent was the word. Life was scary and unpredictable, and it hurt, so I decided I was going to be so strong it couldn’t hurt. Everybody else had Lee jeans and I had hand-me-downs? No problem. I don’t need those. They don’t matter. Nobody wants to be my friend? That’s fine. I don’t need them. We lose our family farm, where I have all my secret hideaways in the forest and talk to the faries and imagine alternate worlds? Okay, that one smarted. But I kept on. We move eight zillion times and I have to make new friends all over the place? Can-do. Parents divorce as I go to college? All over it, babe. Nothing can touch us. Strong as fuck here. (I know the word by college.)
The problem—and here’s where we arc back to writing, if you’re skimming—is that this all came at a cost. Oh, it worked. We don’t call this joint Amazon Iowan for nothing. But the price for that BOO-YAH was one fuck of an inner critic. That voice inside that nags. And that one, I think, knew the word fuck before it was fucking invented. You want to be strong with no one to show you how but yourself? Well, if you’re going to do that, you have to be hard on yourself. Really, really hard. If you want to be strong, and more importantly, if you want to be safe, you have to get to yourself before the other people do. You have to be good, you have to be right, and you have to guess how they’re going to hit you before they even wind up to swing. So you develop that part of you that looks out all the time, the part of you which never sleeps, which doesn’t smile, which just keeps an eagle eye so that NOBODY gets the jump on you. Except sometimes they still do. And heaven fucking help you when that happens, because it will. Those are bad days. Those are the days that voice gets sharper, harsher, and a little more panicked. You can see where this is going, right? Pretty soon you’re sharp and panicked all the time. Pretty soon a fucking ice cube is threatening. Pretty soon you’re locked in your bedroom closet with a collander on your head with a toasting fork in one hand and a ham radio in the other, murmuring war mantras to yourself.
Well, not really. But I’m betting a whole hell of a lot of you know exactly what I’m talking about. This voice? This collander-head with the fork? A lot of people have that voice. And damn near every writer does.
I didn’t need Maura to figure that one out. The how and the why it got there I hadn’t cottoned to, but the ID on that baby came awhile ago. I used to call it "the bitch in my head" on this journal, in fact. I thought the only way to fight that voice was to scream back, to brace against the toasting fork and insist that I can fucking do this, damn it, leave me alone!
Would you believe that this, actually, is the worst thing you can do? Maybe you do, because that’s the standard delivery line advice people give, and what I used to give, when people are talking to that voice. And while the backstory is really long, the real way to deal with it is very short.
Love it. Love that voice. A fucking lot.
This isn’t some cute self-help thing, so stop rolling your eyes. The reason you got that TMI up there about me and My Poor Life is because it’s key to understanding, and that’s why therapy is always a walk down memory lane. Because that voice was created to survive. That voice showed up because life is really, really fucking hard. It’s hard, and it’s lonely, and they fill you full of this bullshit that there’s An Answer and A Way, and you try it because you want it to be true, but it doesn’t work. LIfe is a movie with bad plot and worse pacing. It’s got good moments too, but mostly it’s really hard, and if you think too much on it, you end up in the closet with the collander. Which is why we get that voice. The voice says, "You live. You go be a person. I will watch for you and keep you safe." And then it gets overdeveloped and the collander happens. (Yes, I’m in love with that image. Sue me. Aren’t you laughing? You should be laughing. The collander is green and plastic, by the way.)
So you try to write, or you try to live, and the voice happens. Basically, you take a risk, and that voice goes on alert. Because risks are bad. Bad things happen when we take risks. Better to just go stroke the toasting fork and check the ham radio for new action. Don’t write that novel. For god’s sake, don’t show it to anybody. Don’t try for that new job. Don’t, don’t, don’t. And when we try to rebel and do it anyway, it primes the pump. "They will laugh at you. It won’t work. It won’t be what you think it will. Bad, bad, bad, bad. Try the collander. It’s so comfy." The voice says no, because this is what the voice does.
But there’s a point where that voice needs to step down or at least step back, and a kick is not going to make that happen. This voice is a guardian. Telling it to fuck off will work about as well as it did with your parents. The voice will step down when it perceives safety, or when it perceives competence. It will absolutely test you. It will say, "Are you sure?" And the correct answer, for the record, is not always yes. The correct answer is, "I will be okay." Or, better, "We will be okay. You and me, voice, guaridan, baby, we’re gonna be okay."
You say, "You have done such a good job caring for me. Thank you. Thank you so much. You made me so strong. Thank you so much. You have made me safe in a world where there should be no safety. You made me strong inside myself and taught me that no one can truly hurt me. Thank you. Thank you so much." And you love the voice. And you honor it. And you behave the way your parents wish you would have when you were a teenager, acknowledging their sacrifices and support, and you say thanks.
And then you pull out the voice’s favorite movie and put it in the player, and you ask for the keys and promise to check in before curfew.
The voice that tells you that you suck is not your enemy. The guardian voice that fills you with doubt is you. That voice is there to keep you from being hurt. But the problem is that it is also there to keep you from living, and after awhile that starts to hurt more than anything life can throw at you. Explaining that to the voice is hard, but that’s your job. You get it to respect you by proving yourself. You get it to stop screaming and start nudging by not being the child it needed to protect but the adult you are. Like, my guardian voice is not quite sure about how much sharing I did here, and it thinks I was too wordy and too flip. Which is why this setence just got added in an edit, and I’ll be reading it again once it’s posted and probably editing again. My guardian voice is concerned with how we are perceived, the pair of us, and it is envisioning scenarios where other people read this and roll their eyes or mock, or worst of all, the most feared result, is that they find a flaw with this post or this exposure and POINT IT OUT and destroy the sense of saftey it has going. That’s the real death.That’s the guardian voice’s worst nightmare, because to it, that’s failure. That’s a guard asleep at the door. Its only job is to see potential flaws, and it just failed.
Well, that’s not true, of course. Its job is to do its best to see those things, and so when it misses, my job is to say, "It’s okay." When I have a book out and lots of people are suddenly interested, I’m all excited and fluttery, but the guardian voice says, "Oh, god. This could be bad." It’s like the Secret Service in a crowded room with no advance screening. So I try to be good and not stray too far from the guys with the earpieces. I try to respect the voice and advance slow enough that it feels safe too. Because after all this time of benefiting from its shepherding, it seems the least I can do.
So that’s the secret to dealing with the writing voice that tears down your confidence. You tell it "thank you." And then you point out that you’re unhappy. You point out that sitting still is not satisfying. You explain that, yes, you’d rather look like an idiot or at least risk that than sit in the closet. The collander is indeed comfy, but sometimes you want to walk down the street and take a risk. But you’re not running away, and you’re not running too fast. This is a team sport. You’ll check in with coach. But coach needs to not keep you on the bench, either. You say, "I’m going to try this." You say, "I am strong enough for this."
You say, "I am strong enough for this, guardian voice, because you made me that way. Thank you. I love you. Now let me show you what a wonder you have made."
And then you jump off the cliff and fly. The rest you just make up as you go along.