Hearing Voices

Voices in our headsEvery writer has voices that speak to us. I’m not talking about characters who want their story told. The voices I’m talking about are the other voices: Those quiet little whispers, those petty insults, the boring nattering that goes on and on. Threats, blackmail, hissing and nagging, they’re all there. I’ve never heard a writer say that any of these voices is sweet or kind or encouraging. Mostly they’re mean-spirited and hard-hearted, they say things you’d never say to your best friend. Or even to someone you don’t like.

These voices – I’ve identified the major ones as the Editor, the Critic, the Censor – get in the way of our writing and even have the power to stop us from writing altogether. These natterers of negativity, to paraphrase Spiro Agnew, carry ancient messages from some underworld place that we picked up along the way, usually when we were very, very young. Yet here we are, adults with creative and often brilliant minds, still listening to them, still believing them, and still allowing them to live rent-free inside our heads. These voices do not serve us. They are not on our side. They come from fear and everyone knows that which comes from fear is small-minded and has bad breath.

Red PencilsLet’s talk about the Editor. The editor isn’t really a bad guy, some of my best friends are editors, but this voice can be pushy and often suffers from bad timing. This is the one that makes you cross out a perfectly good word and search for a better one. It sends you off to rifle through the dictionary, double-check the name of a mountain and Google a street map of Portland—all the places you don’t need to go when you’re still in the intuitive, creative mode. The editor can help us when we need correct grammar, when punctuation matters, when we need to get our facts straight and especially during the revision process and double-especially before we hit the “send” button or drop that manuscript in the mail. But it doesn’t help when we are in the throes of creating; here we need free rein to let ‘er rip.

One of the ways to by-pass the editor when you’re free-writing or during a writing practice session is to keep the pen moving or the fingers flying. Once you stop, you’re a goner—especially if you go back to reread what you’ve just flung down on the page. That’s when you’ll hear a little ahem, and the crisp, self-important voice of the editor will step in and tell you what’s incorrect about what you’ve just written. Or where you might want a stronger verb or that you’ve just violated a parallel construction or split your infinitive. You’ll be rewriting before you actually get anything written. This is why we don’t go back and reread what we’re writing while in the process of writing it. You can’t create and edit at the same time. So tell the Editor you appreciate its knowledge and many abilities, but how about taking a coffee break while you continue to get the first draft down.

I call my editor Al, in honor of my first mentor, Al JaCoby, whom I worked for a hundred years ago (and wouldn’t he haul out his red pencil for that sentence construction).

How do you shut off the Editor’s voice in your head?

Next time: The Critic and The Censor


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