BEFRIENDING THAT VOICE THAT TELLS US TO QUIT
Several of my clients are struggling with an issue that is familiar to me, and I think probably to many of you, too: the voice in their heads that tells them to quit; that their writing is garbage or their ideas stupid or, in one case, that writing itself is frivolous, an occupation for dilettantes who are afraid to engage with the real world.
This isn’t Anne Lamott’s “shitty first draft,” the acknowledgment that our early efforts can be crude and even misguided. This is the more persistent voice that tells us that we are fools for persevering; that we’re untalented and self-deluded; that no one would want to read this hopeless nonsense and we should go to secretarial school and be done with it.
Often, the voice kicks in just as we are closing in on what has, up to that point, seemed to be a fine idea; a truly promising draft; or an agent or publisher’s interest.
It is important to identify the source of this voice, and to discern its true intent. Obviously, sometimes the voice is really malevolent. Maybe we had a hateful or undermining parent, sibling, or teacher, whose words have stayed with us and continue to sting us. Sometimes the voice isn’t so much malicious as threatened: if we outstrip our parent or sibling or spouse, what horrible repercussions could ensue?
And often, as counterintuitive as it seems, the voice is that of a caring person in our past, trying to protect us from what it sees as certain ridicule or retaliation. “I’d turn back now, if I were you,” it calls to us. “Witches, ghosts and goblins ahead!”
When this happens, it can help to talk soothingly to the imagined or recollected owner of the voice. If, for example, we identify the voice as our grandmother’s, we can remember that she might have been ridiculed for being a "greasy grind," a smart girl, and want to spare us similar humiliation. We can imagine reassuring her that we appreciate her concern, but we’re all grown up now and can’t be hurt by playground taunts. We can decide to take the risk, to push on, even in the face of possible rejection or derision. We’re all right, really, we can tell her.
Because, really, we are.
Susan O'Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers and other creative artists. She is the author of Getting Unstuck without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity (Seal, 2007). Her Career Coach column appears every Monday on Inside Higher Ed's Mama, Ph.D. blog, and she is a regular guest panelist on Litopia After Dark. She can be reached at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.