The other day, I had lunch with an actress/musician friend who, by all outside appearances, seems wildly successful. Her band spent last summer touring with a major music festival. She performs with a theater company whose work has been lauded by The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Vogue. I always picture her as covered in glitter and wrapped in furs, trailing glamor wherever she goes.
At lunch, she wasn’t covered in glitter. It was freezing out, and we huddled over mugs of tea, letting the steam warm our faces. We talked about the financial nonsensicality of living one’s dream, when one’s dream is to be an artist. We talked about the struggle to get out of bed on gray winter days. We talked about the slippery beast of motivation, and how to hang onto it. She’d just finished a film project and had nothing new on the horizon. Her album was stalled. She knew she should be using the time for creative work, but she wasn’t quite sure what.
“Can I ask you something?” she asked, picking at her bento box. She stared into the air behind my left ear. “I’m trying to figure out how to put this…”
“That voice in your head,” she says finally. “The one that says you can’t do it. How do you ignore it?”
I had to stop for a long time and think. There was silence as I pushed chicken curry around my plate. I remembered a time in my life, not long ago, when that voice was so strong and loud it crowded out my need to write. I’d recently had a project dismally fail and another stall after a false start. I still had a powerful agent, but she’d begun hinting that I might want to find new representation.
And why was it so damn important that I write a novel, anyway? I had a lucrative career as a freelance copywriter; my clients loved my work and loved working with me. The work was creative. Maybe a copywriter was all I was meant to be.
In the midst of all this, I was scheduled to go on a writing retreat with two friends. They were actual, successful, working writers, both juggling multiple book deals. I tried to figure out how to get out of it, but I was the one with the car.
Alone in my “writing cabin”, I listened to The Voice scream in my head. It screamed through the first chapter of a novel that I knew, thanks to The Voice, was horrible and stupid and would never see the light of day, just like all my other work. That night, over wine, my friends wanted to workshop.
“I…don’t think I can,” I admitted. I felt like the biggest failure in the world. “I’m too delicate to deal with criticism right now.”
“We don’t have to criticize,” my friend suggested. “What if we just listen and tell you what’s working?”
I decided I could deal with that. Reading my words out loud, I thought they maybe even weren’t as terrible as I imagined.
“That was amazing!” my friends gushed when I was done. “Your writing is so vivid! Your characters are so real! I related to everything you said! Write more!”
Were they just blowing smoke up my ass to make me feel better? Maybe. I would have felt sorry for me, too. But you know what? It worked. The next day, I went back and wrote another chapter. Then I wrote another. And another. And another.
After we left the retreat, my friends continued reading my chapters and offering encouragement. Slowly, their voices began drowning out The Voice. Eventually, I was ready to hear constructive criticism. Eight months, multiple crit group sessions, and one more writing retreat later, I had a book.
Back in the restaurant, I had an answer for my friend.
“I don’t. I make other people do it.”
She leaned forward.
“I mean, it’s easier for me to say you’re brilliant and talented than to say I’m brilliant and talented. Right?”
“So roll with that. Surround yourself with people who believe in you. Think of yourself as Harry Potter and The Voice as Voldemort. You can’t defeat it on your own.”
This is what I tell my writing students as we all look around the table at each other for the first time. Get to know each other. Go out and drink and talk about how awful and lonely and discouraging it is to try to write. Read each other’s work, not just in class. Give wonderful, sincere compliments to boost each other up. You are all each other’s most powerful allies.
Since signing with my new agent and selling the novel I’d convinced myself would never sell, I’ve become less reliant on others to silence my Voice. I can get up in the morning and write fiction and occasionally even convince myself it doesn’t suck. Or I recognize that it does suck, but it’s a first draft and will get better with time and attention. I no longer need outside praise to move from one chapter to another; I’m working on weaning myself off my Gen Y addiction to constant praise.
But I still don’t confront The Voice on my own. Even without ongoing crit partners, I’ve cultivated a community of other writers who go through the same bouts of debilitating doubt. Together we talk about it (on Facebook, on Slack, on gchat and email and text and every so often even over tea) until it becomes a joke, a memory, a figment of our collective imagination.
The Voice will never go away. But if we all sing loud enough together, we can almost drown it out.