I see her standing, hands wrapped in each other and pulled tight to her chest. Her feet are turned in just a little bit beneath the slim corduroy pants she’s wearing, and her thick, blonde hair is cropped short, just above her collar. She looks terrified, and as I watch her, she backs up more and more. She’s trying to get away.
This little girl is who I see when I visualize the way I respond to the ugly voices that make me doubt my work, that make me question whether what I’m writing is worthwhile, that make me fearful of the harsh, frightening things people might say when they read something I write.
This little girl, of course, is me.
There’s a second me, too. This me is charging, lunging, aggressive. My fists are raised, and my jaw tight. I’m ready for a fight. I find this persona when I am writing from a place of injury, when I have not yet found a way to reconcile a hurt or an injustice within myself.
After years and years of practice – conscious, active work – I don’t see the timid, girl me or the aggressive, attacking me as often. They are still there, of course, but mostly, they are guarded and kept safe by the adult version of myself, the one I’ve trained to step forward when I write. This me is the one who stands tall, hands by her side and palms forward. Her feet are just slightly spread, and her face is calm, restful, open. This is the version of my inner self that I try to cultivate toward my writing. The confident, open person who puts out her best and trusts that it will be received by the people who need it.
A lot of writers talk about these voices – these ugly things that speak up in our minds and tell us that we are useless as artists. Natalie Goldberg calls them “monkey mind.” Anne Lamott says they are “the critics.” Other writers I know say those voices take up the tone and language of a hyper-critical parent or a teacher who dashed a dream. For me, those voices are always just versions of myself, parts of me that have had to step forward to protect me in my life.
Here’s what I’ve learned in the 15 years I’ve been trying to live this life as a writer in the world – the only way to survive as a creative person is to find a balance between confidence and surrender. I cannot be so meek as to hide away, and I cannot walk with so much bravado that I have no meekness. I cannot be afraid, but I cannot be aggressive. I cannot run, and I cannot attack. I must stand still with my hands, my head, and most importantly, my heart open.
I don’t know how to tell you to find that balance exactly, but I will say this – you can tell those ugly voices – the ones that tell you you’re not any good or that you’re wasting your time or that you better go into the world with guns blazing – you can tell them to shut the hell up, and when you tell them enough, they will listen. They really will.
Then, remind the truest part of who you are that you are loved, that you are strong enough, and that you are beautiful. After that, you write and you trust, and you love on that little, scared you and the big, scared you and let them tell the true you, who you are.
I realize that this might sound like a mild episode of The United States of Tara, where Toni Collette’s characters take a stab at writing. And while most of us are fortunate enough to not live with the horror of true dissociative identity disorder, all of us have these versions of ourselves that we’ve cultivated as a way of surviving in a broken, painful world.
The key is that we honor the truest version, the one that can stand still in the face of fear, the one that trusts her words, the one that is bold enough to not dodge or lunge. Because that person, that person has something important to say.
What do those ugly voices sound like to you? A teacher? A parent? An ex? A spouse? What could you say to those voices to help them be quiet while your true voice comes through?