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Making Your Writing World Safe
by Jane Anne Staw

Return to The Writing Life · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

"I realized yesterday that whenever I start writing, I say the most awful things to myself," a writing client announced the other day. "I couldn't believe how mean I was. 'You're no good. Nobody will want to read anything you write. Who cares?' were only some of the criticisms dancing around in my head. I was never aware of this before; I didn't realize how awful I am to myself whenever I try to write."

My client is not alone. Whether they realize it or not, far too many writers are cruel to themselves when they write. From the moment they first think about sitting down to put words on the page to the day they begin to consider sending a manuscript out for possible publication, many writers transform their writing into a war zone and become their own worst enemies.

Hearing the Voices in Your Head

First there are the voices in their heads. My client was able to hear hers for the first time yesterday. Other clients are unaware of the hostile crowd they bring with them into the writing process. For these writers, I often suggest creating a separate page or column as they write, a place to jot down any of the negative voices or comments that they overhear. Very quickly, the uninitiated tune in to the hail of insults and condemnations striking them. "You don't have anything interesting to say. You are too shallow to write anything important. Your punctuation is awful. Nobody likes you so why would they read what you write? You're one of the stupidest people you know." These are only some of the hundreds of bullets aimed directly at the writers I work with, and not necessarily the most cruel.

Once you become aware of the hostile voices in your head, you can learn to negotiate with these voices in order to create the quiet and safety you need to write. Some writers are able to identify at least some of the people -- a parent, former teacher, ex-best friend -- behind the insults, and can then negotiate with these voices. When I realized that one of my critics was a revered professor from my undergraduate university, I learned to thank him for wanting to help me, then to explain that I didn't need his help at the moment. I would, however, probably need it later, and would call upon him then. One of my clients realized that the most vitriolic voice she heard was her mother's, and decided that the best way for her to deal with her mother's intrusive presence was to ask her to leave. It was that simple. Every morning my client would sit down to write, then the minute she heard her mother's voice chastising her about some aspect of her writing, she would get up from her chair and accompany her mother out the door. "Thanks for coming to see me, Mom, but I have to write right now and don't have time to talk."

Even if you can't identify the people behind the voices, you can devise strategies to silence them. I've suggested that clients draw interpretive pictures of some of their voices, then turn these pictures to face the wall when they start to write. Often, finding an alternative activity to engage the negative chorus provides writers the quiet they need. "There's a great movie at the Lumiere you might like to see," I've suggested to my personal chorus. Or, "It's such a beautiful day, wouldn't you rather be gardening?"

Most writers find that all that's necessary to distract their harsh critics is a bit of diplomacy. And I emphasize the word diplomacy. While some writing coaches offer hostile strategies to silence critics, I maintain that there is already too much enmity and hostility in the writing process. And in the long run, hostility is counterproductive, generating only temporary solutions; while compassion is enduring.

Finding the Right Audience

Related to this barrage of critics many writers face without the proper ammunition, is the question of the ideal reader. And when it comes to envisioning readers, most of the writers I've worked with place themselves in front of the firing line. "Whenever I write, I consciously think about what my meanest editor will say when he reads my piece," one writer told me. "I know that I'm still trying to show the chairman of my dissertation committee that he was wrong about my writing," a poet admitted. "Even though he had nothing to do with poetry, I'm determined to make him respect me."

Once you understand that writing with the wrong audience in mind is like writing with a gun to your head, it's easy to see how helpful writing for the right audience could be. But who is the right audience? Not necessarily your future readers, I tell my clients. The right audience is a person who knows and respects you and whose opinion and judgment you respect in return. It might be a loving aunt. A cousin. A close friend.

During a workshop I was giving for graduate students, a biologist with a post-doc at a prestigious university told the audience that she would never have finished her dissertation if it hadn't have been for her friend. The student had been completely blocked for several months, when her friend said, "I'm so interested in your thesis topic, I'd love to read what you've written so far." Hearing this, the biologist panicked, then rushed home to try to produce something for her friend to read. She did, and when the friend came to her apartment the next week, she was enthusiastic about what she read.

"So I asked her if she would come to my apartment and read what I had written each week," the biologist told the group. "And that was how I was able to finish my dissertation -- with my friend, whom I respected and who respected me -- as my most immediate audience."

Embracing the Process

Understanding that writing is a process and not a product also helps quell the critics. When I was in college, I thought that every word, every sentence, every paragraph I wrote had to be exquisite before I could move on to the next word or sentence or paragraph. With this standard of perfection, it took me weeks and weeks to finish each and every writing assignment. Even worse, since I was a far from perfect writer -- as we all are -- I created an open season for the critics.

It took me many years to understand that the actual writing takes place in stages, each stage requiring a different focus and concentration from the others. During the first stage, the writer is responsible only for generating material. Whether this material may be ideas for an essay, incidents for a story, or the images for a poem, the only task of the writer at this initial stage is to generate raw material. Think of it as creating a gold mine for yourself. Worry about punctuation, word choice, syntax come much, much later. Even structure and development can be put off while you are creating the ore for your future project.

It is only once writers have created this gold mine that they proceed to the next phase, which involves cutting and pasting in order to create structure or logic for what they have written so far. If it's a story, the writer begins thinking about plot. If it's a poem, the poet starts to consider how the images might appear on the page. If it's an essay or argument, the essayist considers the logic of the piece. The writer is still not responsible for the full development of any one idea or image or scene. And certainly not for spelling and grammar. Not at all!

During the third stage of the writing, you look over what is on the page and ask, Which of my ideas or moments or images need more development. Does this idea feel too flimsy? If it does, what can I do to bolster it? Does this scene seem trivial? What can I do to strengthen it? Does this stanza seem too thin? How can I create more density?

It is only now, once you have revised the piece for logic and development, that the fourth phase of the writing begins: refining syntax and taking a look at word choice. Are too many of my sentences long and rambling? Is there not enough variety in my syntax? Can I find a more precise word? These are all efforts that affect the surface of the piece, putting the writer's muscle to polishing and refining. If we engage in this refining too early, we risk skating along the surface of whatever we are writing, never penetrating to the subterranean pockets where the deepest ideas, images or stories reside.

The last phase of the writing process involves copy editing -- reading over what you have written to check that all the I'd are dotted; that you have no dangling modifiers or run on sentences.

It's easy to put off the critics when you approach writing as consisting of a series of stages. "I'm not ready to copy edit yet," you can say. "Come back in a week or two." Or, "I know this idea deserves more development, but I'm not responsible for development yet. I promise I'll get to that by next week."

Learning to Think "Small"

Grandiose thinking is another way to sabotage yourself. In fact, it doesn't even have to be grandiose for your thinking to create a minefield as you write. Thinking too far ahead, to where you want to be in a week or a month; or to when you want to finish your essay or your book, is thinking too big. Thinking about the whole book when you are beginning the first chapter or the entire essay when you are putting your toe in the first paragraph are also ways of thinking too big. So is wondering what kind of advance you might receive.

Thinking too large takes you off course, and stirs up all those anxieties that help make your writing world unsafe: Will I be able to finish this story? Will I be able to convince my reader of my argument? Will my last lines provide the catharsis the reader expects from a poem? Will this novel be good enough to attract a publisher? Will I receive good reviews? Am I up to the task? How will I be able to weave together all the characters and themes and incidents into a coherent novel? How will I be able to sustain this mood for twenty pages?

And stirring up our anxieties brings us right back to where we began: with the barrage of critics shooting criticisms at us as we write. To stop the bullets from strafing us, we need to learn to think small. If you are writing a novel or a book of nonfiction, don't get ahead of yourself with worry about the last chapter. And if you find yourself thinking about the Pulitzer, simply bring yourself back to the chapter or the scene you are currently writing. If it's a poem you are working on, return to the image you have just created or focus on a particular word. If it's an essay or a story, lead yourself back to the paragraph or the sentence you are engaged with fashioning. By reminding yourself to think small, you will allow yourself to remain calm and focused upon what you are writing at the moment. And you will be able to witness your words blossoming fully on the page.

To thrive as writers, we need to fashion for ourselves the sort of lasting peace that allows us to write within the safety of our very personal relationship with our writing. It is a relationship bathed in understanding and compassion, a relationship that we nurture by negotiating with our critics, understanding that writing is a process, not a product, envisioning an ideal and receptive audience and thinking small. Once this peace is in place for a while, you will see flowers blooming where devastation once laid waste to the territory of the blank page.

Copyright © 2005 Jane Anne Staw
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Jane Anne Staw is the author of Unstuck: A Supportive and Practical Guide to Working Through Writer's Block, which explores the causes and consequences of writer's block -- conceptual, practical and emotional -- as well as strategies for working through them.


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