That Voice in Your Head? Not So Good For Your Writing

negative-voices-in-my-headI have a voice in my head, and it’s like a two-year old, constantly jabbering. It begins the moment sunlight trickles in through the slats of the shade and continues when I snap off the lamp to go to bed. Not content to harangue me all day long, it occasionally wakes me up in the middle of the night to continue its ceaseless dialogue. Favorite topics? My weight, people who done me wrong, the worrisome future, the troubling past, ways I’ve messed up my life, diseases I might possibly have and did I mention my weight?

Sound familiar? It should because everyone on the planet has a similar voice living inside of them. If you’re thinking, Not me. I don’t have a voice in my head. Well, the voice that denies having a voice in your head is precisely the voice I’m talking about.

Why the voice is detrimental   

The voice is troublesome to everyone for a vast number of reasons: it gives us bad advice, it talks us into unhealthy habits, and it frequently interferes with our enjoyment of our lives with its paranoia. (Left unchecked it can even deepen into psychosis) But it is especially detrimental to writers, because writers work in their heads, and the voice is the number one deterrent to producing quality work.

That non-stop voice is the one that seizes at the first crummy idea, adores clichés, races to be finished, and swings from self-loathing to self-aggrandizement in the space of five minutes. Anne Lamott calls it K-Fucked radio and that’s because it never signs off.

And yet sometimes the voice gets very quiet, like an easy listening station on low volume…. Ever writer has experienced instances when the work seems effortless, and he or she produce passages that seem far too wise and clever to have ever come out of their heads. What happened to the voice?

Sadly it never stopped yammering, but temporarily the writer escapes its ceaseless dramas and drops below it, into the depths of the subconscious where all the cool, original ideas are hanging out, ready to be scooped up. Some people call this “flow,” and it’s the state every writer is hoping for when she sits down to create. A quiet, whispery mind attracts more eureka moments than a busy one

How to escape the voice’s influence

How do you turn down the voice’s volume? Meditation is a popular method. (I’ve written about meditation and writing before.) And if you’re one of those people who have doubts about the pervasiveness of the voice, fifteen minutes of meditation should change your mind

Stream-of-conscious writing also helps.  Dorothea Brande was the first to advocate this practice in her 1934 book Becoming a Writer. For twenty minutes you write whatever is on your mind without stopping and the point of the exercise to heighten awareness of the voice. After several months you read what you’ve written in one sitting. Most people are shocked by the voice’s repetitive, complaining and negative nature. This monster actually lives in my head, they think. Pulling back the curtain on the voice motivates people to learn how to temper it.

Both meditation and stream-of-consciousness help muffle the voice, but to experience true liberation from its influences, it’s necessary to practice throughout the day. Some people set a timer every hour or so and when it goes off they check in with themselves. Michael Singer, author of The Untethered Soul suggests checking in each time you touch a door or a phone or whenever you get in and out of a car. Are you present in the moment? Or are you back in the past reliving some old affront or worrying about some aspect of the future?

What to do when the sky is falling

The practice is easiest when life is fairly good and nothing is threatening you. But when that outrageously high bill comes in the mail, or when someone rear ends you or you get the call with terrible news, the tendency is for the voice to become  as loud as a heavy metal radio station and almost impossible to ignore.

That’s when it’s important to head the voice off before it starts spinning out of control. Once it gains momentum, it’s really hard to stop it. (And the negative effects can last for days, months or even years.) When something awful happens, instead of shifting into freak-out mode, notice your breathing. It’s also useful to get in touch with your body. Are your fingers tingling? What is your stomach doing?

Singer also suggests letting the pain of the event pass through you. He says, “When you feel pain, simply view it as energy… Do the opposite of contracting and closing. Relax and release…  You will feel tremendous resistance… and that’s what makes it so powerful.”

The most common mistake

One very important piece of advice: Don’t try to resist the voice because you’ll never win. The best way to minimize it is to shine a light of awareness on its existence. (That’s what meditation and stream-of consciousness writing does.) The more we expose the voice, the more obvious it becomes that the voice is not us. It’s merely a defense system we’ve developed to make us feel “safe” in the world. Over the years, however, it’s gotten out of control and taken over our lives, making it tricky for us to separate it from our true identity.

We are not the voice and never have been. We are the presence observing it, and that quiet, wise presence is the source of our best work. The rest of it is just noise.