First, a couple of warnings. One, this post contains the occasional rude word. If you are easily shocked by such, look away now. It contains rude words because I am discussing things about which I feel strongly, and because I use rude words to deal with them.
Two, this post is intended to help with creative self-confidence and productivity. And there is an innate problem for some of us with things that are intended to do this. Because such things, however rah-rah they are, however carefully couched in messages of support and encouragement, can end up making us feel worse.
Why? Easy. Here is all this help being offered, it all sounds so workable, and the person offering it is so nice about it, they’re really trying to help us and make us feel good. Everything we need is there, right in front of us, but then – we read it, and we don’t immediately become incredibly productive overnight! (Without even doing any of the exercises, visualisations, etc.) So we are obviously really bad people, so utterly entrenched and mired in our useless ways that we are beyond help or hope!
Of course, that’s bullshit.
That’s the Voices of Unreason with their whining chorus of self-destruction, they’ve just seized on the latest stick to beat you with. The Voices of Unreason are cunning and have no shame. They will use anything at all to keep you stuck.
Less than perfect at absolutely everything? “Loser!” They sneer. Decide that it’s better to do 100 words, or 50, than none at all, they’ll howl, ‘Pathetic!’ If you do 1000 words they’ll tell you it should have been 2000, or 4000, and you should have done it yesterday. In fact you should have written the entire novel by now, no, ten novels, and won at least six major awards, and in fact you should have done all this decades ago because now, “You’ve wasted your life so there’s no point trying!”
Creative blocks are often to do with part of your mind which has a huge investment in keeping you safe, and to this part of your mind ‘keeping you safe’ means, to quote Homer Simpson, ‘never try.’ If you don’t try it can’t go wrong. You can’t be exposed to ridicule or hatred or simple failure. Keep your head below the parapet and no-one will shoot at you.
Trouble is if you keep your head below the parapet forever, you’ll never find out if you could have won the war.
Whether or not these voices had their origins in protection, they’re not your friend now.
There are techniques to deal with the Voices of Unreason, and if their noise is overwhelming your life, then seeing a professional is a good option. (Oh, listen, here they go – “See a professional? Self-indulgent whiner! There’s nothing wrong with you that some self-discipline wouldn’t cure!” Because actually getting help when you need it is, according to the Voices of Unreason, bad and wrong. Just think of them as the sort of people who say, ‘Stop whinging and get some fresh air’ to someone with pneumonia – or a broken leg).
However. Right now, you’d just like a chance to get on with it, without everything you try to do to help yourself turning into another stick for the Voices of Unreason to beat you with.
They are nasty. You are allowed, in fact I encourage you, to get nasty back.
I have a sign above my desk. It says, “Fuck off, Quittlemouse.”
Mrs Quittlemouse is a personification of my major Voice of Unreason. She came out of a visualisation exercise. You don’t need anything fancy to create one of your own; just some time to yourself. Write or draw a description of one or more of your Voices – whatever it is you hear when you’re trying to get on with what you want to do.
Mrs Quittlemouse is a nasty, mean, tight-bunned, grim bitch. (She looks a little like the woman in the painting American Gothic, only meaner). She is miserable, and wants everyone else to be miserable too. She curls her lip at my every creative impulse and reminds me of every single time I ever failed at anything. She shakes her head when I sit down at the desk, she purses her lips when I start writing, she sniffs disdainfully at every error and tries to stamp on the fragile shoots of a story before they can possibly grow in the concrete wasteland she has instead of a garden.
I can visualise miniaturising her and dropping her in a glass jar and screwing the lid on (as suggested by Ann Lamott in Bird by Bird), where she can tap her foot and sniff at me all she wants, but I can’t hear her. I can jab mental pins in her or lock her in a safe (with any luck one day the old bitch will suffocate in there. I live in hope).
What I can’t do is make her happy. Her whole being is invested in not being happy, in anti-creativity, anti-love, anti-pleasure. She doesn’t recognise happiness, she recognises only Duty and Failure.
The thing is, she’s actually become useful. Making her into a persona, instead of her being an inchoate whirl of foggy nastiness, a thing I couldn’t reach to fight, pins her down and makes her vulnerable, and perhaps most usefully, separates her from me. I can tell her to fuck off. I’m not telling myself, ‘Oh just get on with it Sebold and stop being useless’ – which is just the Voice of Unreason disguising itself as me – I’m telling her, the person hanging on my arms to try and stop me working, to fuck off.
And realising I can’t make her happy, giving up on the idea that she will ever be pleased with me for doing what I want to do, is immensely freeing. If you win awards, gain respect, buy a yacht – or an island – with your creative earnings, the Voices of Unreason are still waiting for a chance to tell you you’re Doin it Rong. Because they’re always looking for another stick to beat you with. They will never be happy or satisfied, because they don’t believe in happiness or satisfaction. The Voices wouldn’t recognise Happiness or Satisfaction if they did the Macarena in front of them. Naked.
So acknowledge your Voices of Unreason, one at a time or all together. Give them faces and personalities, and then tell them to fuck off. Stop trying to please them, it won’t work. Get angry. Rage at them. Stick them in a glass jar, throw it off a building. Or draw them, looking completely ridiculous. Write them into a story and have horrible, humiliating things happen to them. Or put on your headphones, sing, ‘La la la I’m not listening,’ (or something much ruder), as loudly as you can, and know that the Voices of Unreason are going puce with rage as you ignore them and get that one word, that one brushstroke, on paper. It’s immensely satisfying.
And just occasionally it helps me get on with writing.