Don’t let that mean inner voice stop you from writing
Writing has been the only thing that I have ever wanted to do, and I’ve been at it professionally for more than 40 years. I write to make sense of life, to understand myself, and hopefully, to help others by sharing my experiences and insights. When writing works, it is the most satisfying job I know. Yet, the surest way to kill that satisfaction is to think more about publishing than the process of writing itself. The trick is to balance both.
The first time I felt driven to write was at age eight. I typed a three-page, three-chapter “book” about a bullied, overweight girl in my third-grade class. In my young mind, writing about her suffering would change the world. I proudly gave my book to a family friend who worked in publishing, certain of its acceptance. He laughed and returned it, unread. I threw it away.
But I didn’t stop writing. Indeed, my need to make sense of life and myself by taking pen to paper only got stronger. I couldn’t not write. I had too much to say. And then, in 1978, as a UC Berkeley sophomore, I published my first piece in the campus weekly. I got my first byline and my first writer’s payment, $15.
I wanted more.
Seeing my work and name in print was instantly gratifying. It made me feel like somebody. That’s when the trouble began: writing for myself felt good but writing for recognition felt better. I wasn’t interested in keeping a journal. I wanted to touch others, something I couldn’t do without being published. And, let’s be honest, I wanted the ego stroke. It took much rejection and devastation for me to realize how the desire to be published can paralyze my ability to write at all, and overshadow the value and joy that writing provides.
All writers write to be read. I’m lucky. I don’t write creatively to pay my bills. I do other writing for that. Still, the fear of rejection can turn my words into sludge or stop them from coming at all. Before I know it, what seemed like a good idea feels laughable and I can’t produce anything. I have to work hard to prevent the fear of rejection from paralyzing me, or talking me out of doing what I love.
This is easier said than done especially since I have a diabolical inner editor who grabs any opportunity to say things like, “This idea is stupid. It’s not worth writing about. No one will care.” Worrying about what’s not written yet is toxic to creativity. It makes me want to quit before I even start. If I listened to my inner editor every time it spoke to me, I’d never get anything done.
I owe this insight to my favorite author, the late Kent Haruf. According to his widow, who the New York Times interviewed for his obituary, Haruf had a technique for silencing his inner editor. He wrote with a ski cap pulled over his eyes so that he couldn’t judge or thwart himself as he worked. Literally writing in the dark allowed him to get the words on the page so that he, and later his wife, who was his editor, could polish them.
This strategy was invaluable to me as I wrote my memoir. Every morning at 5, before my internal editor was awake, I sat at my computer without a hat but with my eyes closed, and wrote without peeking at my screen. If my editor awakened and tried to discourage me, I’d quietly tell it to go to hell.
It worked. I completed my memoir and continue to turn out creative non-fiction. Not all my work ends up in print. But it gets done. It gives me joy. And for me, that’s what matters.
Andrea Kott is the author of the forthcoming memoir, “Salt on a Robin’s Tail: An Unlikely Jewish Journey Through Childhood, Forgiveness and Hope,” due later this month from Blydyn Square Books.