Hearing Voices

“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia. “–E.L. Doctorow

At the August meeting of the Kansas Writers Association, several members jokingly referred to their writing experience as “hearing voices.” Although schizophrenia is a serious mental illness, most writers have regular occurring bouts of voices in their heads.

Fellow KWA member B.D. Tharp talks about “the muse” calling her to write.  Other authors have the experience of their characters speaking in their ears as they sit at the computer. It can be overwhelming at times, so many thoughts. Imagine Noah, after several months in the ark, with a cacophony of animal intonation around him. Sounds kind of like a really bad Caribbean cruise.

The voices, if you listen carefully, will guide you to write their stories. They will tell you what they would or would not do and carry on conversations with other characters in your head. Sometimes it feels pretty crowded. The best thing to relieve these murmurings is to sit down and write about it. In the end, it is therapeutic to leave everything on the page, rather than jostling around inside your gray matter.

Don’t worry; they’ll be replaced with other thoughts and ideas. When the voices are too quiet or, God forbid, completely silent, then you have problems. That’s when you have to jumpstart your creativity.

Why not put them to work for you? You have the choice to use what they’re giving you or discard it. Try adding the ideas to your work-in-progress; see if they mesh. If not, it’s no problem to get rid of them and try something else. Whether you lead the voices, or they lead you…write it out!

Doubt is a Snuggie

Doubt is one size fits all. It comes in many sizes, shapes and colors. Kind of like a Snuggie. It covers and envelops our bodies and spirits and hearts, squeezing out all imagination. Doubt is just another word for fear, and that can be paralyzing.

Think back to when you submitted your writing for the first time, to a contest, a magazine, or a publishing house. My first time was two years ago, when I emailed a personal story to Chicken Soup. I was so nervous that it took two weeks to convince myself. It took all the guts I could muster just to hit “send.”

Most of the time, I let my self-doubt get the best of me. I am hardest on myself; much harder than I am on others. I hold up an impossible yardstick to compare my writing to others, veteran published authors. Hard questions crowd my mind. Do I have the talent to be a successful writer? Do I have the courage to face the criticism?

My father was a brilliant engineer, and a pragmatist at heart. “Eat that elephant one bite at a time, Spunky,” he would counsel me. And so, I shut out all the “what ifs” rolling around in my head, and I put one foot in front of the other. I’ve been playing the sponge, soaking up all the knowledge I can about the mechanics of good writing. And I write. Every week. BIC…butt in chair.

Don’t let fear get the best of you. If you have faith in your talent, way deep down inside of you, faith in your unique voice, in your literary dream, then move forward and don’t look back. Run your race, and finish strong. Do it afraid.

“Never, never, never give up.”—Winston Churchill

Don’t Revile the Rewrite

I’m gearing up to talk about Editing and Revising this Saturday at our monthly meeting (you ARE planning to attend, aren’t you? There’ll be snacks, and air-conditioning). Funny thing about writers: Mention rewriting or revising, and you’re guaranteed an eye roll, a groan, or a slump in even the squarest of shoulders.

Why do we feel so defeated by this step in the writing process? I have a few theories.

  • Writing is more than arduous. It’s bloodletting. Once we’re finished, we want to be done. All done. Do painters splash thinner over large patches of their canvas two or three times before they declare their work complete? No. Why do we have to?
  • It’s a division-of-labor thing. Why do we have to go find our own mistakes? Isn’t that why God made editors?

But that’s just not the nature of writing. Pencils have erasers. Keyboards have delete keys. And there’s a reason: We can make it better.

I am primarily a journalist. I get assignments (i.e., other people’ story ideas), I interview and research, and I write a story. I’m usually up against a deadline and don’t have much time for refinement. So I actually envy those of you who specialize in fiction and have generally open-ended timelines. You can go back, reshape, rethink, reimagine. This is a luxury.

More than once, I’ve had an article appear in print only to notice a minor typo or error (yes! I admit it!), or a missed opportunity for a great turn of phrase. And the forehead-smacking begins. It’s like thinking of a great comeback long after your nemesis has left the room.

Editing and revision is a discipline, one of those things we have to develop as a skill and a habit. Your story is a treasure. Rewriting is the tool that helps you find it. Sometimes it’s a pickaxe, and sometimes it’s a featherweight brush, but either way, it will help you unearth the gems hidden inside your first draft and polish them until they gleam.

Hope to see you this Saturday at 1:30 p.m., Rockwell branch library (address and map link are at right). Bring a work in progress, or something to write with, and we’ll conduct an exercise or two to illustrate the benefits of the rewrite.

Erin Perry O’Donnell

Freelance Writer and KWA Webmaster


The mother bird constantly scans her surroundings, on the hunt for sustenance for her hatchlings. Alert and ready, she keeps her eyes focused so as not to miss the tiniest movement.

A writer is constantly scanning her surroundings, on the hunt for fodder for her work-in-progress. Alert and ready, she keeps her eyes (and ears) focused so as not to miss the tiniest insight.

Okay, now that you have that mental picture fixed in your brain, think about it. As writers, we should consider our entire lives “grist for the mill.” Every summer vacation, every fast food run, we could return with a great idea for a book, poem, or blog entry. One of the characters in my work-in-progress is based on a highway worker I saw removing road kill along the side of the road. Weird, huh? Exactly!

When your brain doesn’t understand something, it tries to make up a reasonable explanation, thus, creativity. If we settle into a daily routine and don’t look around once in a while, we will miss the creative clues that life provides us. Even the most prolific authors occasionally hit a dry patch. That’s when we need to rattle the noggin a bit.

Try doing some “creative calisthenics.” This process was penned by Terri Main, a California college professor, for her students. Next time you’re waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store, examine the items in the cart of the person in front of you. Now speculate what type of evening they’re going to have: boss coming to dinner, first date, horrible bout of the flu or nursing a broken heart? Write a paragraph or two about what might be going on in their lives.

Do you remember the last time you saw a really bad movie? My husband and I spent the drive home trying to “fix” the plot. Allowing your imagination to run wild is great exercise for a writer, even though your mom always thought it was a bad thing.

Every day, every interaction and situation we experience affords us an opportunity to create art. Inspiration for writing comes from every direction and we need to be vigilant as a mother bird to focus in on literary fodder. Keep this in mind and great ideas will be flocking to your door.–Carol J. Martin

“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy to be called an idea at all.”–Elbert Hubbard