You’re ready to write. The coffee steams on your desk. The computer hums. Inspiration awaits. You lower your fingers to the keys.
Then you hear it. A whisper in your ear.
What’s that? Where did that come from?
“You suck!” it repeats. The hiss is louder.
Wait a minute. It’s coming from inside your head.
“You can’t write. You’re a loser.”
And now you’re sitting there, fingers paralyzed, your coffee growing cold.
For years, I agonized over my writing. Pen hovering over the blank page. Fingers paralyzed above the keyboard.
I used to think it was just me, a profane newspaper reporter whose potty mouth delivered this warning when I started to write.
“You suck, Chip”
Then after years leading writing seminars and coaching hundreds of writers, I discovered I was not alone. Writers all over, including some whose names will surprise you, hear the same negative refrain.
“I’m afraid of failing at whatever story I’m writing—that it won’t come up for me, or that I won’t be able to finish it.”
That’s Stephen King talking. Yes, that Stephen King.
“You’re an incompetent,” your inner voice may say. “You can’t write. That piece you published yesterday? Your news stories, narratives, novels, screenplays, memoirs? All a fluke. You’re a fraud. Why didn’t you go to law school like your parents wanted?”
Whenever I imitate this voice, at writing seminars, conferences, one-on-ones, it’s greeted with knowing chuckles.
It’s a rueful laughter, though, because we know how much pain that voice has caused. How many stories it’s stopped dead in their tracks. How many writing dreams sit moribund in hard drives. How many unfinished drafts hide inside desk drawers.
An editor at the Los Angeles Times heard it so often she told me it was like a radio station—USUCK FM—playing inside her head all day long.
“The Fraud Police” is the name Neal Gaiman’s wife, Amanda, gave to the voices of self-doubt plaguing her best-selling husband. They are the security guards outside the station that’s home to USUCK FM.
The Watcher at the Gate
USUCK FM is a presence that lives inside all of us, a refrain of pessimism that keeps us from discovering the writing only we can do.
Tommy Tomlinson knows that voice well.
A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Tomlinson was a multiple award-winning columnist for The Charlotte Observer. He’s published in Esquire, and Sports Illustrated, and anthologized in “Best American Newspaper Writing” and twice in “Best American Sports Writing.”
But “you suck” is so much a part of his makeup that he devoted an entire chapter to it in “The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America,” his searing 2019 memoir about his lifelong food addiction and obesity.
“It’s that voice,” he writes, “that tells you you’re not good enough, the voice that wonders why you ever believe in yourself, the one that leans into ear when you’re facedown on the ground and tells you you’re a failure. There are no ads on USUCK-FM and no music. There are only public service announcements. There’s no point you’ll never make it. Don’t even try.”
Gail Godwin, the best-selling novelist and essayist, calls her inner critic “The Watcher at the Gate” that keeps guard over her creativity and prevents her from writing.
“It is amazing the lengths a Watcher will go to keep you from pursuing the flow of your imagination,” she wrote in a 2000 essay. “Watchers are notorious pencil sharpeners, ribbon changers, plant waterers, home repairers and abhorrers of messy rooms or messy pages. They are compulsive looker-uppers. They are superstitious scaredy-cats. They cultivate self-important eccentricities they think are suitable for ‘writers.’ And they’d rather die (and kill your inspiration with them) than risk making a fool of themselves.”
Lower Your Standards.
William Stafford never heard the voice of self-doubt. He woke up before dawn every day and wrote. Before he died in 1993 at the age of 79, he had written thousands of poems, and published scores of books. He was never blocked because he located the transmitter for USUCK FM: impossibly high standards.
The first step toward silencing that voice is admittedly counterintuitive. Want to be a great writer? In “Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer’s Vocation,” Stafford offers the answer: Lower your standards.
“I believe that the so-called ‘writing block’ is a product of some kind of disproportion between your standards and your performance. One should lower his standards until there is no felt threshold to go over in writing. It’s easy to write. You just shouldn’t have standards that inhibit you from writing.”
I’ve come to believe in Stafford’s counsel so much that I don’t just lower my standards. I abandon them. I allow myself to write as badly as I can.
I advise you to do the same. Lowering your standards is a way to sneak past the watcher at the gate and tune out USUCK FM.
I always add that caveat. You have to lower your standards to break through writer’s block.
Drafting is where you discover your story, your voice, your characters, the building blocks that will erect the edifice of your imagination.
After the draft, you have to be the toughest critic of your own work, checking that the spelling is correct, that your news story is accurate, fair and balanced. That your characters are full-bodied, their motives clear, the conflict established from the get-go, the climax stunning. That’s what revision is for and why it’s so important. But this assessment, as Stafford says, comes after you’ve written.
Freewrite Your Way to Fluency
Lowering your standards is a good idea—in theory. But how do you apply it?
It’s a writing strategy developed by Peter Elbow, who believed that writing called on “two skills that are so different that they usually conflict with each other: creating and criticizing.”
They “flower most,” Elbow says in “Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process, “when they get a chance to operate separately.”
His solution: put your fingers to the keys or pick up your pen and begin writing.
As fast as possible.
No pausing to find just the right word.
No worries about spelling or punctuation, at times even sense. (I can hear your inner critic screaming, “Stop!” Pay no attention. Keep going.)
The trick is to type so fast that the clacking of the keys drowns out that voice.
“Freewriting helps with the root psychological or existential difficulty in writing: finding words in your head and putting them down on a blank piece of paper.”
You’ll be surprised by what happens. “The way I start writing is always the same,” said Cynthia Gorney, when she was writing award-winning features for The Washington Post. “I start to babble, sometimes starting in the middle of the story and usually fairly quickly I see how it’s going to start. It just starts shaping itself. “
At first my freewritings aren’t very coherent. I may start by writing, “I have no ideas or energy. Not a clue what to say.” But if I persist even if it’s just for ten to fifteen minutes, the Watcher lifts the gates, USUCK FM stops playing and prose worth reading appears on the screen.
Ever since I started lowering my standards by freewriting, I’ve achieved more success than ever before.
I write faster. I agonize less. I have more time for revision. I publish more.
If you want to switch the dial on your writing radio station, I suggest you let your creator create by lowering your standards.
Put that into practice by freewriting, generating drafts that can be turned over to the critic. Don’t be afraid to babble at first. The critic is always waiting , when you give it the chance, to make your writing better.
“Just start typing and don’t stop,” says social media consultant Sree Sreenivasan, who’s embraced the practice. “Keep going without hitting the backspace even if you have errors. This opens your mind and forces you to get something down. You can always rewrite.”
Use the clock as your ally. Pick a subject. The story, novel chapter or screenplay that won’t budge. Agree to freewrite for 15 minutes, then gulp and go. You’re just going to talk to the page, think with your fingers and connect with that voice that is truly you, without your inner critic interfering. Whenever you’re blocked, make this your solution.
Type fast, so fast that you can slip past the DJ at USUCK FM before he has time to cry out, “Hey, you, come back here! You suck!”
Lower your standards and you won’t.
Craft Query: What do you do to tune out USUCK FM?
May the writing go well.
Photograph by Alex Blăjan courtesy of unsplash.com