Every morning, I wake up at 6:30 in a panic about writing this book. I am not an early riser. I never have been, except for one short period when I lived in Ithaca, New York, and uncharacteristically decided to start jogging before my 8:00am art history class. I don’t remember any wake-up panic then, just excitement when the sun cracked through my dorm window, and within minutes I’d be headed out in my thermal body suit and oversized college hoodie, running into the hills and a sense of adulthood.
Now, twenty-five years later, I feel a different impulse to wake and run. The sun pierces my face as the first thoughts slam in, and I am double teamed by the light and discouraging voices; no one will connect with your work, your experiences will seem dumb and small, you might misremember them, you might sound crazy, people who read will think less of you, why are you choosing such an obscure topic to shine into the light? You have no scientific credibility, and your writing won’t carry you. You should hide. You should just shut it all down and hide.
It is a terrible way to wake.
I know most artists, writers, and creative people are familiar with these voices. They are the equivalent of the rocks, seaweed and sharp, breaking waves that stop us from heading out into the ocean, where softer sand and a different set of conditions await.
I have occasionally encouraged students to wade through this impasse with words I know to be true: these are voices of protection gone rogue. They want to stop you from trying anything new or unknown or passionate. They come from the part of you that knows how poorly our culture responds to vulnerable and intimate subjects. Some days they are louder than the voices of support, of desire. Some days they are so loud, they have the power to stop many, many writers.
In the mornings, I can barely remember my own advice. I turn on the kettle, and consider the yoga mat or meditation cushion, where the voices will get louder for a time before they settle, and once they settle I will be so relieved I will not always get to my desk.
It is best if I go to my desk, amid the shouting, and try to listen to the birds.
When other writers ask, I have only a few helpful tips on how to combat the voices. Sometimes I say, “Don’t listen to them,” and other times I say, “Listen, but don’t obey” and other times I avoid prescription of all kinds and say, “You are not alone. This is a symptom of writing. This is the crummy part of the job. If you had an office job, you might be saddled with an account you dislike or travel you don’t want to do. You might have a long, boring commute or have to handle health insurance snafus for hours every Wednesday. Every job has at least one or two unpleasant aspects. Writing is no different. Instead of commuting or administrative health insurance nightmares, you hear mean voices.”
If I can get to this expanded perspective in my own head, sometimes I am at my desk by 6:45 and writing by 7:00. If not, I struggle. I try to remember their existence is temporary. I utter to myself, in the kindest possible way, move along, move along, move along. I do not check my email. Somehow, that makes them worse.
Eventually, after not much time at all, they go away.
In the medical establishment, these voices, or auditory verbal hallucinations (AVHs), are known as signs of psychosis, but that view is rapidly changing. Research suggests the experience of hearing voices exists in healthy individuals as well, which most artists already know. One expert suggests, in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry, that it may be useful to think of Auditory Hallucinations like coughs--common experiences not always symptomatic of a larger illness.
I like this mean-voices-as-cough perspective. I’ve had a pervasive bark of a cough for over a decade, with no other affiliated condition. It arises when I laugh hard, or when it’s too cold, or when the normal conditions of living and breathing change suddenly, often in the midst of fun. Sometimes people say, “That cough sounds terrible. Have you gotten it checked?”
I always say yes, thank you, but it’s nothing. While it may get triggered by the smallest shifts in environment, when I breathe in second hand smoke at a party, or walk too fast up a hill, or sniff the gorgeous end of summer tiger lilies in the field near where I live, the cough has no bearing on anything. It's very, very annoying, but i've learned to be patient and wait it out.
Eventually, after not much time at all, it goes away.