There is much said, I believe, about the people, especially other women writers, we hold dear to us. They are the ones that we hope will whisper in our ears when we are stuck with drawing forth just the right word, turn of phrase, or element of a scene or dialogue.
It’s become politic to name them as influences, well, because they do influence us, and for certain, even with all of our efforts, they are not named often enough: women that write from the heart, for justice, celebrating life, and in the face of death. These women, and writers, and icons, and geniuses, and sheroes should be exalted at every turn. They should be lifted up through our prose and through our praise whenever we possibly can. And we should return to the altars we erect to them through the calling of their names again and again.
But in the sometimes small, cluttered, awkward and lonely space of wrenching words from our dreams and visions onto digital screen or even (still) paper, I think there are other influences that many of us return to. They are not celebrated. We don’t lift them up. Unnamed and uninvited, they seize and captivate us in a place of breakdown rather than ushering us into the open air of breakthrough.
They are our limiting habits. They reveal themselves as negative self-talk, defeating our potential triumphs at every turn. They inhabit our mind and our body and we confront them, consciously and not so much, at every turn:
That was dumb.
You’re not going to be able to finish this.
Not that many people will even see it.
Why did I take this on?
This is never going to be any good
Or we just spend time avoiding our craft altogether. Distracted by food, fretting or Facebook. The time ticking away, speeding us inexorably toward our deadlines, with anxiety levels rising in direct proportion.
We give it different names: inner critic. judge. resistance.
Whatever the name or the behavior, these are the uncelebrated influences that we return to again and again. But what are they, really? And from whence do they come?
All habits reveal themselves in the body. However subtly, the unconscious, undigested material of internal conflict and tension; past trauma and the toxic by-product of under-supportive caretaking rages around in our bodies, spilling over into how we be in the world, in our relationships, and yes, in our writing.
For those of us that have developed sophisticated self-talk—the voices we hear in our head—if you listen closely enough, you’ll realize the voices are not your own, after all. They are the voices of your father, mother, slightly sadistic auntie Shirley and crotchety old granddad. More often careless than malicious, they infected and influenced our developing minds far beyond the moment of their misplaced words:
You got a B+? It was an A last time.
Not now, dear. Show it to your father.
Yea, yea, that’s nice kiddo.
Would you please go do that someplace else?
Girls should play with dolls.
Why are you always in your room by yourself?
Why can’t you be like the other kids?
Don’t you have a boyfriend yet?
To get where we all are. To call ourselves writers, to claim the mantle and to press forward, means that we’ve developed coping mechanisms to beat back and paper over the memory of those dark moments. But to get to be our full selves, to write with freedom from the pain and oppression of the past, means we have to do the work of letting go of those influences, rather than returning to them again and again.
Many of us covet that stuffed down pain, hold it close to us and deem it our muse. Some of us have written volumes from it. We replay the struggle of overcoming that which would have our voices silenced. The sign of our victory being each completed piece. Each deadline reached. We prove the naysayers in our head wrong. In fact, our creativity feels intricately woven with repeating this battle. Drawing our dark influences forth, we resist, flee, then turn and fight, bringing them to their knees, finally emerging victorious, only to fight the battle again some day. We are inspired by our suffering, so in it, we must live.
We fear losing our fears because they’ve become how we know who we are. We cling to our habits because they define us and give us a story to tell. No matter that the story imprisons untold possibilities for who we might become should we no longer inhabit the struggle against those influences.
I suggest there is another way. That liberation and inspiration are not mutually exclusive. We can be both creative and unhindered. That to finally vanquish those influences is the only way for our writing, and our selves, to be truly free. In doing the hard work required to release the habit of suffering that we have found strange comfort in, we give ourselves the gift of entering the unknown and stepping on the path to who we truly are.
To meet ourselves and be inspired by who we find and to be able to return to time and time again, is the greatest influence every one of us deserves.