How to Stop the Hecklers (of Your Own Mind): Wise Words from Women Writers

Jen Grow  My Life as a Mermaid


By Jen Grow

What is the most difficult part of writing? This question came up at a recent Q&A where I had the good fortune to be a featured writer. The other writers on the panel, all women, talked about the insecurity of a terrible first draft, the anxiety that comes from being lost in a plotline, or the frustration with never-ending revisions. For me, the most difficult part of writing is the internal battle with perfectionism and self-doubt. It’s hard to have faith in the process of writing when you’re being heckled by your own mind.

In some ways, all of us on the panel were saying the same thing, calling it by different names. It’s not uncommon to become discouraged. Frustration, insecurity, uncertainty and self-doubt are occupational hazards that have attacked some of the most talented writers I know, stopping them from writing altogether. For those of us not blessed with healthy egos (meaning, healthy, not big), it takes fortitude to persevere. Also, the subtle insanity of relentless hope.

While there are lots of ways to fortify oneself, the best thing I’ve found that doesn’t cause a hangover in the morning is to drink in the words of other writers who have persevered. I collect quotes, especially the wisdom of other women, and reread them when I’m feeling especially defeated. Here are a few gems that have kept me going:

“Writing: shitty first drafts. Butt in chair. Just do it.” This instruction from Anne Lamott is helpful when I feel as though I’m somehow lacking because I can’t write a brilliant story (or, in this case, blog post) from the very first word. You own everything that happened to you. You are going to feel like hell if you never write the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves in your heart — your stories, visions, memories, songs: your truth, your version of things, in your voice. That is really all you have to offer us, and it’s why you were born.” That’s why I was born? Cool. True or not, it makes me feel better to think it.

What happens after I’ve written my shitty first draft is this: I distract myself with eleven hundred other things. Not just time-wasting things to procrastinate, but necessary tasks that semi-responsible adults do to remain semi-responsible. Brenda Ueland gives me permission to do otherwise:

“We have come to think that duty should come first. I disagree. Duty should be a by-product. Writing, the creative effort, the use of the imagination, should come first — at least, for some part of every day of your life. It is a wonderful blessing if you use it. You will become happier, more enlightened, alive, impassioned, light-hearted and generous to everybody else. Even your health will improve. Colds will disappear and all the other ailments of discouragement and boredom.”

I love that she uses the phrase “ailments of discouragement.” Thank you, Brenda, for telling me the cat litter can wait and that it’s OK if I wear the same clothes three days in a row. No matter how often I put off loading and unloading the dishwasher, eat popcorn for dinner, or consciously choose not to binge on Netflix, there’s still, always, the intense pressure I put on myself to write more, produce more, publish more. Just look at all my other writer friends on Facebook. Seems like they’re publishing best-selling, award-winning works every other day.

“If I had a staff of even one person, or could tolerate a small amphetamine habit, or entertain the possibility of weekly blood transfusions, or had been married to Vera Nabokov, or had a housespouse of even minimal abilities, a literary life would be easier to bring about. (In my mind I see all your male readers rolling their eyes. But your female ones — what is that? Are they nodding in agreement? Are their fists in the air?)”

Yes, Lorrie Moore, I am raising my fist. Thank you for acknowledging that this is not easy, that it takes time, that I’m just like you. I could use a hausfrau, or maybe a clone — one that goes to work full-time while I stay home and write. On a bad day, this might be a cue for self-pity, except for the words of three very wise women.

Doris Lessing: “Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”

George Eliot : “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

And Alice Walker: The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” 

Thank you, ladies, for reminding me again and again to tap into my own power. I grew up in a working-class family and had limited ideas about what was possible. Even though I nursed my creative aspirations diligently, I believed that success was reserved for another breed of person and could never happen for me. It took many years to realize I was wrong — wrong in a good way. Fortunately, I was in great company with Sharon Olds: I was a late bloomer. But anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky.”

With the great wisdom of other women to guide me, I still question my place in things from time to time. Not as much as I used to, and not with as much fervor, but still. I think it is the condition of every writer, male or female. So I’ll end with this quote from Andrea Barrett:

“I’ve never known a writer who didn’t feel ill at ease in the world. Have you? We all feel unhoused in some sense. That’s part of why we write. We feel we don’t fit in, that this world is not our world, that though we may move in it, we’re not of it. Different experiences in our lives may enforce or ameliorate that, but I think if they ameliorate it totally, we stop writing. You don’t need to write a novel if you feel at home in the world. We write about the world because it doesn’t make sense to us. Through writing, maybe we can penetrate it, elucidate it, somehow make it comprehensible. If I had ever found the place where I was perfectly at home, who knows what I would have done? Maybe I would have been a biologist after all. No great loss if that had been the case, but it didn’t work out that way.”

Fortunately, for us, it did not work out that way.


Jen Grow’s debut collection, My Life as a Mermaid, won the 2012 Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Competition. [My review is here.] She is the Fiction Editor of Little Patuxent Review. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Other Voices, The Sun Magazine, The GSU Review, Hunger Mountain, Indiana Review and many others including the anthology City Sages: Baltimore (City Lit Press, 2010). She co-authored the book Seeking the Spirit (Morehouse Publishing, 2006) with Harry Brunett. She’s received two Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council and her stories have earned nominations for Best New American Voices and a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Baltimore with the artist Lee Stierhoff and their zoo of cats and dogs. 


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