Shut Up, I’m Writing!

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Josh Irby. Josh is a writer and author of Meeting Miss Irby. He lives in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina with his wife and three children where they help university students tell better stories with their lives. Follow him on twitter @sarajevojosh or his blog.

My life is noisy. With three small children and a fourth having just arrived, it’s hard to find a quiet place to think at home.

At work, I lead a team of 12 people. There are always questions to answer, teammates to encourage, problems to solve. Often, writing is drowned out by the noise. Sometimes I just want to shout,

Shut up! I’m writing!

Shut Up, I'm Writing
Photo Credit: Drew Coffman via Compfight cc

But recently, I’ve realized these external voices are not the problem. They are not the greatest threat to my writing. There are three voices that will drown out my writing if I don’t control them — and they all live inside my head.

The Critic

The Critic sits in a high back chair somewhere in my subconscious immaculately dressed and flipping through a classic novel. I can tell by his smug smile that he has high standards.

Nothing is ever quite good enough for him, and he’s proud of the fact.

He knows that he is the secret to my creative success. His ability to distinguish between good and bad writing is what makes my voice unique.

Without the Critic, my words would blend into the noise of our information age. He gives my writing voice an edge. But he is also my worst enemy.

I sit at my desk, fingers resting on the keys.  He leans forward in his chair, straightens his double Windsor, and stairs up at me under lowered eyebrows. As I type, he whispers:

  • “Not good enough.”
  • “Are you sure you want to say it that way.”
  • “Tired and overused.”
  • “That sucks!”

I hit the backspace and feel my fingers tense. An hour later, I’m still staring at a blank page. And a blank page is a writer’s kryptonite.

How to silence the Critic

You have to be straightforward and clear with the Critic. Thank him for all he contributes to your creative voice. Then tell him to shut up.

He is not needed right now. He will have his opportunity to tear your work to pieces in time — just not now. For the time being, he can shut up and go back to his novel.

The Cynic

It’s noon, and the Cynic is snoring on the couch. He’s wearing undersized jeans and oversized headphones. The music is loud. He says he turns it up to drown out the stupid things people say.

He wakes up and sees me staring at the blank page on my computer.

“Did you check your blog views for yesterday?” he asks. “Pretty low. This month is about half of last month.”

I try not to listen, but his words fall heavy. He sits up and pretends not to watch. I type.

“You know that no one’s listening, right?” he mutters under his breath.

My fingers move over the keyboard. Suddenly, a sentence forms on the page. It feels right. I read back over it and my blood pumps harder. It’s good!

From the couch I hear a sarcastic groan, “Wow, that’s an original sentence! You’re doing a great Jeff Goins imitation.”

Backspace. Blank page. Kryptonite.

I think of all the other things I could do with my time. I wonder if the world really needs another writer. I consider quitting.

The Cynic smirks and lies back down.

How to silence the Cynic

Unlike the Critic, the Cynic contributes nothing to your writing. He’s a freeloader and nuisance. One day, when he’s at the store, pack up all his things and leave them in the front yard. When he comes back, he will get the point.

Oh, and leave him a note:

Cynicism is easy. Creativity is hard. I choose to create. So, shut up, I’m writing.

The Doubter

The Doubter sits at the kitchen table, her wrinkled hands clasped together and gray hair tightly wound in a bun. She stares at me with worried eyes, shifting in her wooden chair.

I have finally begun to fill my blank page and it feels good. There is no thrill like an idea coming together into a clear message. I read back over the first draft with excitement.

A shaky voice drifts from the kitchen, “What are you working on?”

I don’t even look up from my work. I am zeroed in. “My book.”

“Oh honey, I know you really want to publish a book. You know I love your writing, but do you think anyone will publish it? I mean, the publishing industry these days…” Her voice fades.

I type.

“Maybe you should set your goals a little lower. I just don’t want to see you get hurt. You know, your Aunt Jean tried to publish and you remember what happened to her.”

I squint my eyes and try to focus. She’s getting to me.

“Your family loves you. Isn’t that enough? I mean, why go out into the big world and risk the pain? It is jungle out there.”

I save my work and close the computer. I need some fresh air.

How to silence the Doubter

First, thank the Doubter for caring about you so much that she’s concerned for your comfort. Then tell her plainly, “Some things are worth getting hurt over.”

Maybe you will get hurt. Maybe you’ll be rejected. But this dream is too big to quit over a little pain. You would rather experience the sharp pain of failure than the dull agony a dead dream (tweet that if you agree).

Then kindly say those five wonderful words:

Shut up, I’m writing.

What internal voices do you need to silence? How do you clear your head? Share in the comments.

Josh is a writer and author of Meeting Miss Irby. He lives in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina with his wife and three children where they help university students tell better stories with their lives. Follow him on twitter @sarajevojosh or his blog.

Hi, I’m Jeff. Can I send you something?

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138 thoughts on “Shut Up, I’m Writing!

  1. I hear, You can’t write anything that will challenge their vision, intellect, sight…so why try?

  2. My internal voice totally says: “It’s already been said before. That’s not an original thought. Why would you write about it?”

  3. I hear:

    “You’re too old. You’ve missed the bus.”
    “Look at all the time and money you’ve wasted.”
    “Don’t you think it’s time you scrubbed the kitchen floor? It’s been at least 3 months.”

    1. I’m with you Sandy, Sometimes I look at these young’uns and their mad writing skills, and feel I missed my calling years ago. But I KNOW, that we have things to be said, because we are further down the road, and we ARE the older women who teach the younger ones. ( Now if we can just convince them to listen! =) )

      1. Saw this over at The Writer’s Almanac yesterday: Annie Proulx said she doesn’t regret becoming a writer later than most people because, she said, she knows a lot more about life than she did 20 years ago. She said: “I think that’s important, to know how the water’s gone over the dam before you start to describe it. It helps to have been over the dam yourself.”

        I suspect you and I have been over a few dams. 🙂

        1. Have Mercy, Yes! Over the dam, hit the rocks, swam to the side…and tried it again! This is a wonderful quote. Annie sounds like someone we could hang out with! Love you, Sandy.

    2. Some things to say back:
      “It’s never to late to grow and develop”
      “Time and money spent developing yourself is never wasted.”

      Then, lock yourself in a windowless room, turn off your email, facebook, cellphone and write.

  4. Good word, Josh! Thanks brother. Add this voice (carefully) today; The Fan! I appreciate your encouraging share. The fundamentals are transcendent and apply across the broad spectrum of those who write, who lead, who manage and such. May He whose voice means most fan the flame of the story that means so much. He is certainly rooting for us all.

    Your post reminded me of that truth and the call to join all the more in the great invitation to live such a life. The life of an encouraging fan.

  5. I write in the early morning with pen in hand and open paper. Then the next day I wonder if it’s good enough to send out into the world. I stop and doubt myself. I go on with my life and my silence screams loud to me, “What are you doing? Write and leave the results to Me.” I say thank you Lord and write from a yielded heart silencing all else but Him.

  6. I love this! I have heard all three of these internal voices along the way, but the doubter is the one that most often tries to derail me. I have told her to “quit talking” on more than one occasion :). Thanks for sharing this!

  7. I’d say the majority of us have these same voices. However, the ones who know how to use these voices to motivate them to keep editing and writing better and better are the ones who become noticed.

  8. I know I’ve said this a hundred times before, but it’s true again today: this is exactly what I needed to hear. I’m doing all I can to squelch those inner voices. It’s a challenge, to say the very least.

    Thank you for sharing your post with us!

  9. Josh,
    Loved this post. And though all three attempted to get you to stop writing, I can see that the doubter almost succeeded. Those five wonderful words were four.
    I blame her. 🙂

    Great reminders of the naysayers within us. Thanks.

    1. Ha! I can’t count. Funny since I studied engineering. Maybe I am counting the exclamation point. Oh, I bet the first draft was Shut up, I am writing! and then I simplified it but didn’t change the number. Good catch Anne.

  10. I’m smiling. It’s a recognition response to seeing my own secrets right before my eyes. Josh just held up a mirror for me to check out my ‘do. And Diane added the backside view. I’m recognizing myself, but I’m ready for a change. I’ve decide to affirm the truth that God gave me the desire, I just have to do THE DAILY WORK to create. He’ll help me. Just like today with Jeff’s blog, Josh’s post, and all the comments. Thanks!

  11. I’ve heard all of these voices speak to me for years, but I think the Doubter sounds a little too much like my own voice.

    1. I think a good exercise is to figure out whose voice each voice sounds like. Mine is the cynic. When you know where the voice comes from, you can take steps to cut it off at the source.

      1. Good idea. I have given more attention to what those voices are saying then my own voice. Time to identify them and put them in their place. Thank you!

  12. Oh my goodness! Have you been in my home…scratch that…my head lately? Loved this Josh! Another inspiring read from you. The Writer in me thanks you!

  13. This is so amazing Josh!!! Well said! The Critic, Cynic and doubter! Wow! So true!

    I have to constantly tell the critic to hush!

    However, I love the roller coaster emotions that go with writing.
    All the voices have their place and would come up at one point or the other. The response is what makes the difference between a successful writer and a writer who gives up.

    Use every voice to fuel your passion for writing and dig in!

    1. Thanks! If you love the emotional roller coaster you are definitely meant to write. I hate it. But I love the feeling at the end.

      1. Lol Josh. The emotional roller coaster makes the feeling at the end really enjoyable and fulfilling

  14. This is excellent Josh. The thing I’ve found that drowns out those inner voices best is to write fast and don’t stop until you’re done so you don’t have time to over think things. Also have fun playing with words because if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing that makes it all the more easier for those inner voices to stifle you’re creativity.

  15. I love the fact that you encompass everything we are or have
    to experience as writers. My own voice that I need to quit worrying about now is
    technology. It has ruined my joy. Made me a winner, but I have promised to use
    my strength which only comes with creation and move on. Thank you so much. I love
    this article. I always wait for your blog because it deals with reality.

    1. Technology is both our greatest gift and worst enemy. We have to control it or it controls us. Keep fighting!

      1. Told my ‘better self’ that if I wanted to be a writer, I better start writing; everything else can wait. I guess the Cynic didn’t want to try to break down that defense and left. 😀

  16. I have a perfectionist (critic) in my brain that is alway picking at me. I also have the doubter like you. “Why would anyone want to read your writing? There are millions of others writing who are better than you.”

    1. Make an appointment with that perfectionist for the following morning. Tell him that he can rip your work to shreds then. After that, pour your heart out onto the paper. write.

  17. Josh, thanks for personifying the voices that undermine our writing. I find doing this and adding humour makes it easier to recognize and rebut them, whether they’re attacking my writing or another area of my life.

    1. Your welcome. When I think of them as people other than myself, I feel more confident telling them to shut up. AND, they probably are the echoes of someone else’s voice. . .

      1. When I think of them as people outside of myself, I realize how nasty, abusive and mean they are. Consider how long anyone would abide the company of a friend who spoke to them the way these 3 “characters” do?

  18. Critic: It’s not about you.

    Me: But it’s a memoir.

    Critic: What’s so special about you that people should care
    to read your book?

    Me: It’s a spiritual memoir and it’s even more interesting
    than Eat, Pray, Love.

    Critic: So? It’s not about you. Who cares?

    Ego: You’re a damn good writer, that’s why people should
    read it.

    Critic: Everybody’s a writer nowadays. There are more people
    writing books than reading them.

    Me: You got a good point there.

  19. A brilliant post – I can identify with all of these and it’s so helpful to have them personified like this. Ultimately, I’m grateful to my critic, because he/she spurs me on to do better. Like Bernard, I find the doubter is the biggest nuisance.

    1. I like the Critic too. I found that giving him a time and place to voice his opinion helps me shut him up while I’m creating. He is essential in the 2nd through 5th drafts but deadly during the 1st.

  20. Josh, you capture the writer’s internal mind and reading it today was just what I needed to hear. thank you.

  21. These three live in my head too! The Doubter is most vocal-she shouts over the other two sometimes. 🙁 Great advice, one day I’ll be able to follow it.

  22. Josh loved the post. I think I’m learning in my writing as well that the voices will always be there. It’s my response to them that’s key. Thank you for the practical. Even though mom said its not nice to say “shut up.” I’m going to start screaming it to these voices.

    1. Now there’s no reason to use potty words, but it’s good to be forceful. Hopefully your mom won’t mind. #dudewriters4ever

  23. I love this personification of the different voices. I have been hashing it out with all three. Then somewhere in the debate my creative voice speaks up and solves the problem. Appeasing all the other 3 for a time. 🙂 Great post!

  24. That was awesome. I know those three voices well, and contend for every word, as every writer does. Jeff, thanks for continually putting out good content and continually encouraging those with pens.

  25. Wow, what a powerful, thought provoking and easy read. Like drinking sweet lemonade…it went down so easy…and so satisfying. I’ve able to slay the critic and I believe the doubter packed her bags. They cynic is alive and well. I actually enlist him for my first draft and then re-write when he’s in the bathroom. LOL! Thanks, Josh. Loved it!

  26. It’s really hard to tell your Grandma to shut up. I realize she’s the Doubter that shouts at me the loudest and because it’s her that’s why I’ve been listening. Since she’s in heaven having a great time and probably really sorry she ever wore that hat I feel free to tell her to be quiet. (You know that Grandma always said that Shut Up are two bad words you should never use together.)

    1. Maybe, instead of shut up, you just need to agree with how your Grandma probably sees things now. What would she be saying to you now if she could? Probably something like, “Failure and pain are so insignificant compared to living like God made you to live.”

      1. Getting ready to publish my memoir next month and there are things in there had she been here I probably would not have written. I do realize, now that she knows all things, she would know the truth and want it to be told. Still I was well aware of that voice when I was working on the book. I even heard it physically from my cousin who would rather the book not be written. The way I tell them shut up, nicely, is to publish the book!

  27. This was just the thing I needed to read. I am glad to know I’m not the only one struggling with these insecurities. I have put writing on the back burner for so many years, I find myself questioning the wisdom of pursuing this part of the expression of who I am.

    1. Well Sandy, its time to turn up the temperature on that back burner. Its okay if writing isn’t your primary thing (its not for me, I have a job and 4 kids) as long as it has a place in your life and you consistently fight to protect that place. Write on.

      1. I know how it is, I raised 5 kids, and now have 4 grandkids. Plus I’ve worked at my current job for 17 years. But thanks to being encouraged by people like you and Jeff, I am writing and went and wrote a new blog post after reading your post.

  28. Josh, this post was fabulous. Hard-hitting in such a great way (captures my own experience so well), and it revs up my creative spirit—and will to write. Thanks Jeff, for including such wonderful guest posts 🙂

  29. oh, this was a good post! And, alas, I know these three all too well. However, you did forget The Sensible Person. She tends to sit in my head and tell me off for not cooking, or vaccuming, or writing that essay on micro organisms, or just generally being a silly writer who doesn’t get anything done and is a bad person (I’m pretty sure she is a personification of my mother). oh well.
    Thank you so much, for letting me know I am not the only one! It is very helpful

    1. Nice addition! I like it. I mean, I don’t like it. The Pragmatist. Or Ms. Responsible. Yes, yes. She has always been an enemy of art.

    2. Ah yes, the Sensible Person. I have to contend with Her constantly. She is the one who tells me that my writing is mediocre and my time is best spent tending to real responsibility instead of wasting time doing something that will probably never amount to anything. She doesnt take me seriously at all.
      How about the Guilt Tripper. This one tells me that I am a horrible person because I don’t give the kids enough attention, the laundry isn’t done, etc

  30. Ah-I see you have visited my head before. Crowded, wasn’t it? Since you last left, I moved the three of them into a smaller apartment together. Sometimes the Critic picks on the Cynic. Sometimes the Cynic and the Doubter gang up and hide the Critic’s tie. Last week the Cynic’s headphones were stepped on, but neither one of the other two are ‘fessing up. It’s like a dorm room in there. The Critic is the only one I ever invite for Sunday dinner.

    I moved God out of His smaller apartment and into The Presidential Suite–now the only noise in my head is really what I should be listening to anyway. It’s so peaceful now. I can sit down, type words, and feel Him smile. (Great piece of work,Josh, Great piece piece of work)

  31. Amen! I’m inspired to put a post-it note on my computer screen that says, “Shut up, you’re writing.” When that Critic, Cynic, Doubter or the Responsible (thanks Alice) enter my mind I’ll look up at that note. Maybe that will put push me into forward motion again.

    1. Cool Kelley. Take a picture of the note when you do and send it my way. I’d love to see it!

  32. I used to imagine all the negative sides of my personality having it out at a dinner party. Imagining what they’d all say to put me down, or scare me, helped me realize how much I didn’t need to listen to the unhelpful things they say! Thanks for this great post!

  33. I loved this post sop inspiring and true. i have all of these characters in my head and they do take up a lot of space. But as I read these, I have come up with a brilliant( if I do say so myself) idea. I have decided to write these three or more characters in a story. That way while they are busy cutting this piece down – which is a story of them selves,, they will self destruct in on themselves… The perfect evil plot. .

  34. Great article! It really resonated with me as I just recently began to publish my writing.

    I can definitely relate to this, and I square off very often with the critic, the cynic, and the doubter on a regular basis. It seems that they are unfortunately a part of my writing process. While they are definitely pains in the backside, they are helpful in producing quality work. I guess their purpose is to make sure that what we do create is good (or at least good in our minds). The most important thing I believe is publishing in spite of the din of the critic, cynic, and doubter. We can’t be afraid of “what ifs,” we just have to push through.

    Thanks so much for your insight!

    1. I agree. The critic especially has a role to play. We don’t want to publish shoddy work.

      As artists live with the tension between our critical eye and our tendency towards self-judgement. I resolve this by suppressing the critic until the second draft. He is not invited to the first-draft party. Because if he comes, he will trash the place.

      Keep pushing.

  35. What a fun post. Very true and told in such a fun way! I got a great chuckle out of it. These characters are voices in our head, yet at times they can also be in our lives in the form of real people if we let them. Finding the balance and the right perspective and voice to listen too can be a game of juggling!

    1. I think that each of these voices start as a real person. Their voices echo in our minds and become these inner voices. It is actually a healthy exercise to try and figure out to whom each inner voice belongs. also scary.

  36. Ever since I started my Fragments Project I have been writing and creating images every single day and there are days I feel like it’s not good enough, but then I realize that even my worst work helps me grow. We all have days where we feel down and out, but persistence and confidence helps so much with sticking to it.

    Great post!

    https://fragments.kineticbear.com/blog

    1. Jacob, your work is amazing. Beautiful. Good job. You should make a picture based on this blog entry. If you do, tweet me the link.

      1. I actually just wrote about it yesterday. That was a rough day for me. This post resonates well with me and keeps bringing me back up to where I need to be. I’ll tweet the link to you. 🙂

  37. Splendid, well crafted, informative and as Michelle said, went down so easily as a sweet lemonade.

    Thank you so much for the great post!

  38. Josh, I loved your post! It really it home. Thanks for sharing. Keep on, keep’in on!!
    – Joe

  39. Absolutely loved this post, Jeff! I’m sure all of us can SO relate to all of those “voices” in our heads!!! Thank-you, so much, for sharing! It’s always nice to know we’re not “alone”. A writer’s life can feel like a very solitary thing, sometimes.

      1. I know!

        After reading your AWESOME post, I feel like I just went to my first recovery meeting.

        Hello, my name is Darlene. I’m a writer.

        Cause I read the three voices and it felt so good to know that’s “normal”.. ahah! yes. 🙂

        darlene

  40. Jeff, you are helping me more than you can ever know. I am grateful for your wisdom. Hang in there!

  41. Sometimes you just have to shut the door with a Do Not Disturb, I am Writing sign on the door.
    Finding the kind of peace and quiet we need to get in “the zone” is a requirement to become a better writer.
    Love this post, keep them coming.

    1. I agree Spencer. I have to close out facebook, turn of my phone, shut down email—in essence, go off the grid. That’s when I have enough mind space to fight the voices and create.

  42. Thank you for writing this piece, Jeff. Helps to know Im not alone, that other writers hear the same voices. My voices say these things, “Are you sure you are good enough?” “Who are you to think that you have anything to say that anyone wants to hear?” “Who made you an authority on such and such?” And on and on it goes until I shut down under the sheer pain of the abuse,

    1. Thanks. Keep fighting back until their voices fade and your writing voice grows louder. I think it will be an endless battle, but every time you hit publish, you win.

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