bassett houndEarlier this month I had the privilege of spending some time with Mark Nepo, the man Oprah Winfrey has called one of the greatest spiritual teachers of our time. In reflecting on his personal journey over the past three years, which, due to the support of Oprah, has been pretty meteoric in nature, he told me, “I’m just so glad that I kept writing back when no one was listening.”

This reverberated in me, perhaps most profoundly because of the number of clients I work with every year who reach a crisis point, led by the voices of their inner critics that say things like, “Why are you bothering?” “No one is going to want to read this.” “Who cares?!”

In my work as a coach, I’m pretty hard-pressed to think of a single client who hasn’t struggled with messages like this at some point in their process—some more than others of course.

Mark’s simple statement spoke to me for a number of reasons:

1. You never know when people are going to find your work. Oprah found Mark’s book, The Book of Awakening, ten years after its first publication. The fact that he had so much work already out in the world is undoubtedly what’s allowed him to soar. You can get a big break like an endorsement from Oprah, but even with a big break, you have to have done (and continue to do) the hard work and discipline of writing.

2. If you let the critical voices get the best of you, you’re accepting defeat on someone else’s terms. Your inner critic is a bastard, so let’s just get that out of the way. It does not want you to succeed. It wants to keep you small. I’ve witnessed a lot of writers allow the inner critic to talk them out of pursuing their creative dreams. It’s the single most widespread creative tragedy I know of.

3. It’s important to find your own grounding in your work. This one is big. So many writers want to be heard, but they’re looking for outside validation to tell them that they’re good enough, or they’re only measuring success based on who else cares about their work. Writing whether or not anyone is listening means that you are writing for your own expression, desire, creativity, gifts—and people finding it, and/or finding it important, is secondary.

4. The only way to be successful as a writer is to publish. This is obvious in terms of how we measure success, but so many writers are just sitting on their work—waiting for what? Mark published lots of works on very small houses over the years. He’s incredibly prolific, and he writes to publish, as well as to process, to teach, to connect, to commune. But in this mix must be publishing because this is the only way to gain readers (listeners). Be consistent about getting content out into the world. (And it’s good that social media, blogging, guest posting, or digital only strategies be a part of this—content is content!)

5. You have to be your own best listener. If and when no one is listening, and whether it’s true or not that no one is, you need to feel the way your message affects you. If you know the feeling of flow, then you know the feeling of connection and resonance with your own words. It’s powerful stuff. Addictive even. Feed on this rather than the words of your inner critic.

If I could have a grown-up Christmas wish, it would be to eradicate the bully voices that plague so many writers. Although I understand, too, that it’s the struggle that makes the achievements all that much more rewarding.

I’d love to hear from others of you who’ve found helpful strategies for writing through the loneliness, for connecting to your writing even if and when no one is listening. Part of this is a practice; part of it is gaining confidence that what we say matters; part of it is owning that we want to be successful and that’s okay.

And then, of course, the number of people who are listening is going to shift as you grow. You may start with ten listeners and grow to a few hundred and then to a few thousand and then much more. Even the most famous and widely published authors started with a first piece of writing and a first published book.

Happy holidays and New Year everyone!

Until next month,

Brooke

19 Comments

  1. I began writing poems when I first learned how to write. I wrote for fun, for pleasure, and to put feelings and thoughts into words. In my thirties I began to write fiction and personal essays, still for fun but with the dream of publishing beginning to form. I believed that once I published an essay I’d written about my Dad I would be happy. Well that essay was published, as well as another one, and it was if a fever took over. Rather than satisfying my thirst for publication it lit a fire in me that has not gone out, but only flamed higher the more I wrote. I still find pleasure in writing and will write no matter what. The idea of publication only fuels me to do more revisions so I can send out the best pieces I am capable of. Love the challenge. Writing is not what I do, it is who I am.

  2. This encouragement was very timely for me. Thank you.

  3. Great post, Brooke. I recently had a conversation like this with a very talented student of mine. She asked when that feeling of insecurity goes away and I chuckled, made some self-deprecating remarks, and said “never.” In my experience, that nagging question of “am I a real writer” never really leaves us. That’s part of the self-doubt and the inner critic, sure, but we can also use it to our advantage. We can take those disempowering words and use them to empower us by fueling our motivations, feeding our ambitions. Make tangible goals (write a page a day, submit to X publications) that are achievable and in our control… and that inner critic will quiet down a bit if we stay accountable to our own selves and to our creative minds. We are our own harshest critics, sure, but we are also our own best cheerleaders, our best listeners, as you say.

  4. Fabulous! I will print this out to remind me when I lie to myself about my writing, its worth and impact AND despite outside feedback. Thank you Brooke. Happy Hildays.

  5. The bully voices and the bastard inner critic are always lurking over my shoulder. I believe this is a continuation of a childhood with a mother who did the same — constant critic and bully. However, lately with four essays published in anthologies and a contest win locally under my belt, I’m beginning to realize the desire I’ve always had to write grows stronger daily. That’s why I’m declaring 2014 my year to push on the memoir I’ve been working on for too many years now and continually putting off. This post just pushed me another leap across that line!

  6. I have come very close to giving up on my writing and when that happened, I suddenly felt I was a failure. In high school, I was the product of the “red mark generation.” (maybe that generation is still on…?) These red-marks carried me through until one day I realized that I actually do have something important to say!

    When I finally discovered the kind of writing I was meant to do and that people were actually reading and commenting on my work, that was the day I was reborn as a writer. I also host a radio show and this helps with getting out of my own head — I don’t fiercely guard myself anymore because of fear, doubt and shame. On December 20th, I hosted artist guru, Julia Cameron, who said that the best piece of advice she ever received was to write to her ideal audience. I think that is sound advice.

    Once we can get out of our way, we can tend to other things. Writing is a constant process of connection — connection with ourselves and our ideal readers.

    Dorit Sasson
    http://www.GivingaVoicetotheVoicelessBook.com
    Giving a Voice to Your Story

    • Yes, Dorit. I’m sure this generation still exists. I was so impressed to see that you had Julia Cameron on your show. Must have been amazing. Thanks for the comment. I think you’re so right about audience!

  7. Sadly I think many of us rely on validation from others to feel like our writing matters. Even if only one person reads what I write and finds something that resonates with them, I feel great. If I start to feel down, I think about the times that I have touched someone with what I have written, and that fuels me.38

  8. Alexa’s right. Many a writer looks for validation through others/gatekeepers, even me. I get very excited when someone leaves a comment on my blog. Validation? You bet. Thanks again, Brooke, for a great post. I enjoy your posts.

  9. Thanks for this, Victoria. I agree with you. It does feel good to get comments, so thank you for reading my posts. 🙂

  10. Thanks, Victoria for sharing this. It is true, “if you write it, they will read it.” Sometimes the audience is small, but the reason to write it in the first place must come from our hearts.

    I worked with a friend who was working on a Life Coaching certification and one thing she asked me was, “How much are you willing to put out there to get noticed? What will you do to get seen?”

    This has stuck with me, and in the writing world, it’s about getting published (among other things.)

    This is a keeper. Thanks again!

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