Anne Lamott on Dropping Whiny, Guilt-Mongering Voices Into Mason Jars

I’m currently reading Anne Lamott’s, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, a super thoughtful, […]

I’m currently reading Anne Lamott’sBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, a super thoughtful, inspiring and funny book on the nature of writing, and how frightening and wonderful it truly is. I can’t put it down. Lamott talks a lot about how writing evokes vulnerability, and exposes all sorts of insecurities and fears, etc., etc.,etc.. I came across this wonderful quotation and just had to share it. This particular zinger comes in the saltily-titled third chapter  “Shitty First Drafts,” wherein Lamott describes the inevitability of writing bad first drafts, while being brutally honest about the debilitating voices that one begins to hear when the writing process begins.

Bird-by-Bird--scanned-cover-771291What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head. First there’s the vinegar-lipped Reader Lady, who says primly, “Well, that’s not very interesting, is it?” And there’s the emaciated German male who writes these Orwellian memos detailing your thought crimes. And there are your parents, agonizing over your lack of loyalty and discretion; and there’s William Burroughs, dozing off or shooting up because he finds you as bold and articulate as a houseplant; and so on. And there are also the dogs: let’s not forget the dogs, the dogs in their pen who will surely hurtle and snarl their way out if you ever stop writing, because writing is, for some of us, the latch that keeps the door of the pen closed, keeps those crazy ravenous dogs contained.

Quieting these voices is at least half the battle I fight daily. But this is better than it used to be. It used to be 87 percent. Left to its own devices, my mind spends much of its time having conversations with people who aren’t there. I walk along defending my self to people, or exchanging repartee with them, or rationalizing my behavior, or seducing them with gossip, or pretending I’m on their TV talk show or whatever. I speed or run an aging yellow light or don’t come to a full stop, and one nanosecond later am explaining to imaginary cops exactly why I had to do what I did, or insisting that I did not in fact do it.

I happened to mention this to a hypnotist I saw many years ago, and he looked at me very nicely. At first I thought he was feeling around the floor for the silent alarm button, but then he gave me the following exercise, which I still use to this day.

Anne Lamott 2Close your yes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter starts up. Then isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse. Pick it up by the tail and drop it into a mason jar. Then isolate another voice, pick it up by the tail, drop it in the jar. And so on. Drop any high-maintenance parental units, drop in any contractors, lawyers, colleagues, children, anyone who is whining in your head. Then put the lid on, and watch all these mouse people clawing at the glass, jabbering away, trying to make you feel like shit because you won’t do that they want—won’t give them more money, won’t be more successful, won’t see them more often. Then imagine that there is a volume-control button on the bottle. Turn it all the way up for a minute, and listen to the stream of angry, neglected, guilt-mongering voices. Then turn it all the way down and watch the frantic mice lunge at the glass, trying to get at you. Leave it down, and get back to your shitty first draft.

A writer friend of mine suggests opening the jar and shooting them all in the head. But I think he’s a little angry, and I’m sure nothing like this would ever occur to you.

Whew. I’m thinking about trying to get in touch with that hypnotist! Who’s with me?

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12 responses to “Anne Lamott on Dropping Whiny, Guilt-Mongering Voices Into Mason Jars”

  1. Jim McNeely says:

    Great stuff! This is also an issue of operating creatively from the standpoint of grace vs. operating to gain acceptability. If you are writing to validate yourself then these validating “voices” mean everything. Even if you silence them, in the end it truly matters if they approve. Grace is creatively liberating because you are dead to these voices altogether. You can hear the various criticisms and you can say, “What the hell? It is much worse than that! I’m not just a bad writer, I’m a horrible person who is trying to write!” The act of writing demonstrates in microcosm the entire problem of living in general to please others vs. living as one who is eternally pleasing already to Almighty God Himself.

  2. Matt Patrick says:

    Yes! So much grace in this book. Have you read it, Jim?

    • Jim McNeely says:

      I’ve been working and then my son broke his ankle so I’ve been at the emergency room – what a day! But, I have not read the book. There are a ton of books I am being introduced to through Mockingbird! I have been thinking a lot about aesthetics and creativity under grace though.

  3. Love this! But I especially love Jim’s comment. All of those voices represent the “little l” law that can drive us to despair. The only thing to do is to agree and move forward into the gospel. That’s true freedom!

  4. mbbkw says:

    Love the comments re grace and creativity….the more I see that I am a “bad writer who is also a horrible person” the more quickly I can drop the efforts at gaining approval and are MORE free to explore/create/live etc not LESS free…not that I am under another law to get grace right because I still see that I am still trying to prove myself even after all is said and done…

    • Exactly! The freedom doesn’t come from getting control over the voices. It comes from embracing the fact that what they are saying is true yet because of Christ you are fully loved and excepted anyways. This frees us to step out and take a risk, being vulnerable and creative with no expectations and no fear of condemnation. That’s grace!

  5. Page says:

    In regards to the grace and creativity talk this reminds me a lot about how I feel in my marriage. I recently got married and I feel so free to dye my hair crazy colors now, among other things. I no longer have to worry about maximizing my beauty, I’m free to experiment! Seeing my husband’s love and acceptance of me is so freeing and such a great reminder of the grace and freedom available in Christ’s love for us.

  6. Matt Patrick says:

    There are no limits to creativity, when “there is now no condemnation” is the backdrop. Loving the comments, Jim, Kimm, mbbkw, and Page!

  7. Jim McNeely says:

    Great review, I need to read that book. Thanks Matt!

  8. Jim McNeely says:

    You guys might be interested in this post from last year:

    I hope it is OK to share a link in the comments like this. It is super relevant.

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