I’ve read about this. I’ve read in writing craft books about asking yourself who is the voice in your head that tells you you are a bad, no talent, shameful writer. Could be a parent, could be a teacher. I’ve never been able to pin-point mine. Sometimes I’d claim it to be my first husband, but deep down I knew that wasn’t true. He was not insensitive or cruel, he was simply ambivalent. Most likely not secure enough to provide what I was asking for (on the rarest of occasions I would offer to let him read what I’d written), so he chose to render no opinion. No, the voice is not him.
I wondered if the voice originated from a scene I still see so clearly; an older sibling reading the start of a story I’d written in middle school. It was a story of a brother and sister trying to solve a crime, my first draft handwritten on loose leaf and gathered up in a black three ring binder. Memory has a way of providing the 360 degree view of such a moment; my sibling standing at the kitchen counter holding the binder, reading out loud, laughing and dramatically acting out the words I’d written. We were both young, and this person is so dear to me I’m certain this is not the voice.
Whenever the voice pops up, I try to tuck it away, do my best to brush it off. I try to tell myself it doesn’t matter what it thinks, but nonetheless that voice tangles itself into my brain and is alive and well up there. The voice I've identified as “THE VOICE” snuck up next to me recently as I wrote about the metaphysicality of existing in two places simultaneously. The voice belongs to a woman who passed away last year, before I came to this realization. I am a bit ashamed to admit that there was a degree of relief at the news, though I did not understand why until now. She is a woman with whom I took my second Creative Nonfiction class many years ago, let’s call her Patsy. It’s her voice.
Patsy hadn’t been in the first of the two-class series, and was an unfamiliar face. The instructor, a lovely nurturing woman had given us a process of critical response early on that I still rely on in my own teaching. It asks the reader to provide an affirmation to the writer to say in essence, “I respect your efforts and find this particular aspect of it remarkable.” This is the 'ante' into the trust bank, to open the dialogue to then provide feedback in the form of curiosity. Not correction or suggestion, but in essence, “this is what I felt and thought as I read your work, and I’m wondering...”
Patsy simply disregarded this model. Blatantly. I remember her waving her hand as if shooing away an insect, starting her comments with—and this is not far from verbatum, I’m certain—“Affirmation, blah blah blah, affirmation,” and then she’d start with her critique. It felt icky from the get-go.
After the last class, a group of us decided to continue to meet as a writing group, and Patsy offered her condo’s clubhouse as a place for us to gather. Early on, I brought a piece about tears, how they’re (gratefully) the most likely of the limited number of fluids the body chooses to express the big emotions. Can you imagine if you salivated instead? Or sweat? Or some of the waist-down fluid options? Patsy, a medical professional, countered right off the bat. Body fluids aren’t LIMITED, there’s A LOT of them, and proceeded to rattle off the medical terms for all kinds that simply shut me down for the rest of my critique. Later she scoffed at my use of the phrase “liquid mercury.” ALL mercury is liquid, she quipped. I don’t remember any other feedback on the piece I wrote, from her or anyone else, and that essay got shelved for years. Because whever I thought about all I heard in my head was, ALL mercury is liquid, STUPID.
In truth Patsy was absolutely right, and I’d have so appreciated that correction if I had felt she, as my critique partner, had my best interests at heart. If she had built that trust with some acknowledgment that, yes, this piece is worthy, you have done effective work. Then pointing out that small error would have been welcomed, I’d have thanked her for saving me from looking stupid. Instead I just felt stupid, and as a new writer, this was too much for me to overcome.
I stopped bringing pieces to the group. This really pissed Patsy off. This IS a WRITING group, she’d admonish. I’m disappointed, she may have said, or something as condescending at best, offensive at worst. Not at all helpful or interested in why I may not be bringing something. Not that I would have been able to provide a reason at that point. I was just feeling incompetent and stupid about the whole endeavor of being a writer, which in my mind I wasn’t, since I wasn’t writing.
She dropped the group after a few months of meetings, to focus on revising her own manuscript, and the group moved to my house for meetings. I began to write again, and often found that group such a treasure, so uplifting and encouraging.
Then Patsy asked to come back.
And me, not fully understanding the toxicity, and not strong enough to protect our group and say no, allowed it. The group broke apart soon after.
Fast forward to a few days ago when I wrote the word “metaphysical,” I heard that voice. That’s not how metaphysics works, STUPID. And I finally recognized it as Patsy. So I have some things to say to her now, to the real Patsy, who in truth I didn’t know that well. My hope is doing so may provide some ballast to deal with this imaginary Patsy between my ears. Patsy, you had no right to eschew the process of building trust with me as a writer. You had no right to shame me when I wasn’t writing. Your comments were corrections, not feedback. I’m sorry you’re dead, and perhaps your loved ones are mourning you. I’m sorry for their loss.
But imaginary Patsy, there in my head? Fuck you, Patsy. I see you there, you small-minded bitch.
I see myself waving my hands at her like I watched the real Patsy do during class. I see myself taking her by the shoulders and turning her to face the other direction so I don’t hear her. If I want to write about metaphysics I will. And will probably appreciate her corrections down the road in a revision. But not in my early draft. Now is not the time to not look stupid. Now is not the time to even worry about looking stupid.
I’m saying no to Patsy now.
I’ve talked to other writers who have ‘patsies’ in their writing histories. Some of these painful moments happened during the time the group met at my home, which now, as a holder of safe spaces, I regret I could not see and mitigate. But I suppose it all comes with the territory. As writers it’s up to us to identify and understand who we hold in our heads as our ideal readers, our critical voices. It’s up to us to be the gatekeeper, letting in those who are most helpful, turning away those who are not.
Meg Kinghorn is the big weirdo of the Ella/Meg Salty City Writing Workshop collaboration. She teaches Creative Non-fiction and Memoir at the University of Utah and gives herself and any other writer crossing her path unmitigated permission to write whatever the hell they want.