Hearing Voices? Maybe You’re a Writer

by Guest Contributor

Confused woman shrugging

Today’s post is written by Susan Bearman, a semi-finalist in the Write It Sideways regular contributor search. Thanks, Susan!

Do you hear voices? I mean from people who aren’t in the room, but in your head.

If the voices are telling you to harm yourself or others, seek psychiatric help. If the voices are telling you stories, explaining who they are, or having dialogues with other characters, chances are you’re a writer.

In my case, every time I take a shower, I hear dialogue. This has been going on for as long as I can remember. It took me years to discover that this was both unusual for regular people and perfectly normal for writers.

Hearing voices is important for good writing. I’ll go so far as to say it’s essential. Which voices you listen to and how you respond will make all the difference.

Listen to your characters

It’s ironic that hearing your characters’ voices in your head is probably the best (and only) way to get inside of theirs. Let them speak to you:

  • Absorb their dialects.
  • Note their quirky speech patterns.
  • When do they get shrill? When are they quiet? When do they shout with joy?
  • What does it sound like when they laugh? Or cry?

You also need to listen to your character’s wants and needs, hopes and dreams; in other words, your character’s inner voice. When any character, especially your main character, tells you something you couldn’t possibly have known or made up, you’re on the right track. Only then will you be telling your characters’ story, not your own.

Listen to your heart

I recently heard a writer say: “It’s all about me. What interests me, what questions I have, what bugs me. That’s what I write about.”

Listen to the questions in your head and your heart. Some of the questions that can lead you down the right path are:

  • I wonder why nobody has ever written about this?
  • Can I write this another way? Can I write it as fiction? Or nonfiction? Or poetry?
  • Can I write this for another audience? Can I write it for teens? Or children?

If you’re interested enough to ask the question, do the research and write about it well, that’s practically a guarantee that someone else will want to read it.

Listen to your head

Finding a good critique group or a couple of trusted beta readers is a must for the revision process. Their input can be invaluable, so listen carefully, don’t interrupt or be defensive, and take good notes.

Now comes the hard part: learning to evaluate that criticism. This is an entirely different skill because, as writers, we tend to listen with our hearts. But when it comes to criticism, it’s important to learn to listen with that keen editor’s voice in your head. That takes practice, a little distance and a lot of objectivity.

After a critique session, take your notes home, and put your writer brain to bed. Wake up your editor brain and read your notes over again. Your editor voice should be ruthless. It will know whether your critiquers are right and will advise your writer self to go back and revise.

But if your inner editor tells you that your critics are way off track, listen to that, too. Give their suggestions a fair shake, take the good suggestions to heart, and ignore the criticisms of those who only want you to rewrite your story their way.

There is one voice you should ignore at all costs. You know the one. It’s the voice of Self Doubt.

We all have an inner devil buzzing in our ears occasionally, telling us that we’re foolish, talentless and wasting our time. That demonic voice can paralyze you, drowning out the creative voices that got you started.

Learn to trust yourself. It’s one thing to set aside a fresh work and come back to it with a little perspective and a more objective eye. This is an essential skill for every writer. But don’t let that fiend Self Doubt get you down.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: “Writers aren’t exactly people … they’re a whole lot of people trying to become one person.”

E.L. Doctorow said: “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”

I say, you’re not crazy, you’re a writer. Embrace your other voices. They are a gift.

Susan Bearman is a writing veteran of more than 20 years, working as a ghost writer, technical writer and business editor. She teaches writing and social media for writers, and her current works-in-progress include several picture books, a memoir and a mystery. You can follow her on Twitter

  • http://bizziwriter.com Carrie Schmeck

    My friends think I make strange (but interesting) connections between things in the world and I notice quirky details that mean nothing to anyone. I love it when I can turn these thoughts into something. It took me awhile to figure out how my thought processes were a gift, meant to fuel my work. Thanks for this post. It was great!

    • http://2kop.blogspot.com Susan @ 2KoP

      Carrie — I think those connections are so vital to the writing process. It’s one of the things I’ve come to appreciate about writing regular blog posts, because it helps me make those connections and improves all my writing. Thanks for your comment and good luck with your writing.

  • http://www.familyarchaeologist.com Linda Gartz

    A post that resonates for me — and I think for all writers. I especially like the section on ignoring self-doubt, the most insidious and frequent visitor to the writerly mind. I hear a lot of voices from my family–especially because I’m awash in their letters and diaries from the past 100 years. It brings them back to me in a very real way. Because they wrote, they live in my head. Now I want to take the lessons I’ve learned from them about love, marriage, loyalty — and write pieces with which others will also find resonance. Thanks for validating the voices in my head, Susan.

    • http://2kop.blogspot.com Susan @ 2KoP

      Linda, your family documents are a real gift. I hope you continue to form relationships with the past and wish you the best of luck in turning them into a beautiful memoir.

  • http://www.healnowandforever.net Jodi Aman
  • http://2kop.blogspot.com Susan @ 2KoP

    Jodi — I loved your interview with Self Doubt. You’re right, what a scoundrel. I do agree that women seem to be disproportionately visited by Self Doubt (as are writers and other artists of both genders). It’s a real feat to recognize and learn to deal with such an unwelcome intruder.

  • http://thejadedlens.com Britton Minor

    I seriously thought I was schizo…those around me too…you’ve nailed it, Susan. And all this time I’ve tried to “create” the characters–completely ignoring their pleas to be written, their diverse voices.

    • http://2kop.blogspot.com Susan @ 2KoP

      I bet your characters were really irritated with you for a while there, Britton. I’m sure your relationships with them will improve greatly now that you are listening. Good luck to “all” of you.

  • http://www.sherylmonks.com sherylmonks

    Great post! I recently wrote about Voice on my own blog after a couple requests from other writers to help them figure out if they have “a voice” and if not, how to develop one. Here’s the link: http://50shimmeringpages.blogspot.com/2011/11/why-voice-speaks-to-us.html.

    Really enjoy Write It Sideways. Always helpful and inspiring!

    Thanks much,
    ~ sheryl

    • http://2kop.blogspot.com Susan @ 2KoP

      Thanks, Sheryl. I’ll check out your post.

  • http://serbaughman.wordpress.com/ Sarah Baughman

    Great post– even with creative non-fiction I find it’s important to listen to different voices… it’s one thing to experience a conversation with someone else and quite another to write it in a way that doesn’t sound stilted. I love the Fitzgerald and Doctorow quotes too. It’s nice to know we’re not crazy. :)

    • http://2kop.blogspot.com Susan @ 2KoP

      Sarah — Thanks for your comments. I know many writers who first heard a voice speaking to them about a nonfiction project — all the niggling questions that just won’t leave you alone. For me, those are usually the seeds of something good.

  • Christi Craig

    Susan, Great post. I particularly love this thought on how characters work in and with our imagination:
    When any character, especially your main character, tells you something you couldn’t possibly have known or made up, you’re on the right track. Only then will you be telling your
    characters’ story, not your own.

    Lots of food for thought!

    • http://2kop.blogspot.com Susan @ 2KoP

      Christi — I didn’t really believe that characters could talk and act of their own accord until it happened to me in my writing. It was quite a revelation and taught me that I better pay attention.

  • http://www.mtholyoke.edu Molly B.

    Very well written piece about the benefits of being a little crazy. Additionally, you gave great (and easy to follow!) advice on how to handle the annoying voices in your head.

  • http://2kop.blogspot.com Susan @ 2KoP

    Thanks, Molly. I hope your voice find their way onto the page.

  • Lindz

    I will actually catch myself, in public, talking to my characters. Though, to an outsider, it appears as though I am just talking to myself. How can I possibly explain it off?
    “No, really, it’s okay. I’m just talking to the elf-girl that lives in my brain.”
    Thank you for the wonderful post, and great advice.

    • http://2kop.blogspot.com Susan @ 2KoP

      Thanks, Lindz. I got used to the weird looks early on. My twins were born very prematurely and didn’t learn to talk until they were four, so I had years of carrying on both (or all three) sides of the conversation. One time I was in the grocery store and forgot that they were home with a babysitter and continued to babble on to them as if they were with me. After that, the character voices in my head didn’t seem so weird (at least to me). As long as you are getting good material, let them stare.

  • http://www.WhereAreWeGoingChicago.com Karen Gray-Keeler

    Great post, Susan! I especially like the “Listen to your heart” and “Listen to your head” sections.

    • http://2kop.blogspot.com Susan @ 2KoP

      Thanks, Karen. Hope you found something you could use.

  • http://jubileewriter.wordpress.com Cindy Huff

    I hear voices in the shower, when I do housework, while I file records in the dark basement at work. My characters follow me everywhere. So relieved to know that is part of my writer persona.:)
    Great encouragement.

    • http://2kop.blogspot.com Susan @ 2KoP

      Cindy, sounds like your characters really want your attention. Consider yourself lucky.

  • Tara_Grey

    Interesting post.

    I don’t so much get to eavesdrop on dialogue, but I do seem to spend a lot of time watching scenes unfolding – a bit like watching a movie. Not sure if this makes me a writer, or some other kind of creative I’ve not explored yet.

    • http://2kop.blogspot.com Susan @ 2KoP

      Tara, maybe you’re a set designer at heart. Don’t discount your writer self, though, because the ability to provide a realistic setting for your characters is vital. It sounds like you may good with plot, too. Good luck.

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  • http://www.youngaspiringwriter.blogspot.com/ Chihuahua0

    I’m usually not a voice’s person. Usually visual images follow it, and I often act out bits of scenes and pipe dreams in my head. Most of the time, it’s repeats for pleasure’s sake, but sometimes I do brainstorm. IE, when I decided to switch the sport my protagonist played to fit his personality and the time frame of the story.

    • http://2kop.blogspot.com Susan @ 2KoP

      Great idea to use your voices or visions to play with different scenarios. That sounds like a great brainstorming tool.

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