Write as if no one’s watching

Mark Twain once said, “Sing like no one’s listening, love like you’ve never been hurt, dance like nobody’s watching, and live like its heaven on earth.” I’ve always loved this quote, but I wonder how many of us actually live in the moment and follow our hearts instead of wondering how silly we look? I know I’m guilty of holding back because I fear scrutiny and/or judgement, and I think it’s one of the reasons I’ve gone long periods in my life without writing (and singing and loving and dancing…).

Now, I’m one of the most self-conscious people you could ever meet – and with that in mind, it’s a wonder I ever began writing in the first place. It occurred to me the other week that this is one of the reasons many people remain stuck and find it difficult to express themselves in various forms.

When I first started studying psychology, I learned about something called the ‘spotlight effect’, which is that feeling that everybody is watching you – a bit like if you enter a large room full of people and it all goes silent, or if you drop a tray of plates or glasses in a busy canteen. For me, it manifests itself during activities such as singing or dancing (which I rarely do – at least not in company), or more likely – in the middle of a conversation in the school playground. Before I’ve got into the swing of things, I’ll suddenly catch sight of myself, worry that everybody is watching me and assume I look or sound silly. So I stop.

In some areas of my life, this has proved a useful trait. For example, in my case, my self-consciousness is related to my self-awareness – and because of this, there’s no part of my psyche or conscience that I don’t feel comfortable exploring, so no stone is left unturned. This was particularly useful when I was doing my counselling training, and in turn has benefitted my writing hugely.

However, self-consciousness has also been the worst enemy of my writing, and I’m sure that many other writers can relate to this.

The act of putting pen to paper is in theory very simple. Most of us do it in some form every day. We also tell stories to our friends, family and work colleagues every day, and we read books. And lots and lots of people have that secret (or not-so-secret) desire to write a book. So, assuming a person has that desire, along with the time and an idea they’d like to explore, why aren’t more of us making that start in the first place?

I think it’s partly because of that ‘spotlight effect’, that feeling like we’re being watched – or even worse – judged.

For years I didn’t write because I thought I had to be some kind of genius, that if my story didn’t drip off the pen naturally, then I probably wasn’t good enough – and my desire to write wasn’t enough to pin my future career hopes on, so I looked at studying a more practical subject at university and tried to forget about writing, even as a hobby (I didn’t view writing as a suitable activity for a hobby – it wasn’t like painting or baking or playing a sport or learning a language – therefore the very few pieces I wrote I kept secret).

Added to that, I loved writing diaries and stories based on real events – trying to capture happier times, or to understand more difficult ones, so it became doubly important to protect my precious stories by keeping them to myself, even if they stayed in my head – they expressed a part of me that was more ‘real’ than anything else in my life.

These days, I am much better, and I’ve learned to not care if anybody’s watching or judging my writing (and for the record, they aren’t, they really aren’t – at least not until you’re ready for anybody to critique your work anyway), but it wasn’t easy. There was always that image of the critical reader sitting on my shoulder scrutinising my small efforts and dishing out negative comments – it was the collective voice of everybody who’d ever put me down and not believed in me.

My solution was to turn it on its head. My inner critic made me angry, and I channelled that anger into determination to write what I wanted to write – and I’d carry on writing until all the negative thoughts were gone. I was literally fighting the bullies on the page. And because there are always negative thoughts to conquer, it’s meant that bar the odd spell, I’ve carried on writing.

Learning to ignore that voice is a real challenge for both new and experienced writers – but it’s particularly acute when you first set out. Even today, I can clearly remember the fear of emptying all my hopes and dreams on the page and discovering I wasn’t the writer I hoped I was in my soul, that I was just kidding myself all along – and that’s why I never wrote for years.

I can live with never singing or dancing again, but the thought of never being a writer – and worse, somebody calling me out on it – that was the one thing that I feared finding out. And so I never wrote. It’s a viscious cycle.

I’m lucky I broke through the fear. And fear was all it was. It took a lot of courage, and I had to use every ounce of my determination and focus to do it – but the good news is that once you’ve found a way to deal with your inner critic watching and judging, it’s another tool in your kit to use – just be aware of new tactics that your inner critic might employ to derail you, and be ready and armed.

Feel the fear and write anyway.

(As I know it’s not that simple – here’s a link to another blog post I wrote about starting to write: https://lifeandtimesofamemoirwriter.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/starting-to-write/)

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Author: lifeandtimesofamemoirwriter

I am a writer based in East Anglia. Currently writing a memoir about alcoholism and student life during the mid-1990s Brit Pop / Girl Power era (long-listed for the Mslexia Memoir Competition 2014).

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