These Voices in My Head

As I writer, I try to be sensitive to boundaries. This is true—but there’s another side of the coin, as is so often the case. As a writer, I waltz over boundaries all the time. In fact, it’s in my job description!

Writers write. Readers read. There’s a big gap there. Good writers bridge it skillfully. They do this by reading their imagined readers’ minds and anticipating possible concerns or questions. If I were in Joe’s shoes, might this sentence be confusing? If I were in Jill’s shoes, might I find this sentence offensive? We ask these questions all the time, and adjust our prose as we deem fit.

Skilled writers are in a non-stop cross-boundary dance. They speak for themselves, then head on over into their (imagined) readers’ heads and scan the text for how it might land.  They do this until the text feels sufficiently polished. This can take a lot of climbing into otjher people’s heads.

Writing thus has a potentially salutary effect. It provides ongoing training in empathetic relating. To write well, a person needs to have a facility for imagining how a statement might land for someone who’s different from them. You have to explore different personality types—the literalist; the quick-to-be-triggered; the knee-jerk debater; the rationalist; the romantic; and more. You may not be able to please them all—in fact, you probably won’t be able to—but by climbing inside their reality tunnel, you come to understand them better.

More empathy is a good thing, and doing this exercise provides other benefits as well. You get more clarity about your own priorities. How much effort do you want to put into not being misunderstood? Who are you writing for? And since those imagined other live first and foremost inside ourselves, writing also helps us become better acquainted with, and more respectful of, our own sub-personalities.

This is the writer’s life—forever visiting different versions of the self. Knocking on doors, making oneself at home, seeing how the world looks from here. And here. And here.

Most of these voices in my head are the voices of my imagined readers. Not all, though. I also have a voice that I think of as my professional-status self. (It’s not a great description; I haven’t found a better one.) One of the scans I give my writing is—how would this look in a high-status publication? Would it look like it belonged there? This self is basically asking: Does my work pass the quality sniff test? Not quality defined by my inherently unreliable subjective judgments (there’s no one more qualified to judge me than … me, and there’s also no one less qualified to judge me than … me), but quality defined by some external standard that, for better or for worse, for wiser or for stupider, I measure by traveling down a neural pathway that leaves me imagining words put down on paper in a style that represents how the guild does it.

If I were inclined, I could pat myself on the back for this tendency—it reflects my desire for quality and is a virtue! I could also fault myself for it—it’s an unhealthy externalization of authority (a character flaw)! I don’t go either place. It is what it is, and I do it regularly. I’d try to stop if I believed it made my writing worse. I don’t. Overall, I think it makes it better.

I have another sub-personality that I am drawn to as a writer and then, inevitably, break off from, again and again and again. This is my romantic self. I build up a head of steam, get more and more worked up as I build to my climax, then finish it off with a grand crescendo that, in the writing, feels right, appropriate and merited.

Yay, Wagner!

This, my friends, is why I sleep on everything I write. The next morning, what felt so grand and brilliant the day before almost always lands as overwrought and excessive. My basic aesthetic stance is affirmed by my failure to adhere to it: Less really is more. And so I haul out my ax and hack off the offending sentences.

Often, there’s a kernel of truth inside all that passion. If so, I try to leave it there.

Meanwhile my romantic drama-queen sub-personality lives on. The time will come when she rises again, perhaps that very same day. She knows it and I know it, too. She’s like the mistress I keep breaking up with, but never can quite get away.




2 replies
  1. Robert J. Bernstein
    Robert J. Bernstein says:

    Dear Carl – Mike Carrigan, who spent some most felicitous time with Russ and me at our 45th Reunion, told us that you have been on some very interesting journeys, most recently landing in the realm of intimacy and relationships. Here I am 13 months later finally getting to read some of your posts, which I am finding splendidly written with metaphorical jewels and insightful analysis. In your writing on writing, I recognized a familiar flaw in my process — the failure to wait until the light of day to see whether the previous night’s phrases were still worth celebrating. I will check back periodically with and I hope to see Carl Frankel in person before the snow falls. All best wishes, Bob Bernstein


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