Meet Barb, The Voice in My Head

I recently got back from a family reunion in Missouri, where I got to see some of my favorite people to whom I’m fortunate enough to be related. This meant reconnecting with the very small population of Planet Earth who – thanks to legally-binding Family Member Terms & Conditions – are familiar with (and occasionally even read!) my blog.

Inevitably, then, I was forced to answer the question, “Where have you been? Why aren’t you posting? What’s going on?” from kind and well-meaning relatives. To which I awkwardly and insufficiently responded, “I don’t know! I’ve been busy. Life is crazy.”

Which is true, to be sure: Work has been excitingly hectic, Taylor and I moved back to the city and are now rock-throwing distance from our friends, summer has brought about a half dozen new vacation opportunities, and the days of devoting an hour a day to writing seem far behind me.

But that’s not the whole truth.

I left that reunion with hugs and promises to get back on the horse – but in the meantime, I thought I’d devote a post to answering their question more fully. Why is writing so difficult? Why, whenever I consider picking it back up, do I have a distinct inclination to run for the hills instead? Why, when I do finally sit down at a computer, do I become infuriated with the blinking cursor and its toe-tapping reminder of my inadequacy?

I’m pretty sure (and I consider myself a notable expert on the topic) that it’s because of Barb.

You know that old saying, “You’re your own worst critic?” That’s not even true about me. I’m not my own worst critic, you see, I’m my own assassin. There is a little voice inside my head (I call her Barb), whose entire role in my life is to convince me – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that I will never be Good Enough.

Barb is sometimes me, sometimes not exactly me, but she represents everything mean and awful about myself. She is cold and calculating and knows exactly what to say to make me feel miserable and inadequate. I picture her with yellow eyes and blades for lips, and she is the reason I can never get any writing done.

Let me give you an example: Sometimes, in an effort to get the creative juices flowing, I peruse some of my old writing. This is a profoundly bad idea. When I read through previous work searching for inspiration, one of two things happens:

  1. The work sucks. Sometimes I read through blog posts from three years ago and I want to physically gag. I’ll wonder why anyone ever trusted me with a keyboard – why anyone has ever trusted me with anything, for that matter – and I will actually toy with the idea of deleting this blog forever. In these cases, Barb sits in the corner looking smug, arms crossed, and says, “See? I told you so.”
  2. Or, the work ain’t so bad. I’m as surprised as you are, but sometimes it actually happens: I’ll read a piece and be moderately impressed with myself. (I used to write a lot more, you know, it was just statistically probable that sooner or later I’d stumble upon a successful writing endeavor.) Rather than being encouraged by this fact, however, Barb uses this as infallible proof that I should never write again. She reasons that these accidental talent spasms are as good as it’s ever going to get, and that trying to recreate them will only end in failure → frustration → depression. Best to accept this inevitability and avoid it altogether, she says.

Barb and I are very close these days. She’s taken residence in the crevice of my right clavicle bone, within reach of my ear should she need to claw her way up and hiss into it. For the most part she lays pretty dormant – occasionally lifting her head to sniff the air whenever an opportunity for self-hatred draws near.

Her real time to shine, though, is at night. Each time I lay my head down on my pillow, it’s as if a door has been left wide open – and all the insults I successfully kept at bay all day come flooding in. She pulls out her clipboard and checks them off one by one – reminding me dutifully that I am a waste of space: inept, overweight, and unlovable. Her speech doesn’t vary much from one night to the next, but it doesn’t have to – she spends the day sharpening and tuning these words so that they sting just as much as the first time I heard them. I lay in bed, nodding my head in agreement over and over (I’ve learned not to argue these points with her – she’s a relentless debater, and she’ll hammer them home until your ears bleed), as sleep drifts farther and farther away from my grasp.

Barb was purpose-built for this job, and she didn’t take it grudgingly. It’s not as if she’s only doing it for the paycheck, and off the clock she’s actually this really stellar character. No, Barb applied for this role the same way club bouncers do – salivating at the opportunity, flexing their muscles and admiring their uniform in the mirror. She was born to do this; my undoing is her life’s work.

All this to say, she doesn’t make writing particularly easy.

And so, family (and anyone else who may have accidentally landed here), I apologize for Barb’s behavior and its subsequent effect on my blogging cadence. I appreciate your endearing interest level, and I will try to bludgeon her into submission long enough to word vomit more regularly.

…No promises, though.

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Throwback Thursday: More Cowboy Poems

Happy Throwback Thursday, everybody.

For those of you who weren’t here for our last Throwback Thursday installment, this week I’ll be continuing with my series of cowboy poems.

I have to chuckle when I read these, because they very literally have no rhyme or reason. There’s no clear plot line, sketchy scenery descriptions, and usually a pretty abrupt ending because my brain started hurting trying to sculpt a cohesive rhythm. So I hope you’ll forgive my total lack of general storytelling etiquette.

But in any case, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying binge-walking down memory lane lately, so I’m gonna share. Here’s another:

A defined black silhouette cut through the brilliant orange sky.
It grew quickly as it neared where Dr. Kelly heaved a sigh.
The man rode hard as beads of sweat ran sideways ‘cross his face,
And fourteen miles away, made Dr. Kelly start to pace.

The woman stirred in bed, and doing so, let out a moan.
The doctor only shook his head and thought, “I should have known.”
The man on horseback yelled a slew of loud, impatient words.
The sky darkened behind him as he raced a flock of birds.

His horse was panting hard when that first star shone clear and bright.
Others like it took their place in the icy threatening night.
He shook the reigns again, last trace of purple drowning east…
The gap closed now to twelve miles, and Dr. Kelly’s fear increased.

The rim of his old cowboy hat was wet with sweat and blood.
The bottom of his boots and jeans were caked in orange mud.
His shirt was ripped, his jacket torn, his face upset and scared…
But Dr. Kelly stood convinced that he just didn’t care.

Another painful moan came from the woman on the bed.
The doctor wandered to her side and felt a burning head.
“There’s nothing I can do,” he whispered with a silent tear.
More followed with the blatant lie, “Your husband’s almost here.”

Eight miles away, a tired shadow pushed against the cold.
He’d been riding for hours, now, from the moment he was told.
The messenger had brought the news that made his heart stop dead.
“Your wife’s in grave condition, sir,” the poor young man had said.

And grave was too cheerful a word to apply in his wife’s room,
For death was hovering nearby, and toward her bed it loomed.
Six miles to go, the ride pressed, and screamed a silent prayer:
“Dear God, I know I’ve made mistakes, but this just isn’t fair.”

Throwback Thursday: Susie and her cowboy poems…

Hardly anyone I went to high school with reads my blog, but if they did they’d be rolling their eyes right now.

I may have mentioned my obsession with poetry in a previous post… and I believe I also mentioned how absurdly god-awful my poems were. What I haven’t discussed yet, was my perpetual fascination with cowboy-themed poems. (I was reading a lot of Zane Grey at the time.)

There was just something about the romance of riding horseback, kicking up dust and adventuring into the great wide nowhere with nothing but a bandana around your neck and a revolver at your hip.

It grabbed hold of my heart and hung on tight – as it did so many writers before me. And as such, my crude attempts at poetry began to assume the tropes of the Wild West.

In the next Throwback Thursday series, I’ll recount a few of the poems here… as long as I have your assurance, dear reader, that you won’t judge them.

(Note: None of them are titled. I’ve always struggled with titling things – a trait that has followed me into my current writing career. Also, I know I change tenses and I use adjectives instead of adverbs. I’m sorry, okay?)

Late at night, in the dark and the wet
When the light is teased and shunned,
There rides a man weighted down with regret
And the thick metal sheath of his gun.

He slumps on his saddle, tired and worn
His silhouette not but a clod:
A sorrowful cowboy whose jacket is torn
And whose morals are tragically flawed.

Yes tragically flawed are the morals of he,
Who sits in his hollow, on heaps of debris,
And grins as he waits for his poor enemy,
Yes, flawed are the morals of he.

A labyrinthine cavern, just miles away
Was where he’d established his lair.
He had good intentions, although I daresay
That his victim had hardly a prayer.

The hapless approached as his murderer waited
And as he arrived at the den
Sat a man with a pistol, all conscience abated.
A shot rang out once – then again.

Yes, two shots rang out that night, painfully clear,
And out of the cavern, two bodies appear,
The live one discernibly bearing a sneer,
Yes, the shots rang out painfully clear.

And now as he rides, he is ridden with shame
And can taste acrid guilt on his breath,
For he knows that he deserves all of the blame
For that miserable, undeserved death.

 

Happy Throwback Thursday, world!

Just Spit It Out, Would You?

As promised in my last post, today I’d like to write about writing.

Since landing my first writing job a few months ago, I’ve been learning an awful lot about writing lately. So much learning, in fact, that it honestly feels like I’m a new writer every single day. As each day passes, I look at things I wrote yesterday – and already think, “Oh god, this is awful. This is so bad, why didn’t somebody slap me?” This is a blessing, because I’m ecstatic to be growing so much so fast – but a curse, because with each new development I become more and more critical of my previous work. This journey has been one of continual self-discovery and evolution.

One thing in particular that I’ve become hyper-sensitive to in my own reading/writing is “fluff” …or writing more without necessarily writing better.

…Fluff, in other words, is other words.

One of my favorite copywriting articles to date has been ‘How Twitter Makes You a Better Writer‘ by Copyblogger. The gist? 140 characters forces you to (1) prioritize what you want to communicate, (2) maximize on the vocabulary words you include, and (3) become a dynamite editor.

Because on Twitter (as in writing in general), you just simply can’t afford any unnecessary verbiage.

Mark Twain knew this, when he expressed his opinion on the word “very”:

Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.

‘Very,’ like many other superfluous words, contribute to fluff in your writing.

For those of you unfamiliar with why my blog is called The Nutshell Version, I’m definitely guilty of fluff. I’m usually of the age-old storytelling philosophy: ‘When in doubt, write more.’ (This is a bad philosophy, guys. Don’t do this.)

But as I grow in my writing (and, hopefully, begin to tone down the fluffiness), I read over old blog posts and am tempted to delete whole paragraphs. (“What was I thinking? This doesn’t contribute to the story at all.”) Being paid to write (and, specifically, having to work within ironclad word counts) has given me a new perspective on the importance of written real-estate.

It has made me similarly critical of fluff in other’s writing. Which is why, when I read a lot of marketing content, I’m tempted to shake the writer by the shoulders and say “JUST SPIT IT OUT!” Because it almost seems like they’re deliberately tiptoeing around what they want to say.

For instance, I came across this on a company’s ‘About’ page recently:

XX provides clear answers for real people. We will conduct a comprehensive analysis, communicate our findings, and develop customized solutions based on your unique needs. Upon completion, we’ll evaluate our work, reconcile our progress, and provide our expert recommendations. Because at XX, we believe in solving the tough problems in a way that makes sense for our clients.

…Yeah okay. But what do you actually do

This is an example specific to my industry (marketing), but I think the same can be said for any writing. As writers, we get so caught up in wanting to sound conceptual and sophisticated that we almost forget that we have a message to communicate and a reader to satisfy.

In conclusion, whether you’re writing for a company ‘About’ page or a comprehensive history of the world… be deliberate when fashioning your prose, and consider forgoing eloquence for concision.

Or, to give you the Nutshell Version:

Cut the fluff.