This is a guest post by book editor Will Mathes.
“Do not follow the ideas of others, but learn to listen to the voice within yourself.”
– Dogen Zenji
The fact is, the Internet has made it such that most everyone these days is a writer of some sort – no, you may not be an actual book author or journalist, or even a blogger (or maybe you are), but let’s face it: we’re all e-mailers, right? Or we’re employers or employees writing to co-workers, or we’re students writing to teachers or vice versa… and all of us are trying to convey something to someone, presumably important enough for us to care about how we’re expressing ourselves to our intended reader or readers.
So the question arises: when you sit down to write whatever it is you want to communicate, are you truly listening to the voice within you, the voice of your most authentic self?
Given I’ve been a book editor, blog editor and writing coach for 17 years, my first response to this question (see below) will apply most readily to those who are, in the traditional sense of the word, “writers” – however, my second response (further below) will, I hope, address the rest of us who, as I said above, are “writers of some sort”… and if I’m lucky, you’ll all find something of value in one, if not both responses.
One of my favorite writers, J.D. Salinger, once had a story character implore his younger brother, an aspiring writer, to write something “really and truly after your own heart” – in other words (paraphrasing him in a later passage), to “write the story you most want to read.”
And while I believe this charge to writers is inspirational, the practice of doing it seems to have been lost on many writers, especially those blogging their way through the internet or penning e-book after e-book or even many of the hard copy books I find on tables at the front of my local Barnes & Noble bookstore.
Certainly, writing is a highly personal activity, a creative act requiring deeply focused attention, similar to painting, making music or any other form of art.
However, when the subject turns to where to focus one’s attention, I sometimes hear from my clients (writers of all levels of expertise) questions indicating they do not know how to get to “the story you most want to read” or, more precisely, how to determine what that story is.
My response is: Tune into the reader within you. That is, go to the place inside of you where your reader lives and invite him or her to show up and be present, as you lean into the creative act of writing. Once you’ve put some words together and have even a page or two down, share what you’ve got with this reader in you . . . and invite him or her to weigh in on what he/she sees and feels.
My experience has shown me this reader will not B.S. you, or “let something slide.” Nor will this reader in you (typically) be an overly harsh critic — so there’s really nothing to be afraid of here. Instead, this reader is one who will reassure you when you’re in the groove with your material, ring a bell out loud when you’re delighting him or her, and yes, point out where what you’ve written is coming up short in some way. The trick is to be listening honestly to this “reader’s” voice within you, and I mean listen with rigorous honesty and open-mindedness.
Similarly, in our personal lives, there are times when we recognize the importance of shifting our attention from what’s going on “outside” to listening more closely to what our inner voice is saying. Typically, an incident will arise requiring us to slow down, perhaps even stop, to evaluate the situation we’re facing.
When I worked as a grant writer for a large non-profit organization, I came to a point when my level of stress on the job was outweighing the amount of satisfaction I was getting from the service I was providing. I remember quite well the morning I tuned into my inner voice, the voice of my soul—beyond the fears and doubts I heard clamoring in my head (“Where will I get a new job?” “How will I survive?”)—and heard the call to care for myself, leave the position and have faith the Universe/God/Spirit would lead me to something better.
The moment I chose to walk in that direction, rather than the path my fear recommended (“Don’t quit! Hang in there, things will eventually get better!”), I felt the fresh breezes of freedom blowing through me, clearing out the anxiety, worry and frustration I’d been struggling with for months. Soon, I found my way to a career as a freelance book editor and writing coach, which I’ve now been happily doing for over 17 years.
It goes without saying, I believe our inner voice “has our back” like no other… and hearkening to it will always reap us the richest rewards of all.
Learn more about Will Mathes at bookeditorcoach.com.