“You Are Boring” and Other Friendly Writing Tips

I really don’t think of myself as a writer. I’ve written a bunch of books, but that doesn’t make me writer. It just means I type a lot. Writing is different. I know good writers, and they intimidate me. They think about what they are going to say, organize their thoughts, use adjectives, and spell-check, all the things I don’t want to do.

Writing is not my joy and solace. It is more like my 9th grade science teacher, with his arms crossed standing behind me watching me use the cat as a ventriloquist dummy instead of dissecting it. I can feel his presence and I am uncomfortable. I know I’ve been caught, but if I avoid eye contact, maybe he’ll go away.

Anyway, despite myself I’ve picked up a few things over the years, and one recent insight has proved helpful: I’ve learned to recognize the voices inside of me. Not the crazy kind that told me to buy a Ford Pinto in high school and later told me to go to graduate school, but the voices of an audience in my brain bearing down on me, watching me, daring me–DARING me–to write something coherent. My voices have a bit of an edge.

About a year ago, without having been conscious of it before, I came to see that I had always been writing to an audience buried deep in my soul made up of three voices.

  • we are hostile toward you
  • we are ignorant of your topic and we don’t care
  • we are easily bored by anything you say

This phantom audience began to take up residence deep inside me at a very young age. I grew up in a home where one parent tended to dominate a room with monologs–long ones–45 minutes sentences, never noticing that those trapped in the room where getting agitated and bored by topics that interested no one but the speaker.

I only recently became conscious of these memories invading my writing–at a time in my life when I was doing a ton of writing—books, book proposals, essays, articles, and especially blog posts. All that typing seems to have been a form of unintended journaling that brought things to the surface.

When I write (and speak), I have a deep reflex not to produce those feelings in others that were produced in me.

In retrospect, it seems I have always put a lot of energy into my writing to try to counter each of these voices.

  • I assume it is my job to work hard to bring readers to see the value of what I have to say
  • I work at being as clear as I can so as not to require of readers unnecessary effort to grasp the heart of what I am saying
  • I try to find ways to grab my readers to keep them from wanting to stop reading after the second sentence

This is where these edgy voices have led me. It wasn’t planned and I’m not saying I pull it off, but being conscious of these voices is part of my own transition from typing a lot to maybe writing a little. I guess what I’ve learned–as corny as it sounds–is that writers are in touch with themselves. Otherwise, they’re just typing.

  • Susan Gerard

    I like your intellectual honesty.

  • Lise

    Peter – Thank you for sharing a little about your writing process. Years ago when I was in college I became a tutor for our campus writing center. In order to qualify, I had to take three teacher education courses focusing specifically on how to work with writers. I was also required to scrutinize my own internal process related to writing. Ultimately, this trained me to work like a psychotherapist to writers. Tutors not only teased out students’ thesis statements and helped them organize their thoughts. We also helped students identify those critical voices that typically sabotage creativity/productivity. “I’m not smart enough, my ideas don’t matter, I don’t write well, etc.” I discovered right away that all the grammar instruction in the world was to no avail if people didn’t think they were worthy of being heard. Internal demons created paralysis. Yet when students realized that writing is simply a process, procrastination decreased, clarity increased and self-esteem improved.

    You were lucky that you found away to say f*&^ it to those internal voices and instead leveraged them to make you a better writer. In drama therapy, we actually play and improvise with those loud mouths and have the opportunity to tell them to cork it.

    I like your writing very much. And I agree with you that when really writing, one embarks on a journey of self-awareness. I find the writing that I most wrestle with indicates I’m on the cusp of something major. I am now entering draft 4/year 2 of the book that I’m writing (not that I’m counting or anything). And part of me is miffed that I’m beginning to feel like Conrad’s Marlowe journeying deeper into the Congo. “A mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land…” But I know that travel into the heart of darkness is ultimately necessary.

    • peteenns

      Thanks, Lise. The words I avoided using in the post, for fear of sounding too therapeutic (b/c I am not a therapist) is “shame.”

  • Lise

    And alas, there are typos in my post… They don’t have an edit button on blogs which ticks me off. I am one of those neurotic writers… although I do find joy and solace in the mess of it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ann.g.corbett Ann Gingrow Corbett

    Your writing is interesting enough to me that I continue to return to this blog even though I’m not a practicing Christian (I’m a lapsed Catholic). I’ve found your ideas challenging and interesting, and have bought two of your books. I read “The Evolution of Adam” first; now I’m reading “Inspiration and Incarnation.” My husband is amazed, but I tell him that I’ve developed an interest in Biblical history.

    • peteenns

      Thanks you. I appreciate your comment.

  • Jason

    I echo Ann’s sentiment above. I started reading your blog a year ago (after purchasing and reading your book “The Evolution of ADAM”) and I haven’t stopped since…..

    In fact, a link to your blog is right on the top of on my browser’s bookmark bar and I check it every day.

    Jason

  • Lise

    Shame is an insidious little animal.

  • rvs

    Your blog has given me much joy and insight. One of my favorite pieces about philosophy of writing comes from Peter Elbow: “Closing my Eyes as I Speak.” Elbow tries to sort out positive and negative audience influences, and his distinction between writer-based and reader-based prose continues to intrigue me.

  • Thorn

    You sell yourself short…you are an excellent writer.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tania.harris.71 Tania Harris

    For someone who has just started the adventure of publishing her writing, I loved reading of the process you have gone through. Thank you! And for what it’s worth, I concur with the other commentators – you are so NOT boring!

  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

    It seems that I am not among your three audiences.
    Perhaps I expect writers to show adequate support for their ides, so in some respect I might be considered hostile, but not really. I don’t think I am ignorant, but I do hope to become less ignorant, so I read good books. I am halfway through my second Enns book this year and have not noticed that I am bored.
    Peter, I wish I could help you with your audience, but apparently I do not qualify as a spokesman.

  • http://www.facebook.com/hallvardnj Hallvard Nordbø Jørgensen

    Really interesting to read your personal reflections here. One can read a lot of scholarly books without ever getting good insight into the personal academic experience of writing, thinking etc. So it’s interesting to get this “background” stuff, too.

  • Andrew V

    Thanks Pete. Whatever you do, please don’t stop writing. It’s also nice to know my own voices have multiple targets.


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