Better to Be a Mouse With a Backbone, Than a Lion With No Spine: On Writing Voice

IN: Creativity, Writing


You know when you sit down to write and your brain sort of feels kind of…constipated?
(A delightful image, if I do say so myself.)

Then you finally manage to put a sentence on the screen, but then you backspace over the “fuck”—because if you say “fuck,” no one will take you seriously—but then you retype the same word, wondering if you were to use such a word, whether it would come across as self-assured and bold, or lowball and crass? You decide to leave it for now—you like the way it energizes your message—but surely you’ll edit it out before you publish.

Next up: You’ll shame yourself silly for your own thoughts.

You’ll have written something like, “This is unacceptable,” or “The internet is the breeding ground of cowards,” but you’ll trace your thoughts back over those sentences thinking you sound too brash; too undiplomatic. You’ll soften your approach. You’ll temper your language and say things like, “Am I the only one who finds this unacceptable?” or “The internet can be a dangerous place.”

In your efforts to be less controversial, you will become entirely commonplace. You will have forgotten that opinions, by their very nature, are controversial—and also what makes you human. In effect, you will forfeit your humanness when you write. You will forfeit everything that could have been brilliant. Your words will become stale little pieces of beef jerky, forced together onto a factory assembly line.

Next up: You’ll torture yourself wondering what they’ll think about what you’ve written.

You’ll re-read your words from the perspective of your client, Joanne—will she think less of me for this?—and then you’ll put yourself in the shoes of your best friend—will she think I’m a fake because I don’t have this same sense of conviction in my romantic relationships?—and then you’ll wonder what that one guy who emailed you those horrible things will think about this—surely he’ll write in again reaffirming just how stupid you are—and then you’ll begin the process of convincing yourself that the world will roll their eyes at whatever you have to say, that nothing you have said is really worth anyone’s attention at all.

You’ll move the post to trash, or let it collect dust in your drafts. You can come back to this another day. At another time when your brain isn’t constipated and you can think clearly and determine if you are, in fact, a total fucking loser or if maybe there’s something worth hanging onto in there. There must be. After all, you got straight A’s in English class. It couldn’t be all for nothing.

In the meantime, however, you will hop on Twitter. Look for inspiration in other places. Maybe clean your desk. Cook an early lunch. You will pretend to be thinking; try not to be too hard on yourself. But inside, you will know. You will feel the burden of stifled creativity—that’s the constipated feeling, by the way—and you will feel this maddening guilt over the fact that you can’t just be yourself on the page, and you can’t just tell the world to piss off, and you can’t just put the right words on the page that will finally make you feel like, yes, you DID say something worthwhile.

If I may offer a suggestion: Stop letting the outside rape your insides.

One time I used a phrase like that and got my ass handed to me by a person on social media for using such a serious term in a metaphorical sense. But you know what? Here I am using it again, because that word conveys the perfect sentiment that I want to express. And so, I use it. I’m using it. I’m here using individual words as big statements, despite the occasional critic who will take up arms about something that misses the point entirely, because that is what word choice is. Because that is what it looks like to politely push past the outside—the people and the emails and the opinions and the fears—and honor your insides. Your art. Your artistic expression. The truth of the matter is that someone will always be offended, and therefore you MUST stop worrying about offending. I could use the word breast milk and someone would be offended that I’m perpetuating the social inequality between men and women. This is a fact.

Therefore, I urge you to be steel-beam-strong. To find nerve in your words, rather than gutlessness. To use words to put a totem pole in the ground of your brand, and in the land of our ideas, and not be too much of a pussy to have an opinion. Another word of questionable integrity.

You’ve heard me rag on the sea of sameness for years now, and you hate it just as much as I do. Nobody wants to be cookie cutter, because if all the snowmen cookies look the same, how do you make any meaningful distinction? You can’t, and that’s precisely what happens with your business. And yet, the solution is less difficult than we make it: Stop saying things worth ignoring.

This is, of course, easier said than done. The real reason we’re scared of our own shadow is because when you’re writing things on the internet, it’s not just your own shadow anymore. If we were scared to enter a cocktail party without knowing anyone, as we so infamously are, imagine if every single person at the cocktail party is armed with a comment box, a reply button, and a 140 character tweet to tell you exactly what they think of you, right then and there. That’s what writing on the internet is like. And that’s precisely what makes it so intimidating. The knowledge that you will be judged automatically has the power to suffocate your creativity with saran wrap—and that’s a proven fact.


“Teresa Amabile, psychologist at Harvard University, divided a team of volunteers into two groups and asked to make a collage. One group was told that their work would be evaluated by a panel of artists and that those who produced the most creative collages would receive a monetary award. The second group was told just to have fun. The results weren’t even close, by a wide margin. Those who were neither evaluated nor observed produced the most creative collages.” Eric Weiner from his new book, The Geography of Genius


In other words, the expectation of an evaluation is enough to mess with your head. And guess what? When you’re writing on the internet, you’re absolutely worrying that you’ll be evaluated. And you will be.

But that doesn’t mean you must give the evaluation merit. As they say, the world’s opinion of you is none of your business.

There are certifiably CRAZY people out there. Total sociopaths. Total nutcases. More often, it’s not actually you—it really is them. So, let’s stop taking their opinions of you so seriously, okay? Not everything has to be taken so seriously. And not everything must be neatly encased inside a double-breasted pants suit. You are allowed to HAVE FUN with your business, and with your message, and with your ideas. You are allowed to PLAY. You are allowed to treat it all like one big, crazy, hilarious experiment. You are allowed to not give a fuck what anyone thinks. You are allowed to be exactly yourself. And hopefully, when you begin to view it like that, the shackles begin to loosen.

Because truth be told, the world is passing judgment on you, anyway.

Better to be known as a mouse with a backbone, rather than a lion with no spine.