the most badass thing you can do as a creative



“We write to expose the unexposed.

If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must.

Otherwise you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in.

Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.” — Anne Lamott

I was trying to help a friend figure out the ‘brand story’ of her new company when I realized she was talking in two different voices.

One voice was charged with passion, talking rapidly and with vivid inflection. Her eyes would light up. This was the voice that I wanted to listen to because it was interesting. It seemed a pipeline to her inner life.

But then the second voice would step in and hijack it.

Her voice would fall toward a monotone and she would start talking in abstractions, rationalizations, explanations that undercut the things she had told me moments before.

This was supposedly the ‘logical’ voice – except the logic didn’t seem all that logical to me. It was as if its sole purpose was to talk herself out of the things she had been saying in the first voice.

But on some level she must have known that this second voice was bullshit – which was why her eyes would dull over, the vitality ebb from her expression, her whole body seem less alive.

When I called her attention to this, she said she hadn’t noticed.

I saw something similar when a woman in my writing workshop talked about the memoir she wanted to write. She was the survivor of narcissistic parents who had nearly sucked her dry. She would start talking about her experiences –

— when another, ‘logical’ voice would kick in. That voice would quickly reassure us that, sure, her parents had some flaws, but they were really good people and she was really grateful to them and appreciative of everything they’d done for her. The second voice was like a glossy magazine cover with all the right headlines – but no content underneath.

It was a façade. It spoke in platitudes and clichés.

It was boring, and if she allowed that ‘logical’ voice to dictate her writing she was dead.

True creation happens when we allow ourselves to speak with that first voice. It taps into the source of our originality: ourselves, what’s really going on inside us, what we’re honestly thinking, feeling, dreaming. There may be nothing new under the sun, but we make it new when we filter it through the unique matrix of our own personalities and quirky worldview.

The problem is how quickly we disconnect from that voice and switch over to what appears to be ‘reason’: the stuff that some part of you feels you need to say and do and think in order to fit in.

Psychologist Carol Gilligan writes extensively about how men and women lose their authentic voices in a culture that teaches us that in order to have power, you have to sacrifice relationship, and vice versa. So boys learn to disconnect from the language of feeling, vulnerability and empathy in the pursuit of personal power. Girls learn to submerge their sense of individual power for the sake of relationship: it’s more important to be ‘nice’ than to risk confrontation and possible exile.

We learn to not-know what we truly know when it cuts against the social grain, and accept a more superficial ‘knowing’ instead, shaped by outside forces rather than our own inner authority.

When that first voice – of true knowing – speaks up, the second voice steps on it.

(Carol Gilligan tells of a woman she was interviewing who suddenly said, “Do you want to know what I think…or what I really think?”)

Margaret Atwood once observed that silence and powerlessness go hand-in-hand. What goes unsaid can be more revealing than what is being said, because it’s those areas of our lives around which we feel powerless that we tend to keep secret. That’s where shame grows: in the dark, behind closed doors, isolated from any real sense of human community that would incorporate our experiences into a much bigger picture.

Training someone to be ‘nice’ can be a way of silencing that first voice. Too often it gets locked up in a vague sense of shame and a fear of exposure.

But as human beings, we long to know that we’re not alone. We crave access to the inner lives of others — we want to know what you really think — which is why projects like Postsecret become wildly popular and turn into bestselling books. We have an instinctive drive toward the truth, so we eat the apple or open Pandora’s box or unlock the forbidden door or choose the red pill. We want the authentic life, and not the illusion of it.

But the truth is subversive and chaotic. It will set you free, but first it will raise hell – and quite possibly create a whole new order. The truth is not polite, and it is not afraid to challenge the overriding cultural story otherwise known as the status quo.

The most powerful thing you can do as a creator is to shift the paradigm. To blow open the old way of looking at things. To bring something into the light and give it a name. You do this by using the first voice, which leads you to Bluebeard’s locked room and hands you the key.

The second voice only leads you to Bluebeard.

Aug 7, 2012

14 comments · Add Yours

I love this sentence—I love the whole post, but I really love this line—: “We learn to not-know what we truly know when it cuts against the social grain, and accept a more superficial ‘knowing’ instead, shaped by outside forces rather than our own inner authority.”

Thank you for writing this piece. Reading it felt like a great big sigh, an overwhelming realization I already knew. I’ve been fighting this duality of voice (power vs powerlessness) for years. Just surprised to suddenly see it here staring me in the face.


Thanks for this, Justine. Wise words.


Yes! Either way, you’ve got to kick Bluebeard in the nuts. That’s something I’ve mostly only been able to do within the context of being a creator. Being a writer/artist gives you the permission to unlock that part of yourself that would otherwise stay buried. Artists are expected to take risks. To be vulnerable. (Or, at least, they should be.) The trick for me, though, is learning how and when to apply this to the rest of my life.


i realllllly needed someone to put the whole notion of wrestling with two voices into writing and you did it perfectly. it seems like a lot of the time when we unleash that first voice others think we’re crazy, which engenders fear, at least for me, and often prevents me from speaking up. I’m taking a go at this blogging ordeal in order to hopefully get over that phobia and create authentic content. It seems like you can always tell which bloggers are writing sincerely((like you) and which ones are writing more superficially.


I love this simply because it can apply to everyone. We all have a second voice and for me personally, it is way to LOUD sometimes. Thanks for writing this.


This post could not come at a better time. My debut book, Milk Diaries, will be out this month. I should be the happiest woman alive, and yet, that second voice is screaming too loudly for me to hear the cheers. Thankfully sometimes just being conscious of that “second voice” makes all the difference. I need to turn off the tape recorder rife with “abstractions, rationalizations, and explanations” and tune back into my passion. Thank you for your words.


In my intuitive painting classes I’m always talking to my students about the idea that we are operating on two different channels. There’s the channel where we tell ourselves stories about what we’re experiencing. It’s the voice of opinions and (usually negative) judgments. It’s abstract and disconnected from our heart and our guts. The second channel is our direct experience. It’s where the juice and truth and aliveness lives. It’s the place where our eyes light up and we a feel a sense of excitement and engagement.

And the second one is the one that people tend to ignore. It’s sad that this is so often the case. But I also know it’s possible to help people hear and reclaim that voice by putting myself in the role being a cheerleader for it’s very existence. Which is something that continues to give me hope.


I am an avid reader of your blog even though I don’t comment every time. You write what you REALLY feel. Thank you.


I’m stepping off a cliff with a starting a new novel and this speaks to my fears and hopes. I fear that stupid, logical voice will run over the creator and the story I want to tell.

And this helps give me hope that I can beat it down with a stick.

thank you


This may be my favorite post of yours yet. And that is saying a lot because I tend to love them all. Wow.
Just brilliant. Good job!


this is a fabulous post and it is great to be reminded since at 3 in the morning it is not much fun trying to convince yourself you are doing your best when you know otherwise…

Much appreciated, thanks…


I’ve been struggling with voice lately and trying to get away from that logical, “how many blog hits will this get”, voice that says I have to be nice and positive sounding. Thanks for the reminder of what really speaks to people, at least to the people I really want to reach.


This post is rocket fuel!


There”s something to that.

The thing is, the first voice is usually SMARTER, too. I read a book a while back called “Gut Feelings,” where the author discussed how when we make split second decisions, we are often making a decision based on cues and information we don’t realize that we see.

These are subconscious factors that our rational mind would disregard if we gave ourselves time.

Just go for it. It’s writing: There is no edge of the world where you fall off into the void.


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