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by Ellen McLaughlin

(This piece is excerpted and reworked from a speech given at A Room of Her Own, the women writers’ retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, Aug. 2013.)

I’ve been thinking about ghosts a lot this summer. Not the ones you can see, but the ones you can hear, whether you want to or not, because they are inside your own head. I think you probably know the ones I mean. Every writer has at least one, a voice who is always murmuring away in there, particularly when you sit down to write. Sometimes there is so much yammering going on that it is literally hard to think. Who are these people? I’ve got a passel of them, a legion of inner critics sneering their contempt or urging caution, warning that I’m going to hurt myself or others if I continue, telling me to get up, perhaps make myself a snack, stop, please, would I please stop writing? If one of them gets hoarse from nattering at me, another will always take over. Writers know these voices as few do because we spend so much time listening.

There’s the voice that says that writing is a silly, girlie, self-indulgent business compared to, well, any number of noble things. Why, I could be devoting myself instead to human rights, politics, medicine–work that involves improving the state of things, actively bettering the lot of others. This is one of the hardest voices to tune out, as are the ones who devote themselves exclusively to competitive comparison. They jeer that while I’ve been sitting there trying vainly to come up with something, So-and-so has already dusted off her hands having written another Pulitzer Prize winner or whatever. There’s the why-not-me? whining voice of wound-licking envy and bitterness, as if the creative life is a zero-sum game in which another writer’s success, merited or not, will always be at the expense of mine.

Then there is the problem the critic Harold Bloom has called the Anxiety of Influence—a phenomenon that, once I heard about it, caused me, well, a lot of anxiety. It’s one of the oldest and most reliably loud voices–the one that tells me that whatever I’m trying to accomplish has already been done better by someone else.

Of course this is to some extent true.

After Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, William Shakespeare, and Emily Dickinson have weighed in, just to pick a handful from the sea of luminaries who come to mind, the given is that whatever I’m going to come up with on a Wednesday morning might not stack up. But you know, I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter, finally, that their greatness is unapproachable. Their greatness has very little to do with what we’re grappling with at our own desks during our own days of silent struggle except as an example of what human beings are capable of. Because their work was their own no less than ours is ours alone, and their work is done. We can no more do their work than they can do ours. That’s the good news. And the bad news.

It’s a matter of how we choose to live with the greatness of those who came before us. We can either tell ourselves that their work makes ours irrelevant and unnecessary before we’ve even done it or we can decide that their work makes ours possible. The choice is ours. But we do need to make a choice because the fact of the matter is that those we deem great are part of the furniture in our heads no less than our worst inner critics are. We all inhabit the haunted houses of our own minds, and we have to figure out how to live with the creaks and groans of our particular psyches.

And then there are the monsters. They exist in us too—it’s crowded in there­­­––they are just harder to talk about, and few of us have ever looked them in the face. But we know, if we are honest, oh, we know they are there, the parts of ourselves we have walled up inside our personal labyrinths. We can hear them howling at night, or tapping on the wainscoting. They call to us, our monsters, and if we are to write the truth, it’s just a matter of when and how we decide to find them, because we will have to find them. They have too much to tell us.

Rilke says that every monster is really just a part of us that needs to be embraced. He wrote, “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

We are storytellers, so we know from monsters. There are several different kinds you run into in myth and, like any mythic hero, we have to encounter every one of them if we are to write our own stories. There are the guardians of every important threshold in myth, the monsters who make demands upon the traveler who seeks the transfiguration of real adventure. Trolls under bridges, three-headed dogs at the gates of the Underworld, dragons at the base of trees and so forth. These are the monsters who demand that we drop everything we thought made us who we are—our definitions of ourselves, strengths, weaknesses, charming little quirks––in order to proceed. They tell us that the only way to cross the threshold and make the passage toward enlightenment is to give up the sense of the self we thought was the self, the ego. We must lay down all our weapons and go forth alone and empty-handed into the darkness, armed only with an impetuous hunger for self-knowledge. And then, if we can do that, we might be able to encounter the most important monster, the monster I’ve heard keening on the dark nights of the soul when I have been alone with my truest self. I’m talking about the monster at the center of my labyrinth. It’s the shadow part of me I have relegated to darkness, an aspect of the self that needs to be understood rather than shut in the dark where its screaming can only be muffled but never silenced. The force in me that wants to chain and ignore that monster is always going to have to struggle against the part of me that is curious, that senses the suppression of the monster as a real loss to consciousness. The mythology is always about an adventurer going forth to kill a monster, but the truth of the matter is that the self wants to simply meet the monster, because the self knows on some level that it needs the monster, the self will never be whole without it. The monster knows something that must be brought out into the light of consciousness. But the adventure is daunting to consider; just about anything would be easier. Who wants to head into the darkness and encounter such a creature? How is it even done? Luckily, we have all of mythology, every story that has ever been told and every writer who has ever come before us, to show us the way. It’s a matter of getting the red thread of narrative firmly in hand and listening to the clear small voice of the self, the one who has always been tapping in the dark of the labyrinth of your own psyche, your walnut mind, trying to get to the truth. That voice, the voice of your soul, the voice of the writer, is the one you want to hear, but before you can, you have to reckon with all the others. Because they are also yours, those voices, that skein of sound that you have unraveled into multiplicity, tricked into ventriloquism, that chorus. They want their say and until you understand why you let them in in the first place, they won’t leave you alone. They are not merely distractions­–– those voices, critics and nags––aspects of the self we need to tune out and shut up. Once heard and understood, they can subside into their multiplicity, the chorus of the self that is always teeming in us, whispering that we are larger than our singular egos, our one life story with its little circle of concerns and memories. We contain multitudes, simply by dint of being human.

All those ghosts, all those voices, I see them as moths, battering the candle of my spirit, circling the flame of that part of me that is always waiting patiently for me to come back to the desk and work. They teem in me, those ghosts, I feel the press of their wings fluttering inside my chest when the writing takes hold at last, hear the almost inaudible murmur of their thought as the wave of creative life surges and I begin to ride the long crest of it to a shore I have never visited.

My plays often reach their climax at the moment that the story is finally told; the truth comes out, the repressed returns. Those moments of reckoning happen much as my plays happen to me, when I stop running from the voices, the ghosts, the monsters, and simply turn to them and let them speak to me, in me and from me. The point, I suppose, is to know your ghosts, your monsters and your demons, yes, face them and hear them out, but then to grasp that fragile yet mighty red thread of the story and head for the light, towards the self that stands waiting in the warmth of day for news of your adventures.

Meet the ghosts, listen to them, and tell the story anyway.


Ellen McLaughlin’s plays include: Infinity’s House, Iphigenia and Other Daughters, Tongue of a Bird, Trojan Women, Helen, The Persians, Penelope, Ajax in Iraq and Septimus and Clarissa. Producers include, Off-Broadway: National Actors’ Theater, CSC, New York Theater Workshop and The Public Theater. Regional and international: The Guthrie Theater, Actors’ Theater of Louisville, Almeida Theater, London, Intiman, Mark Taper Forum and Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Awards include: The Writer’s Award, Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest and the Susan Blackburn Prize. As an actor she is best known for having originated the role of the Angel in Angels in America, appearing in every American production through its Broadway run.



Join Ellen for her Master Class at Hedgebrook this fall! The priority deadline is September 27th.


HEARING VOICES: The Uses of Dialogue 

Dates: November 12 – 19, 2013


The multiple perspectives and aspects of self within each of us are an abundant source of material for any writer. In this workshop, writers will be encouraged to explore the many characters they call upon within themselves for inspiration and direction. The writer is freed when her sense of human character is less fixed and more varied than we have otherwise been taught. This workshop is guided from a playwright’s perspective, since playwrights are particularly concerned with the challenge of creating multiple voices in dialogue, all of which must be compelling and credible. Nevertheless, the workshop will be valuable for writers in other genres too, since we are all in need of engaging narrators, reliable or not, and every writer wants to capture voices with depth, complexity and authenticity. Letting the voices speak and claiming all of them as our own is not only fundamental to the craft of writing, but essential to any reckoning with the self. The workshop will be conducted as a series of exercises during which entirely new work will be generated. But one-on-one consultations about on-going work will also be offered during the week.

Open to all writers. Apply now!


Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.  

Ellen McLaughlin
About Ellen McLaughlin

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