Free Yourself from Reader Ghosts for Deeper, More Mindful Writing

When we’re caught up in what an imagined audience will think about our writing, we are much less likely to actually write anything. Mindful writing teacher and former state poet laureate Alexandria Peary explores how we can (re)discover the joy of writing by freeing ourselves from the judgy reader ghosts in our mind.

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I spend a lot of time in my own company. The older I become, the more I enjoy being with myself on hikes, shopping, sitting on the porch looking at the green scribbles of oaks in spring, cooking, and especially in that natural habitat of solitude, writing. 

I am delighted by my own company at the desk; it feels like I’m dropping in on my best buddy for a few hours in front of a computer screen.

The fact that I am able to spend hours alone professionally as a writer is not a given. Most people are never left alone as they write because they squander precious lone time to perform for an audience who is not in the room and may not even exist. That is, they’re caught up in worry about what an imagined audience will think of what they write, and they let that worry dictate what they do and don’t create. Most people allow imaginary readers to influence their enthusiasm for writing. Once our mood is downgraded to doubt, our writing process faces the consequences (do we allot sufficient time for all stages? can we remain nonjudgmental and receptive to find new ideas? can we keep drafting and wisely revise and edit?), often leading to a final draft of moderate to full-blown disappointment. 

If your dial isn’t set to operating on solo, if you’re operating mindlessly, then you are likely struggling with your writing. Basically, you’re giving reader ghosts carte blanche to the wonderful freedom––from criticism, from performing-to-expectation––that is the present moment’s gift to you at the desk. It might show up in thoughts like, “This piece isn’t going well,” or “I really don’t like to write,” or even “I might have a serious case of writer’s block.” In the best-case scenario, you’re simply not writing at your optimal level.

I can’t underscore this enough: When we write, we are alone and separated in space and time from readers, and that’s a healthy thing. Any reader who you think waits to be served by your words is a figment of your imagination and, depending on how unaware you are of this situation, an act of mindlessness.

Look around. Where’s your audience? That Ficus plant? coffee cup? throw pillow? space heater? Your audience is literally all in your head. 

As writers––and I mean anyone typing or handwriting any document, job memo to sonnet––we sometimes try to connect with other people in the most misguided, limiting, and masochistic ways. We jettison the No Judgment Zone where the only rent is our inhalation /exhalation and instead pander to a mob of future- or past-based reader ghosts, most of whom don’t have our best interests at heart despite wearing READER crew shirts as they work the event of our writing backstage, outside our awareness.

As we wheel our chair closer to the desk, turn on the monitor, up pop a few shapeshifters who vaguely resemble a boss, teacher, committee, or editor. They move in and out of focus, half not-here, a state which makes sense because they are in fact not present, abstractions in foggy outfits and with hazy expressions—just a certain pressure from the past or future. These readers will trash your writing experience, overturning the ideas that took special effort to prepare, leaving you to deal with the mess of frustration, procrastination, fear of failure, low word count, withered pages, and reams of coffee-ringed or wine-glass-ringed doubts scattered on the floor. 

It’s not their fault, really: As creatures from the future, reader ghosts arrive at our desks to demand a document from the future, a polished final version you logically haven’t yet had time to write. As apparitions from the past, they lug pre-set formulations about our writing ability, cast in the concrete of the past, and expect us to incorporate those fixed errors in our current writing. So, our “readers” glare disapprovingly at our messy drafts, our new approaches, causing us to delete and second guess. Don’t blame those ghosts: You summoned them through how you’re talking to yourself at the desk.

Who Are You Writing For?

Writing is a one-way glass kind of conversation. Writing is talking to ourselves for minutes or hours at a time. With that comes distorted perceptions and mindlessness as we believe hook-line-and-sinker our self-talk. Easily one of the biggest distortions is the installation of a nonexistent audience in our workspace. Essentially, we often act as though we’re public speaking when we’re privately writing, as though a live audience receives our ideas in real time, leaving us no time, presumably, to revise. (After all, an orator can’t freeze time and retract already-uttered words from the minds of an audience.) 

So, I may be having a grand time typing this sentence and imagining you as a conversation partner. But it’s a chat in which I’m doing all the talking. Thanks for putting up with me. At the same time, who are “you”? Please don’t feel insulted. First, there’s something a bit creepy about an all-present reader. Second, wouldn’t a reader have somewhere more fun to be than perching on the corner of a cluttered desk, supervising the writer like a parent with a middle-schooler doing homework at the kitchen table? 

There’s a story from ancient Buddhist texts that can be useful, I think. These imagined readers are like Mara, the illusionary but nevertheless freaky entity wearing a necklace of human skulls who haunts the Buddha before his enlightenment under the bodhi tree. Riding in on a white elephant, Mara tries a bag of tricks to deter the Bu