Wrestling with the Inner Critic
“Who do you think you are, wanting to write? You’re simply in love with the idea of being a writer, you talentless hack! Quite frankly, your writing is pedestrian and dull. Your characters are too wooden to be believable and your stories don’t make sense. Your characters don’t exactly jump off the page either, do they? You can’t spell to save your life and your grammar’s all over the place. Why don’t you just give up now?”
Does any of this sound familiar?
It will if you’re a writer! The Inner Critic is a dogged companion, passing judgment in a nagging voice every time you sit down to write. This flow of negative self-criticism can freeze up a new writer and prevent him or her from getting started in the first place, and it can cause that most dangerous of conditions known as “writers’ block” in even the most established of writers. Douglas Adam’s author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy suffered very badly from it from it, as did Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Mansfield and Joseph Conrad.
The Critic speaks with the voice of all the authority figures in your life (your mother, father, teacher, boss, perhaps, along with the class bully who once held your work up for ridicule) and if you are serious about wanting to write, you need to find ways of neutralizing the criticism.
Quite early on in my courses, I have my participants draw a cartoon of their inner critic on a page in their notebooks complete with speech balloons. The cartoon Critics are often quite hideous and spit out an amazing amount of cruelty onto the page, but along the way, they also make themselves so ridiculous that they can scarecely be taken seriously.
I then have my participants draw a second cartoon picture. This time they draw themselves and put in speech bubbles refuting all the arguments and neutralizing all the niggly meanesses their Inner Critic has hurled at them. In particular, they stress their strengths and remind themselves of what they can do really well. They certainly have great fun telling their inner critic where to get off!
The interesting thing is that after doing the exercise, everyone in the group recognises those moments when their Inner Critic is present, and we show him or her the door. “Go out to the Book Café,” we say “You can gossip about how useless we are with all the other Inner Critics over a cup of tea.”
Pat Schneider in her book on Writing Alone and With Others describes an exercise she uses with her writing groups she uses to get gain control over the Inner Critic. Imagine yourself on a prairie or in the dessert, she says. In the distance you see a bus approaching. On the bus is everyone who has ever expressed an opinion about your writing. The bus stops and the door opens. One by one the people get off, the loudmouths first of all. Write down what each of them says to you. Then write your reply to it. And says Schneider, do not ignore the quieter folks who are the last to get off the bus. They might may have a completely different take on your writing skills.
There are many ways to outwit the Critic. Alexandra Johnson in her book on creative journaling Leaving a Trace, suggests the following tricks which she has gleaned from other writers: turn your notebook upside down and write; write with your non-dominant hand or with your eyes closed ); doodle before you write, use different coloured paper. Try going for a walk before you write or catch the brain off guard by writing at a different time of day, for example when you are very tired. No matter how crazy these ideas sound, they might just work for you and are worth trying.
But the best trick though, as Virginia Woolf discovered, is just to write as quickly as you possibly can so that the Critic does not have time to catch up with you. Just don’t let your pen leave the page. (If you use a computer, you might like to try turning the brightness of the screen right down so that you cannot see what you are typing until afterwards.)
Writers must also give themselves permission to write badly – at least until they are ready to subject their drafts to serious editing at the end of the writing process. Perfectionism when you put pen to paper can stop you writing perhaps more quickly than anything else. Judy Reeves in A Writer’s Book of Days describes it as “a terrible curse”. It is, she says, “ … an ugly thing, all stiff and rigid with pursed lips and beady little eyes. … It comes from a stingy, mean-spirited place and serves no purpose except to make us feel terrible about ourselves and anything we create.”
Those of us who are also hungry readers will also find that the voices of our favourite writers sometimes show up to haunt us. I used to have a problem with Annie Proulx looking over my shoulder every time I sat down to write. Finally I had to say to her “I know I will never be anywhere near as good as you, but I have my own stories to tell and in my own way.” She seemed to respect that.
Having written here at some length about how to cope with the Inner Critic, I should now point out that he or she will be the best ally you have when it comes to revising, editing and proofreading your wild early drafts, for without a sense of critical self-awareness you will only send third-rate work out into the world.
But just make sure that you maintain the upper hand in the relationship and that your critic treats your work with the respect that it deserves!
Friday, September 16, 2005
That Pesky Inner Critic
My article in Quill. (Do go pick up a free copy when you're in MPH next - there's a lot of fun stuff in this edition, including local writers with a make-over and pictures of Tash with his mum and dad!)