Inspired by this blog post from the ever-lovely Kate Curtis, this morning I would like to muse, briefly, on the challenge of keeping a muzzle on the mouth of your inner critic.
Writing is tough – there’s no doubt about that. Writing is even tougher when you can’t stop telling yourself to put your pen down and step away from the words. ‘Give it up while you still can.’ ‘Quit while you’re ahead!’ ‘What a pile of rubbish – as if anyone would want to read this drivel.’ ‘Do you really think this is the best you can do?’
It’s vital to have a quality control process, of course. Just as you can’t win NaNoWriMo by bashing out the word ‘the’ fifty thousand times, it’s important always to do your best when you sit down to write. You should bring your strongest self and your most alert brain and your most alive imaginings. You should do yourself, and your urge to write, justice.
But – as Kate herself asks in her original post – how do you keep going? How do you nurture your ideas? How do you stop yourself, and your inner critic, savaging your work so badly as you go that you never manage to bring anything to completion?
Editing, for me, is something I like to do mainly when I’ve finished a long piece. I like to read something in its entirety before I tackle it for a second draft – it’s hard to edit effectively if you’re only working with a percentage of the full picture, I think. Sometimes, however, I find myself re-reading the previous day’s work and picking out little bits here and little bits there, seeing errors and mistakes and typos and plot holes and all the rest of it, and I understand how easy it is to allow yourself to slide down into the pit of Neverending Edits, from which it can be very hard to return. It is really easy to convince yourself that you’ve made so many mistakes in just one day’s worth of writing that how on earth you think you’re going to produce a story or – don’t make me laugh! – a novel, well – you may as well give up now. Go on, give up before you put too much time and effort into it. In case anyone finds out about it and laughs at you. Just put it away and forget about it, and that’ll be that. (Sound familiar?)
So how do you get that voice – the bad inner critic, the one who isn’t interested in helping you to improve your work – to shut up? Well, I think the first thing you need to do is work out whether you’re listening to your ‘good’ inner critic, or your ‘bad’ one.
A good inner critic will look at your work. A good inner critic sounds like: ‘Oh, okay, so you’ve made a bit of a plot blooper there, but that’s no problem. We can fix that. You’ve made a spelling error in the fourth paragraph, but that’s no problem. We can fix that. Lucky we caught all these things before we moved forward too much, right? It would be so much harder to deal with all this further down the line!’ A bad inner critic looks at you. A bad inner critic sounds like: ‘Who do you think you are, trying to write a novel? What sort of fool sets out on a task like this anyway, without any of the necessary qualifications or whatever it is you need? Look at all these errors – you’re useless! There are far too many to fix. Come on now, just leave it. You’re not able for this.’
How many great ideas, and how many wonderful writers, have fallen at this hurdle?
Everyone needs a critic, just like everyone needs an editor. No writer is good enough to do without feedback, and nobody’s first draft – I firmly believe! – is good enough to be their final draft. However, it’s really important to know when your inner voice is criticising you, or your work; whether it’s attempting to sabotage you completing a piece of writing because, if you do, you’ll prove it wrong; whether your inner critic is tearing apart what you’ve written because it’s terrified that you’ll succeed, and not because your work is no good. If your inner critical voice is making you feel like a failure before you’ve even begun, then it’s time to take action against it.
Starting out small by entering competitions, putting some of your work into the public domain and allowing other eyes to see it, is a great way of doing two things simultaneously: bringing on a panic attack, and shutting up your bad inner critic. Once you get through the panic, the benefits are more than worth it. If other people read your work and like it, even a little, it’s a vindication for your good inner critic. If other people ‘get’ what you’re trying to say, it’s a score for your good inner critic. Your bad inner critic has no response to other people’s approval besides to try to convince you: ‘they’re only saying those nice things to be kind! They don’t really believe all that about you!’ That, however, is rubbish. If other people read your work and give you ideas on how to improve it, that’s one in the eye for your bad inner critic. If someone cares enough about your work to try to help you with it, then – logically – your work has value.
So. Letting other eyes in, and letting other minds digest what you’ve written, is step one in taking control of your inner critic. Step two: write, without reviewing, until you’re done – jotting down a summary of your work as you go, to which you can refer as you sit down to start a new day’s writing, can help with this. Step three: leave your work aside and let it mature. Step four: read and review your own work as though it wasn’t ‘yours’ (time away from it helps with this.) Step five: seek more feedback, and take it in the spirit in which it’s given – which is, more often than not, a spirit of helpfulness. Over all these things, though, one golden rule remains: Continue writing for as long as you want to write, and let no voice tell you to stop.
It also helps to have a support team, whether it’s virtual or real, to pick you up whenever the bad inner critic goes off on a rant. Having an inner critic is an inescapable part of doing anything which involves creativity and vulnerability – the key is to make sure whether your inner critic is, at its heart, for you or against you. The good thing is: a bad inner critic can be silenced, and a good one can be nurtured.