Friday, June 8, 2018

Battling Your Inner Critic or Making Friends with It--What Keeps You Writing the Most?

Everyone faces the Inner Critic, no matter how experienced they are.  Professional writers, even those who have published widely and won awards, might give it names.  Sue Grafton calls hers "the ego," the part that's always concerned with "how are we doing?"  I think of mine as an elderly, worried aunt, trying to keep me safe. Some Inner Critics are funny, joking with you inside your head as they mess with your mind--maybe teasing you about taking writing so seriously.  Most are discouraging, even menacing.  

But rarely is this inner voice truthful--its job is to sabotage all efforts to create art, to do anything with our writing that takes us out of the known and acceptable.  

So why is such an obstacle there, in the first place?  Is there a chance we, ourselves, create that critical voice? And is there any way to make friends with it, silence it enough so we can keep on writing?


I'm not talking about taming the voice with alcohol or drugs or other medicating behaviors.  (You've probably read about famous writers in past and present who couldn't loosen up enough to write--or even function in their lives--otherwise.)  That's not the only way.

How to Recognize the Inner Critic 
I believe each writer has a negotiated contract with her or his Inner Critic.  We've known each other a long time and we aren't the victims of these voices.  They  developed on purpose, as a kind of gatekeeper to protect the most tender, creative parts of ourselves.  Maybe we grew up in an environment dangerous to art and creativity, and the Inner Critic is our inner warrior.  In most cases, the contract has been in place for so many years, it's hard to believe we have any control over it.

I also believe that most of us, when first becoming aware of how the Inner Critic is keeping us stuck, choose to fight it instead of re-negotiating the contract.  Common wisdom suggests that a fight makes sense--using any means we can. But in my experience that turns into a never-ending battle.  Taking time away from our writing.  Which is the Critic's plan, anyway.

Here's a way that's worked for me and what I teach students and clients in my classes who are serious about finishing their books:   (1) Get to know your Critic and (2) make it into an ally, not an enemy.

First step:  Get to know the signs of Inner Critic influence.  It can be quite subtle. When I begin to think about how something will sound to others, versus how it sounds to me, I go on alert.  When I find myself avoiding my writing for days, it's also a good sign that the Critic is hovering.  Especially when I sudden feel that overwhelming urge to clean the entire house. 

I've also found it appears in different guises at different stages of the writing process.

For instance, when you first begin to explore and plan out a book idea, the Inner Critic might rumble in the background, causing doubt that your ideas are serious enough or good enough, or asking why you think you have the creativity and stamina a book will take.

If you pass that gateway, the Critic might convince you to get feedback right away, before you even write a chapter.  Ask someone close, it whispers, like a friend or partner--no matter that this person doesn't read books, or even like fiction.  They'll tell you the truth, right? This, of course, is a not-so-subtle sabotage attempt, made real when your friend mentions missing commas, or your partner doesn't comment at all.

Critical voices sneak in as you revise, too.  As you're fine-tuning steps, the Critic will tell you to focus on marketing instead--get that query letter written, send the manuscript off now, why wait.  Or edit out those juicy parts because your relatives will shun you when they read them.

Believe me, it rears its head as you try to sell your book.  In full battle mode, the Inner Critic can keep you awake at night with nightmares about rejection letters and the award your writing friend just won--and how you don't have a chance.  Or if publication happens, the fears that all your secrets--and inadequacies--are laid bare.  Plus, look at those terrible reviews.

Damaging, eh?  Damn right. Time to get to know it so you can see past its irritating qualities into what it's really there to do--for you.

The Inner Critic as a Gatekeeper  
For most of my writing life, I fought the Inner Critic as an enemy.  It was only when I was writing my second self-help/memoir that I realized the Inner Critic's benign efforts to protect me.  I'll share this story, from my book Your Book Starts Here, to illustrate the gatekeeper aspect of this inner voice.

I was writing a chapter about my business bankruptcy which happened during the 1980s recession.  It was a terrible time in my life, and yet I knew I wanted to include it in my book, since I'd learned so much from it.

As I wrote, the Inner Critic began flooding me with feelings of shame about the failure I still felt.  I noticed I was writing more slowly, even reluctantly, as the voice inside my head got louder.  "Why bring up this all over again?" it argued. "Totally in the past, not helpful to anyone else. Let it be."

But I persisted, angry at its interference.  Suddenly I had to run to the bathroom. I was very ill, vomiting and dizzy. As I lay on the bathroom floor, the cold tiles against my face, I wondered if this was the work of the Inner Critic.  Had it escalated the sensation of shame so strongly, that it turned into a physical reaction?

After a while, I came back to my desk. I was shaken. How could I keep writing if I was going to make myself sick? But I knew in my heart that the bankruptcy story was important in my book. During the 1980s recession, I met so many people who were devastated by failing businesses and personal loss. I wanted to help them with my own and others' experience. How could I do this if I couldn't get past my own Inner Critic?

So I did what I tell my writing students to do: take a break and do a freewrite--write outside my story. I located my writing notebook under the manuscript pages. I began writing about being literally sick with shame. As I wrote, I got the idea to start a "treaty" letter to this Gatekeeper-as-Inner-Critic, thanking it for its help in keeping me safe all these years. I wrote about how I appreciated its role. I wrote how I understood why it brought caution to my writing life because it had my best interests at heart. With each sentence, I felt a lessening of tension in my gut, a softening in my heart. No longer waged in battle, I was able to see my Inner Critic in a new way.

Then I re-negotiated my contract. 

I asked it kindly to step aside, to let me write this chapter. I explained why I needed to write it, reassured the Critic that this story didn't have to end up in the final book. I just needed to get it on paper. When the letter was finished, I closed my notebook and went back to my desk. The chapter flowed out better than I could've imagined and the Inner Critic was noticeably calmer the rest of that writing session. My Inner Critic only wanted to protect me from the shame of fame: people looking at me in a different way because I told about a business failure many years before. By collaborating with this gate-keeping voice, instead of rejecting its help, I was able to proceed.

My book, How to Master Change in Your Life, was finally published, and I got more letters and comments about that bankruptcy chapter than any other.

My intuition was right-people needed to hear about self-forgiveness for big mistakes.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise: A Letter to the Inner Critic  
This is an exercise we use in my class, Your Book Starts Here.  Try it yourself if you're finding yourself stalled out or fighting your writing.  It's a great way to bring more awareness of--and more thankfulness for--your Inner Critic, the first step to re-negotiating your contract with it.

1.  Describe your Inner Critic.  What does it sound like?  Can you picture it?  Does it remind you of someone in your past?

2.  Now ask the Inner Critic what it's contributing to your life.  Listen inside for anything that might come, even small things it does for you.  How does it keep you safe? How does it keep you connected to others? How does it keep you responsible? How does it make you feel intelligent? How does it bring you respect of peers?

3. Finally, thank it for its help in these areas.  If more comes to mind as you write, add your gratitude about those.

4.  To close the exercise, write a request to the Inner Critic: ask it to step aside for a week.  Re-negotiate your contract.  Tell it you'll be exploring a new avenue in your writing and you feel you need freedom.  Ask for its help in letting you try it.

If you'd like, mark on your calendar to follow up in a week.  After one week, spend five minutes freewriting about any changes you've noticed. Are there fewer blocks in your creative process? Is your writing any different? Do you experience less negative self-talk?