Sunday, October 10, 2010

Feeling the Fear and Writing Anyway--Facing the Inner Critic

In each stage of writing your book, chances are you’ll meet a most unsavory part of yourself: the Inner Critic. It’s a negative self that delivers negative self-talk.  It casts its own particular light or shadow on your writing life, and it can stop you completely.

Many writers have different names for their critics. Sue Grafton, the mystery writer, calls hers ego. “Ego is the piece of me that’s going, How am I doing, champ?,” she says. “Is this good? Do you like this? Do you think the critics will like this?
Because that has nothing to do with creating.” In order to “get in touch,” she adds, “I have to block out ego.”

For me, the Inner Critic reminds me of a helpful, slightly worried elderly aunt. “Are you sure you want to write about that?” she’ll whisper in my mind. “What will people say if they know that about you?”

I always ask my book-writing classes to start a log of negative comments from their Inner Critics. The idea is to write down those moments of discouragement, doubts, or boredom. Because only after reading those comments can my students realize that they aren’t quite true.

I sometimes ask them to bring the notes to class after a week of logging. We may laugh over the Inner Critic’s sneakiness, but we marvel at how common the problem is.

We learn that, at first, the Inner Critic starts with slightly unhelpful comments and small doubts. These comments grow until they seem logical, even worth listening to, until they gradually erode confidence. Call it self-talk that leads to discouragement or avoidance.

As you read the sampling below, you may find your own Inner Critic’s voice.

Favorite Inner Critic Comments
“You need a lot more backstory here.”
“This section will take months of research. Stop writing and get started. It’ll be a good distraction.”
“You need to explain what John is thinking here. Your writing isn’t good enough to just let the action show it.”
“For God’s sake, use bigger words. Everyone will think you’re uneducated.”
“Get to the action. How is anyone going to know what’s happening if you go on and on about setting?”
“This is pretty boring, you know. Maybe wrap it up faster.”
“Your mother will hate this section. Kill it.”
“Why don’t you run out and get the dry-cleaning now, then write when you get back?”

Let’s face it. The Inner Critic is part of any book journey—no matter how many books you’ve published. That’s why your first step is to disable its influence. How? Common wisdom suggests you fight it with any means you can. But that often turns into a never-ending battle.

I’ve discovered another way: Get to know your Critic and make it an ally, not an enemy.

As you explore and plan your book, the Critic will worry that you don’t have a good enough idea. It will hint your ideas are seriously lacking and can’t be put into a book.

As you write your book and form the chapters, it will convince you the draft is definitely good enough to show your best friend—right now, today! This, of course, is a not-so-subtle sabotage attempt, made real when your friend asks about missing parts and you crumble with the realization that you have omitted half your story.

As you revise, the Critic will get bored with inner story, theme, pacing, those essential fine-tuning steps each book writer must implement. It will even tell you to edit out the juicy parts because all your relatives will shun you when they read them.

And as you try to sell your book, the Critic will come into full battle mode. It may suggest you stop now before any rejection letters arrive.

Blocked? Face the Critic and Write outside Your Story
When the Critic gets big, writers get small. Many stop writing. But that's not the goal, when you're pen-deep in a book project. So what can you do?

Turn and face your Critic. Get to know your own particular Inner Critic and how it delivers its sabotaging self-talk. Learn to feel the fear and write anyway.

Once when I was unable to move ahead on a particularly difficult scene in a memoir, I located my writing notebook under the manuscript pages and began writing about being literally sick with shame. As I wrote, I got the idea to start a “treaty” letter to my 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 able to see my Inner Critic in a new way.

Then 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.

As Hal and Sidra Stone, authors of Embracing Your Inner Critic, write, “To go beneath the criticisms of the Inner Critic and convert your distress to understanding, you must always remember how and why the Critic was born. You must remember the important role it has had to play in protecting that very young, vulnerable, unprotected, and sensitive child that you used to be.”

This Week's Writing Exercise
Write a letter to your Inner Critic.

First, get to know it on paper--describe it, sketch it, paint it until you feel you have a handle on its particular way of being only yours.

Then get out your writing notebook. Begin your letter to the Inner Critic with gratitude--always a good way to soften any resistance. Yes, you may be fuming at the chains, but start by thanking this part of yourself (for it is) for its never-ending vigilance.

Then renegotiate your contract. What can you ask for that would give you more freedom?

This blog post is excerpted from Week 4 of Mary's 12-week online class, "Your Book Starts Here, Part 1."   The next session begins January 17, 2011, and is limited to 20 students. The class is entirely virtual (online).  Fee:  $420 for 12 weeks.  For more information or to sign up, contact the Loft Literary Center Education Department at or call 612-379-8999.


  1. I like the idea of writing down the thoughts from my inner critic, maybe I could start a new journal on just that. thanks for the idea! Great post

  2. Mary,

    Your writing exercise this week also applies to life - and all critics confronting our journey.

    I love the idea of feeling the fear & doing it anyway. So brave. True. And necessary.

    Thank you so much.

  3. Summer,
    What a cool idea!
    And a second journal for all the positive thoughts?
    A friend keeps a list of those--the good things people tell her about herself--and says it makes a big difference.

  4. The Inner critic's complaints

    Your efforts to be cute are pitiful
    Such short sentences. Are you in first grade?
    You trying to get fancy with this dream business, oh gosh.
    Oh crap, even the computer does not like your work.
    Can't you write one sentence without being bashed by the spelling checker?

    This are the attacks I am facing by the first paragraph.

    Lester Kendall

    The inner critic is strong

  5. Wonderful Critic comments, Lester. Sounds familiar! Thanks for posting--I bet lots of readers have similar voices that keep their creativity at bay.