Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Inner Critic

by Annette Lyon

Everybody has one.

Whether it's the voice of that high school English teacher (a pox on her) who said you couldn't string two sentences together or simply your own insecurities piping up, I'm sure you know what yours sounds like.

The Critic is loud. It's bossy. It's an authority. And we tend to listen to it.

That isn't always a bad thing. At times, you do need to look at your work objectively. Does this scene work? Is this dialogue cheesy? Did I start in the right place? Am I showing so much the story drags? Is this character believable? Without the critic there on your shoulder, these kinds of questions are hard to answer.

On the other hand, there is a definite time and a place for the Critic, and a large portion of the time, he ain't wanted.

For example, imagine you're in the flow of a story, living and breathing the events. You're really there with your characters. Then your Critic creeps out of hiding and whispers four little words, "This is kinda lame."

POP! The creative balloon explodes and you return to reality with a thud.

Was the scene lame? Maybe. Maybe not. There's no way to know when you're in the middle of it. You're way too close to it when it's hot off the press (or not even off it yet!). The passage you're working on could be brilliant, and you'd still think it's lame at this point.

Ignore the Critic. Shove him back into his cave and lock the door. Keep writing. And then tomorrow, unlock the Critic and let him read it with you. At that point, you'll be able to somewhat trust what he has to say, since he's had to tame himself in solitary confinement.

It's important for writers to understand the two ways your brain works and be able to compartmentalize them—to bring out the shy, scared writer child and to lock the Critic in its cave for the duration of a writing session.

And then, yes, to know when that timid artist can go take a rest and it's time to bring out the Critic to take a hard look at what you produced.

Having them both out and active simultaneously can spell trouble. The creative flow will likely be filled with painful bumps and jolts. You'll second-guess yourself, keep going back to smooth out sentences instead of moving the story forward. You'll trash entire sections in the heat of the moment because the Critic is yelling so loudly that you're forced to believe its ranting. The artist side won't have a chance to be heard or listened to.

Most writers have their own pet ways of reining in their Critics. Some do Julia Cameron's morning pages—three hand-written pages of free writing first thing every day, which force the Critic to move over.

Others give the Critic a name, say Morris or Agnes, so they can "talk" to the Critic and tell it to get lost.

Sometimes a physical form, like a stuffed animal, can be helpful so you can physically put the Critic on the desk when it's at work and into the drawer when it's not wanted or needed.

I know writers who put on music to bring out the inner Artist and quiet the Critic.

For others, simply recognizing the fact that they have those two sides warring against one another is enough to tune in to the one voice and ignore the other.

So how do you deal with your inner Critic? What works for you? How do you quiet it when it's not wanted?

How do you manage your dual sides as a writer?

What works for one writer won't necessarily work for all, but the more tricks and tips we have to work around the paralyzing nature of the Critic, the better.

Please share!


Don said...

My critic is very happy, now that I am in edit mode. He gets to do his thing and do it well.

On the days that I'm writing, and he won't get out of the way, I write the most gosh-awful stuff I can come up with, and he usually leaves in disgust.

Josi said...

Argh--I can't seem to get rid of my critic, so I'll be watching the answers to this one and see if I get some ideas.

Heather B. Moore said...

My critic is very annoying right now. I've taken comfort though when I recently finished reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn--a classic that is considered a book of the century. In the notes at the end it said that the author received high praise and acclamation, but also a lot of critical comments. She was even sued by her own aunt for $250,000, who claimed the author based a character after her.

Maybe that's off-topic, but reading those types of things makes me realize that even the "best" of us have to go through those bumpy roads.

Stephanie Black said...

One of the best bits of writing advice I've read was from Anne Lamott, who talked about giving yourself permission to write a lousy first draft. It's very freeing to give yourself permission to write badly on that first draft--that way your inner critic doesn't stop the work-in-progress,. If something is awful, I know I can fix it later. This helps me get a whole manuscript written, instead of spending weeks on making chapter 1 perfect, only to dump the whole chapter later.

Stephanie Humphreys said...

I've gotten pretty good at ignoring my inner critic - we call her Mitzi around here. Sometimes I am so good, I have a hard time getting her to come out again. And there are times when I really need her. Once she gets going though - watch out. I need her to get busy now so I can edit my new manuscript.

Curtis said...

My critic is gorilla big. And he's really mean. My problem is that he's talking the whole time I'm trying to get in a good groove, and it messes with my mojo—but I think he's there to make my writing better in the long run, so I do my best to muddle through.

What works for me will likely not work for anyone else, but I usually write a paragraph or two, read, listen to the critic, make changes, re-read, make changes, re-read aloud, make changes, then move on. Then, after the grueling process is over and I have a completed manuscript, I set it aside for a couple of months and work on something else, then revisit it. This usually results in a ton of new changes, but I think my work is more concise and true to what I had intended to write when it's all said and done.

That being said, I have to limit myself on the number of revisions that I make, because it might never end! Eventually, I say enough is enough and I start querying it around.

To this point, I'm unpublished, unsuccessful, and a lot of other un-things, but I'm still learning the craft and plugging away. And I'm hopeful.

Great blog post—I enjoy all the good advice.

melissa c said...

this was really good advice. I like just to free write and then go back and fix typos and sentence structures. Usually that does the trick.

I'm reading a book right now called "On Good Writing". It is really making a difference for me.

Julie Wright said...

Loved this post. I am pretty darn good at ignoring the inner critic until about halfway through. Then I start second guessing everything. Good thoughts. Thanks!