Dealing with the inner critic


I’ve been asked by a few writers what to do about writing anxiety and negative self-talk.

There you are, writing happily (or at least finally sitting at your desk), and then it starts.

Who do I think I am? My Grade 8 teacher was right. I’m not a writer!
Or: The page I wrote yesterday is awful. I’d better just tear it up and start over.
Or: That’s the wrong word, I know it’s the wrong word. The whole sentence sounds terrible. Maybe I’m better off not even trying.
Or: If I was really a writer, I’d write better and faster from the beginning. I bet that’s what Margaret Atwood does.
Etc., etc., etc.

We all hear those critical voices in our heads, and they quickly paralyze us. That’s partly because we’re always attempting the impossible—the task of transferring what is in our heads to the page. Our vision is larger than we are. And so we let ourselves become overwhelmed by faint-heartedness and fear. It’s easier not to start. It’s easier to give up.

It’s almost impossible to produce anything while listening to this incessant internal criticism. The good news is that you can do something about the inner critics.

birdThe writer Anne Lamott says: “Quieting these voices is at least half the battle I fight daily. But this is better than it used to be. It used to be 87 percent.” Here’s an exercise she suggests:

Close your eyes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter starts up. Then isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse. Pick it up by the tail and drop it into a mason jar. Then isolate another voice, pick it up by the tail, drop it in the jar. And so on. Drop in … anyone who is whining in your head. Then put the lid on, and watch all these mouse people clawing at the glass, jabbering away…
[from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life]

Another option is, first, to accept the voices in your head. That sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but it prevents you putting so much energy into resisting or fighting them. Let them know you appreciate their advice, but they need to go away until you’ve finished your first draft. Then, and only then, invite them back. Keep them firmly in check, though. You want to look at your work with a critical eye so you can revise/edit, but you don’t want to sabotage yourself.

Two enemies of creativity

I recently came across a powerful passage about creativity by the craft artist Ann Wood that I wanted to share. It expands on my first blog post about the importance of ‘unknowing.’

Two great enemies of creativity are inertia and uncertainty. The fix for inertia is simple—not easy, but very simple: start, move, take a step forward. Certainty is trickier. Our brains are built to be efficient. They categorize, assume, learn, repeat, and create habits and rules. It is work to notice – to really look at things, consider them outside of their familiar context or history or purpose. Autopilot is easy and comfortable and I catch myself slipping into it, in little ways and big ways, all the time. I see what I expect to see because subconsciously, it is already a certainty. And often I feel myself bumping up against rigidity in my thinking because I’m headed somewhere that conflicts with what my brain considers a given, a known quantity or a proven or even familiar course of action.

Certainty isn’t open, it isn’t creative, and it isn’t curious – it doesn’t have room for possibilities, and possibilities are magic. I wonder:
What would the world look like if we could forget everything for just a moment?
What would my own possibilities look like if I could un-know all I believe about myself?

Next blog entry (Dec. 2): How to write first drafts

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