Hoarding Self-Criticism

So many of the writers I work with are hoarders.  Not of old newspapers and magazines, rubber bands or bag ties, but of self criticism.

They think nothing of telling themselves that they’re wasting their time writing, that nobody will like what they write; nobody will publish it; that they’ve been working on this particular project so long, even if it does get published, it won’t count; that they’re lazy; they’re not disciplined enough; they’re going to look foolish for writing this particular piece or story or novel; they’re not good enough; everybody writes more fluidly than they do–and a lot worse.

Even when I offer these writers other explanations for their difficulties, try to reason with them, or help them see just what stake they have in being hypercritical, they persist in their on-going self-critique.  I recently asked a writer I’m working with if she could see the double bind she had been in all her life, wanting the attention of a family that was usually looking elsewhere, then being mocked on those rare occasions she managed to attract their attention.

“I don’t agree,” she responded.  “Maybe if I had had something important to say, they wouldn’t have made fun of me when I did speak.”

Another writer energetically tried to convince me that it was always best to think the worst. If he prepared himself for disaster and disappointment, he wouldn’t be taken by surprise.

“Do you think it’s possible that bracing for the worst prevents you from engaging fully with your writing?”

“What do you mean?” he asked.  “I spend a lot of time trying to write.”

“I mean that constantly bolstering yourself for disappointment keeps you from putting your full energy and your best effort into your writing.”

“Oh,” he replied, “that has never occurred to me.  I’ll need to think about that.”

I’m certainly no stranger to girding myself for the worst case scenario.  This was my MO until not that long ago.  And I can’t deny that at times I was correct: bad things did indeed happen.

But I also realize now that all the bad things I anticipated did not occur.  Not by a long shot.  More disheartening is the time I spent worrying and feeling anxious instead of enjoying and appreciating what was taking place in the present.

In the end, it’s actually more economical–because it’s more productive–for you to find ways to offer yourself more positive messages about your writing.  Not falsely positive, of course not. Realistic positive messages.  Notice, for example, unexpected words or images that find their way onto the page, and compliment yourself. Of, if your goal is to write every day for at least a half hour and you succeed several days running, pat yourself on the back. If as you’re writing, an idea or a scene offers itself up to you, marvel at the mystery of writing and the unconscious.

At first, this shift from the hoarding of self-criticism to gathering more positive responses to your writing takes a bit of effort.  Praising yourself doesn’t come naturally; criticizing does.  But after some time–different for each of us–you’ll discover, if you’re paying attention, that your writing house is more spacious than before.  And if you look out the window, you’ll see clear blue sky.

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