How to Talk to the Writing Critics in Your Head
I’ve just had a brush with those nasty voices in my head. The ones that years ago told me, You don’t know how to write, and You have no idea how to punctuate, and You’re such a lousy writer, you should give up. I haven’t had to contend with these voices lately, but after my recent book launch, they saw an opening and returned in force. I’ll spare you the details, but trust me, they were loud, and mean and convincing—for an hour or two, or maybe three or four.
Luckily, I learned quite a while back how to deal with these voices, so I didn’t have to spend days listening to their criticisms and critiques. But hearing them reminded me that I ‘ve wanted to write a post about the best ways for writers to send the critics in their heads off on other adventures whenever they take up residence and hog their mental airways.
If you’ve got critics in residence, you know just what I’m talking about. But you might not know how to silence them. Luckily, it’s not all that hard; it just takes practice. And vigilance. You have to prepare yourself to deal with these voices, which means being alert to their presence and not simply trying to ignore them. Instead, you should learn just how to ask them to stop pestering you.
I figured out early on that one of my major critics was my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Lauck. Mrs. Lauck was a firm disciplinarian with a loud voice. And even though I was a model third grader, she once directed her ire at me. And that once was enough to leave a lasting impression.
We were in a new school and the corner-stone-laying ceremony was scheduled for the next day. Part of the ceremony involved a sheet of paper from each class, with each student’s signature. Somehow, when the sheet for our class arrived at my desk after it has circulated through half our class, I didn’t follow Mrs. Lauck’s directions perfectly when I signed. “Jane, you did this all wrong. And now I have to rip up this sheet and start all over again,” she bellowed at me. “Everybody else will have to sign again. And it’s all your fault.”
Ever since that incident, I’ve struggled with intense test anxiety. And no wonder. It took me years to see the connection, and even longer to understand that whenever I sat down to write, Mrs. Lauck was in my head. Along with the possibility that she would once again find fault with something I had done. And would once again bellow at me. Once I realized this, I understood that if I wanted to overcome my writing inhibitions, I had to get Mrs. Lauck out of my head. But how?
One of my key precepts about making our writing world safe is that there can be no meanness or violence in that world. There’s already too much of that in most people’s head. But how was I to ask Mrs. Lauck to exit without being mean? I thought about it for a long time, and finally understood what I could do. I could ask her nicely to leave me alone by suggesting another activity for her to engage in.
And that’s just what I did. Whenever I sat down to write, I would think about Mrs. Lauck. And I would tell her, “Mrs. Lauck, I’m sure you’re an excellent critic and editor. But I don’t need you now. I’m just writing a first, or second, or even third draft of this piece. You don’t need to stay. Anyway, you’re such a fabulous teacher, why don’t you find a classroom to help out? I’m sure they’d be grateful for your presence. And if I need you at a later stage, I’ll be sure to let you know.”
It worked. Mrs. Lauck began leaving me alone when I wrote. There were other critics, of course. But one by one, I identified them and escorted them gently out of my writing world. And each time I ushered another one out the door, it became easier for me to sit down and write, without a cacophony of insulting voices in my head.