Dealing with Your Nasty Internal Critics
Who cares what you say? You’re a lousy writer! Nobody’s going to read your book. You should be doing something more productive with your time. Writing is selfish. These are just a few of the insults many of the writers I work with hurl at themselves as they sit down to write. It’s no wonder so many of them put off writing, that the minute they think about sitting down, they remember an important errand, phone call or email. And that by the time the day is over, they realize they never got around to writing.
Most of us have struggled with self-criticism at some point in our life. And most writers will tell you that they’re most vulnerable to self-criticism around their writing. This makes a lot of sense.
First, writing is a personal and solitary act. It’s not like working within an organization or teaching or gardening or cooking or even like knitting. Engaging in any of these activities involves either doing something with or for somebody else, or creating a product others can enjoy. But when you sit down to write, there you are with your computer or your notebook, with no assurance either that what you write will benefit anybody else or that you will end up with an actual essay, story, poem—to say nothing of a novel!
Most of us who write are sensitive beings. That might just be part of what leads us to become writers: we feel and see and resonate deeply with the people and the world around us, and we long to express this resonance. While this sensitivity surely benefits our writing, it can also work against us. It can cause us to absorb more deeply criticisms we have received during our life, or make us more permeable to the needs and desires of others, particularly our family. All of this can find its way into our consciousness as the critical chorus that performs when we decide to write.
The first step toward not letting this chorus inhibit your desire to write is understanding where this chorus comes from. Often this helps writers realize that much of the criticism isn’t accurate. It’s either old and stale or the result of our own sensitivity to the needs of others, which leads us to find reasons not to pay attention to our own passions and gifts. (I’ll write more about this in another post.)
Once you understand that what the voices are telling you isn’t true or relevant, that they are most likely making claims for their own yearnings and desires, you need to find a way to dispel them. First, see if you can recognize any of them. A teacher, a parent, a close friend, a sibling? Then suggest that they leave you alone to write.
Do this gently; you don’t want any violence or negativity in your writing universe. You can remind these critics of other activities they enjoy. Or tell them nicely that you don’t need their editing just now, but perhaps at a later time in your process. You can even promise you’ll think about them later, once you’ve finished your writing for the day.
Coming up with an effective response to the critics in your head can be a creative act, so let yourself engage fully. One writer I worked with felt guilty writing because it was time she didn’t spend with or on her family. She decided to make a promise to her family each day at the beginning of her writing session. I’ll make your favorite dinner tonight. Or When I finish writing, I’m going to clean out your art drawer so we can draw together tonight. Another writer whose critical chorus insisted he didn’t deserve to write asked his critics to let him know what he could do to earn the right to write. His critics responded, suggesting, for example, that he dedicate this story to his brother or next write the story about their mother losing her wedding ring.
Don’t be afraid. Dialoguing with your critics is the best way to make sure you create a space for writing in your life. And as you can see, if you negotiate with them in good faith, in the end, their demands are usually quite reasonable.