Who are your critics? Your mom and dad? Your high school English teacher or favorite professor? Who is it inside your head? Whose face do you picture when telling yourself why you can’t or shouldn’t do something?
For me, it’s the people I love most. I ask myself: How would this affect my husband if his coworkers were to read it? How would my parents feel if I wrote about our family in this way? What would my in-laws think if I wrote really risque scenes? By the time I get to the end of my list, I usually have a lot of reasons not to start on any meaningful writing, and what’s worse is that my inner critics have gone online and multiplied. Now, I also think: What are the trolls going to say, and how can I defend myself against their attacks preemptively? What will my childhood friends who grew up to become conservatives think when I write post on Facebook about my support for gay marriage? What will Twitter think? (No kidding.)
It seems like all the warm and fuzzy writing manuals I’ve read (you know, the ones that are 90% inspiration/motivation and 10% technique) suggest that one of the first steps in becoming a writer (or artist of any kind) is to shut your inner critics up. But of course, like most things, that’s easier said than done.
They suggest techniques like putting your inner critics in a box (in your head) and telling them they can come out when you’re done writing. Personally, this just makes me picture caricatures of my close friends and family being picked up by big, animated fingers and dropped in a box. It’s all rather weird and doesn’t actually accomplish anything except making me visualize in detail how my loved ones would be portrayed by political cartoonists.
I don’t want to engage in any cheesy psychological exercises, but I do need the mental freedom to put words on a page without obsessing, “What will so-and-so think?” Here are a few techniques I’ve used to shut up the inner critic and get some writing done.
Keep it to yourself: Keep a notebook that’s for your eyes only. I was lucky enough to have parents who respected their children’s need for mental space, so I was able to trust my notebooks and say whatever I needed to say. Keeping your notebook 100% private means you don’t need to think about your critics when you’re working in a notebook because you know they’ll never see it. You can always edit later if you want to share.
Drown them out: They aren’t real, you know. You can’t hurt them. So, do what you must to shut them up. If the silly visualization works for you, fine. But if you’re like me, it might take some actual force. I love to write with headphones on because when I’m listening to music I love, it helps me tune out the nonsense and tune in to what I’m working on.
Sweat them out: In my experience, the inner critic’s noisiness is often in direct proportion to the amount of stress I’m under, and I find that a good work out can go a long way toward soothing my nerves and quieting my inner critic. Turns out a lot of the criticism has nothing to do with my writing and everything to do with basic anxiety or insecurity, so just learning to tame the anxiety can really help.
Listen to them later: I guess the point of the box exercise was to allow your critics to withhold their comments until you’re prepared to hear them. The thing is, not everything they say is worthwhile, and anything really important will come back to you, but a lot of it is just anxious chatter. Just know that when you’re revising your work to print or post on your blog or whatever, you can apply the necessary filters then. And it is necessary to filter sometimes if you care about your audience, but that’s why we have a process called revision. If you put on all the filters right from the start, barely anything will get through, but if you pour it all out the first time around, you can sift through and pick out the good stuff later.
Cultivate your inner badass: I think it’s not fair that we all have these inner critics who are big nervous nellies and we’re supposed to just be stuck with them. So, I’m working on cultivating an inner badass. I need a little person inside me who can look those whiney, hyper critical little bastards in the eye and say, “Yeah, so?” I’m working on it. So far, she looks a bit like Tank Girl (couldn’t you guess?) and has a pretty foul mouth.
So what do you do to get past that nonsense?