Weekend Edition – Battling the Writer’s Inner Critic

Illustraion by Zeeksie

Illustraion by Zeeksie

You know about your inner critic, right? It’s that unkind voice in your head, the one that belittles, discourages, and disparages, the one that tells you what you can’t do, how untalented you are, and why you will never (ever) accomplish anything worthwhile.

I think we writers have it tougher than most when it comes to the inner critic. After all, we are storytellers with fertile imaginations. Our writer’s minds conspire against us by bringing our inner critic to life with personality and character. We endow this internal naysayer with a sharp wit and give it all the best lines of dialog. And, perhaps most damaging, as if it weren’t bad enough that we allow our inner critics to unleash such venom in our minds, we also give them free reign to serve up near-spontaneous visions of a bleak future brought on by all our shortcomings.

Let me give you an example.

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I have been paying more attention to my inner critic lately – not so that I might heed her words, but so that I might notice when she starts sniping at me (and, therefore, have the chance to counteract her negative influence). Sadly, I’ve come to realize that she attacks far more often than I ever consciously knew – pretty much every time I sit down to write. (The only writing space that seems safe from her derisive commentary is my morning pages, but all my client work and blogging appears to be fair game.)

The other day, for instance, I was working on a piece for a client when her voice (which sounds, confusingly, very like my own voice) began pecking at me. “You have no idea what you’re doing,” she said. “You’re just making this up as you go along, and they’re eventually going to figure that out.” I wavered, my fingers poised over the keyboard in doubt. Despite the fact that I’ve been successfully earning my living  as a freelance writer for almost a decade, her words made me stumble. Despite the fact that the assignment I was working on was one in a long string of similar assignments (each and every one of which had been very well received), faltered and wondered if maybe this was it – this was the point at which I was going to crack and it was all going to fall apart.

And that’s when my writer’s mind really went to work on me.

My inner critic’s voice faced only to be replaced by vividly depicted scenes of my downfall. In the space of only a few seconds, I had played out multiple scenarios that began with my being fired and ended with me losing my house. These lurid daymares branched out in a dozen directions at once to include scenes of loss and shame and grief: having to tell my daughter we were moving again, having to quit riding, having to take a 9-to-5 job and not being there for my daughter after school, my ex-husband gloating. I experienced it all as my fingers hung over the keyboard, frozen in terror at the prospect of such possible futures that all now appeared to hang in the balance of the next sentence I was about to write.

No wonder I felt blocked!

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book self-talkOne of my dad’s favorite books is a little self-help number that was published back in the 80s. What to Say When You Talk to Yourself by Shad Helmstetter is something of a cult classic in certain circles. And, while Helmstetter’s “self-talk” approach to self-improvement may call up visions of SNL’s Stuart Smalley earnestly reciting affirmations into the mirror (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”), I do believe there’s a lot to be said for retraining your inner critic, or – as Helmstetter puts it – “reprogramming” your brain.

Again, as writers, this concept shouldn’t be all that foreign. We know the power of words. We understand how real a story can become in our minds, the way a writer can create an entire world and characters so real that we feel like we know them personally. A well-rendered story can make you laugh out loud or bring you to tears in very much the same way a Real World experience can inspire the same outward display of emotions.

It’s no different with the stories you tell yourself in your head.

no spoonIf you let your inner critic hammer home the same “story” over and over and over again, you’ll start to believe it. You will embrace it. Own it. Become it. That is not a good thing. Your inner critic is not looking to help you succeed. If you listen to those tall tales and believe them, you’re seriously handicapping your ability to accomplish your goals. Think of it like The Matrix – your thoughts create your reality. (“There is no spoon.”) I know it sounds totally SciFi and maybe a little crazy, but Real Science has proven the truth of this over and over again. The power of our story-driven minds is immense. Honestly, we don’t give it enough credit.

Take something as simple as the way thoughts can trigger physiological reactions. You watch a scary movie and your heart rate goes up. You’re worried about an interview and you get nauseas. You have a nightmare and break out into a cold sweat. You anticipate a kiss and go weak-kneed with butterflies in your stomach. You think about the delicious ice cream you’re going to have and start salivating. All of these instances are examples of thoughts manifesting as physical reactions – words in our heads causing things to happen in the Real  World. How hard is it to extrapolate from this point to understanding that the stories we tell ourselves  (“I’m a bad writer,” “I’m lousy at saving money,” “I’m fat.”) also manifest in the Real World?

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Defeating your inner critic may not be easy. In fact, it may not be possible at all. The truth is, our inner critic is part of who we are. I tend to think that if exorcising it entirely is how sociopaths are made. But, that doesn’t mean we have to give credence to every word that comes out of it’s mean mouth. I like the approach Amy Poehler describes in her memoir, Yes, Please.  In this passage, she’s talking about how her “demon” used to make her feel bad about her appearance, but I think the same approach makes sense for writers whose demons are belittling their creative efforts.

“Hopefully as you get older, you start to learn how to live with your demon. It’s hard at first. Some people give their demon so much room that there is no space in their head or bed for love. They feed their demon and it gets really strong and then it makes them stay in abusive relationships or starve their beautiful bodies. But sometimes, you get a little older and get a little bored of the demon. Through good therapy and friends and self-love you can practice treating the demon like a hacky, annoying cousin. Maybe a day even comes when you are getting dressed for a fancy event and it whispers, “You aren’t pretty,” and you go, “I know, I know, now let me find my earrings.”

That seems like a pretty healthy self-talk conversation to me.

 

_jamie sig

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P.S.  I know it’s only been a month since I said I was going to take a sabbatical from my Saturday posts, but somehow the “shorties” I keep meaning to write to accompany the Sunday reading & writing links keep outgrowing their intended word count. I’m not committing one way or another about Saturday posts, but I felt this one deserved a little space, so … here it is. Maybe that’s the best approach for the weekends: Don’t overthink. Don’t over plan. Just do what feels right.

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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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Is the Right Writer Writing? – Guest post by Katherine Britton

We met Katherine at the Vermont Bookstock Festival where fellow Live-to-Writers Lisa, Deb and I spoke on a blogging panel. Katherine has already published two books and is currently working on a third. When she asked if we would let her do a guest post on Live to Write, Write to Live, there was nothing for us to say except “Yes. By all means, Yes!”

Enjoy.

Is the Right Writer Writing?

By Katharine Britton

I tell people it took me between two and fifty years to write my first book. The manuscript itself took two years, but I’d been gathering stories and getting to know my characters (the book was inspired by my mother and her sisters) for most of my life. What might it take to drive sisters apart, I mused, as I listened for years my mother talk about her childhood on the South Shore of Boston, in a weather-shingled house overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. And what might it take to bring them back together? Her Sister’s Shadow was published in 2011.
blog2Then it was time to write another manuscript. What, I wondered, as I sat, fingers tensed, staring at a blank computer screen, could I write about? “You’ve used up every one of your good stories,” I heard myself say. “You’ve exploited every single foible a character could possibly possess and exhausted every topic of interest to anyone. (And all the good lines, too.) And, by the way, you don’t have another fifty years to come up with more.”

 

My fingers began to cramp; the page remained blank. “It was all a big mistake, that first novel. Eventually someone will figure that out. Not a chance you can write another one.”
Who Asked You, Anyway?
This wasn’t writer’s b–ck (that which must not be named). It was that the wrong writer was trying to write the first draft. Every author needs an internal editor. This persona is as important to subsequent drafts as a copy editor is to the final one. Just don’t let her “help” with the first draft. They say that writing is revising. But first you’ve got to get something down on paper. It’s a bitch to revise a blank page.
Have Fun for Heaven’s Sake
For the first draft, you need to employ your generative side. Invite your kid-self to climb up on your lap and bang away at the keys. Give her plain white paper and colored markers and watch her mind-map her way to a plot. Supply her with colored index cards and see how quickly scenes present themselves. (Pink for romance, green for adventure, blue for drama. Why not?)

 

 

Strew your desktop and office with toys, open the windows and listen to birds, take her for a walk down a city street or out into nature (maybe in the rain, why not!) and see what she sees, take her out for ice cream or to a movie, and listen to what she hears. Let her mind roam free. Start transcribing.

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Later you will be grateful when that voice says, “That “fabulous” metaphor that you forced into a sentence on page 212, and then shaped into that really awkward scene? Take it out. It doesn’t work. Yes, the whole thing. Out. It. Doesn’t. Work. (Any more than Aunt Betty’s old armoire belongs in the dining room, where it’s blocking half of one window, by the way. Get rid of that, too, while you’re at it.”)
But for now, ignore her. Instead, sail blissfully through your first draft, your mind as open as a summer day. Be a kid, have fun. There’ll be plenty of time to grow up later.
Katharine Britton’s second novel, Little Island, came out in 2013. She is having fun with her third.

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IMG_0014Katharine Britton is the author of two novels, HER SISTER’S SHADOW and LITTLE ISLAND (Berkley Books, Penguin, USA). She has a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Dartmouth College and a Master’s in Education from the University of Vermont, and has taught at the Writer’s Center, Colby Sawyer College, and the Institute for Lifelong Education at Dartmouth. She was a Moondance Film Festival winner and a finalist in the New England Women in Film and Television contest. She writes reviews for the New York Journal of Books.

Why I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year

It pains me to write this, but I will not be participating in NanNoWriMo this year.

Last year I was a NaNoWriMo virgin, but managed to complete 50,146 words of crap in the 30-day sprint to novel-writing success. It was a heady experience that went against my usual Type-A personality. The idea of sitting down to write a book without a clue about the characters or the plot made me a bit queasy. Despite my apprehensions, I managed to carve out time each day to sit and write. That alone was a major accomplishment.

I was all ready to dive back into the crazy-loving mayhem that is the month of November for NaNo novelists. Earlier this summer, I’d even plunked down a $50 donation and received a copy of the lovely Plot Bunnies print. Last week I started looking at everything on my calendar in an attempt to get strategic about clearing the decks for November’s writing marathon. Shortly after calculating that I have roughly sixty hours of blogging to do between now and November 30th, I realized I needed to do some serious thinking.

So, I went for a walk and had a little chat with myself.

“You should just do it. It’s only one month.”
“I know, but I have so much going on. If I add that into the mix, there’s a good chance I’ll lose my mind and maybe my boyfriend.”
“Wimp.” Continue reading