Fighting the Inner Critic
The portrait of the struggling writer is a timeless one. Sitting in their rickety desk chair, scribbling away on a notepad, banging away at the typewriter, abusing their keyboard, throwing every sentence into the garbage until the bin overflows. Either that or the conflicted writer is staring at an ominous sheet of blank paper desperate to come up with even one decent word to slap onto it. Writer’s block is the popular name for this creative illness. People treat writer’s block like they treat the common cold. Everyone gets it from time to time, there is no universal cure, and one needs to just “wait for it to pass.” This is the worst thing that a writer could possibly do when trying to fight this demon. The inner cynic, The inner critic, that little voice in the back of your head piercing through any idea you might have and saying in a soft convincing whisper: “This isn’t good enough. Your motivations aren’t pure enough. You’re just doing this for attention. No one would ever want to read this junk.”
It is my theory that writer’s block isn’t so much a lack of ideas inflicted on the writer by the lack of a mystical Muse, but submitting to the inner critic in its philosophy that all of the ideas you’ve concocted for a story are too terrible to take up space on the precious page. Perhaps for some the ideas simply don’t materialize in their heads, but in my experience, plenty of ideas do present themselves. Although on some days the inner critic takes over and rakes whatever I’m working on over the coals whether it is fiction, journalism, or some other type of writing activity. It is, at bottom, a battle with your own insecurities about your writing. For artists of many different mediums this war is nearly unwinnable.
When one waits for this malady to clear out of the system, one stops themselves from writing altogether, and the ability to crank words out fades with every day that passes. The wall of writer’s block just grows taller and sturdier. Whenever a new project begins, the evil glare of the blank page forces the brain into stagnation. Ernest Hemingway had a useful technique in combating this kind of thing: “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next.” This is a decent strategy to maintaining momentum in writing. The writer will be even more excited to start next day’s writing if they know what is going to happen next. It’s a sly way of forcing the Muse to do the bidding of the writer as opposed to the other way around. This is of little use to the unfortunate soul that can’t get themselves to “go good” to begin with though, so allow me to make something of a strange suggestion.
Allow yourself to suck. Building this technique on the foundation of my own experience, my inner critic is one of the strongest voices in my head whenever I sit down to pound the keys. It constantly second-guesses every word, and convinces me to erase work and start all over again because nothing I’ve put down is salvageable enough for public consumption. While it is in a writer’s nature to be self-critical and desire some form of validation of the work before they can be satisfied with it, this obsession with perfection can be a shackle limiting your progress. On occasion the writer might scrap an incredible idea because they think it’s terrible, but they in tandem deprive the rest of us from reading it.
This is not my arguing that one shouldn’t edit, double-check, and be critical of their writing. However, being too critical of one’s work leads to a miserable existence of floundering in the murky waters of diffidence. Demand excellence, but do not conflate excellence with perfection. If we’re to believe the theories of Dunning and Kruger, that those who are bad at an activity do not possess the very skills required to detect their poor performance in said activity, then it is only a small leap in logic to say that those who are overwhelmingly good at what they do are intensely critical of their work and unfortunately, can find themselves crushed by the weight of their own ability to critique.
Each writer needs to find the strategy that works for them and the creative process is a mechanism that runs at different speeds and blasts at different frequencies for each artist. Advice from writers will almost always contradict each other. Many writers swear by a routine. Some writers prefer to wait until they are “on a roll” and type out 15,000 words in one day. Some writers prefer to quit while they’re ahead, others prefer to type away until they are fully exhausted of inspiration. Some writers will tell you that inspiration is a total myth, and it is more likely to hit when you’re going through the motions of writing. Try all of these things. Make use of everything and figure out what works for you, but if you find yourself unable to write words for fear that they won’t be good enough, allow yourself to suck. Ignore the seductive call of the Inner Critic for a while and jot down 500 words of the worst kind of prose. Beat yourself up for a little for having written it. Think that you wasted your time doing it. Then a couple days later return to it. You could find that it doesn’t sound nearly as horrible as you once thought. The Inner Critic pretends it is helping you, but in reality it’s the most hindering force plaguing writers next to Procrastination. Ignore it. You won’t need it until the editing phase.