In Support of the Inner Critic
When I chose “The Inner Critic” topic for this blog I thought it would be easy. I’m blessed with a particularly powerful one and figured I’d have a lot to say on the subject. But as the time to write this post drew near, and then the deadline came and went, my inner critic settled down on top of my head and squished out every ounce of rational thought.
When he finally released me, (I feel sure that my inner critic is male), he left me bruised and yet with an urge to come out in his support. (Stockholm syndrome? Brain damage?)
Joking aside, I do think that our inner critics provide a valuable role—pushing us to be better, to expand our comfort zones, to learn more and improve. How can taking a critical look at our work or striving for improvement be bad?
It’s certainly beneficial to have some humility and self-awareness, to know that every word we write isn’t brilliant. It behoves us to understand that no matter how much we’ve learned about writing and storytelling, or how many books we’ve written, that there will alwaysbe more to discover, ways to improve. I firmly believe that a healthy inner critic can drive us to produce our best work.
Three cheers for the inner critic!
On the other hand… an overly aggressive inner critic can be stifling, soul crushing, and can keep us from taking the risk to put words down on paper in the first place, or to submit anything we’ve written for publication.
Hmmm…. Suddenly all my warm, fuzzy feelings for my inner critic have vanished.
Or maybe it’s that my inner critic served his purpose, but then outstayed his welcome. If my inner critic served me well when I started writing, perhaps I’m done with him now. It’s not that I plan to stop learning or improving—that part is great—but to be frank, over the years my inner critic has turned into a bit of an asshole.
I’d give anything to return to the heady days, early in my writing career, when my inner critic was tamer, or pretending to be, when he could be silenced by a great day of writing, by a light bulb turning on at a workshop, by a great talk with my writer friends—the days his voice could be extinguished by a request for submission or a contract offer. Those were the days.
Lately, none of those things can silence my inner critic. Not fully. Not even a contract. Not even a glowing reader review or accolade. No, my inner critic has grown so loud and oppressive he’s hard to shake off.
But I do remember when he was useful.
When I decided to write my first novel I knew I had a lot to learn, and being a good student I set out to learn all I could. I joined multiple writers’ groups across more than one genre, I took courses, attended conferences, and I joined a very serious critique group with like-minded women. We met weekly, tearing apart each other’s work without mercy and holding each other accountable to meet goals and submit work to agents.
Looking back, those days were marvellous! With each new discovery, each new skill, my confidence built, and I became keen to share my insights and knowledge with others. I shared what I’d learned with others in online groups, I conducted workshops at conferences, I judged writers’ contests and mentored beginners.
My memory of those days could be slightly flawed, but I do believe there was a time when I truly believed I’d figured this writing thing out. Mostly.
Yes, I knew there’d always be ways to improve, but I got to a point where I believed I’d learned enough to pass. Plus, I had a modicum of external validation (agents, contracts, accolades, letters from readers), enough to convince me I had talent and skill. For a while, my inner confidence was louder than my inner critic.
Oh, to return to those halcyon days!
As the years went on, as I left one agent and signed with another and then left him, too, as I published books, received a few minor awards, achieved what most would say was success with sales and reviews, my inner critic grew in pace with my achievements. In fact, I’m pretty sure that he grew faster than my success. Perhaps he feeds off accomplishment, always keeping a few steps ahead, prepared to cut me down to size without warning.
And with all my inner critic’s negative talk, at some point I started to believe I knew nothing. That I knew even less than when I started. Which is objectively nuts.
Ignorance is bliss, I tell you! It’s like the more I learn about writing and storytelling, the more skills I develop and the more books I write and publish, the louder my inner critic shouts that I know nothing, that I have zero talent, that I’ll never achieve my literary dreams.
Was it just a few hundred words ago that I came out in supportof my inner critic? What was I thinking? I must have been crazy. Stockholm syndrome indeed.
Time to face facts: my inner critic is an abusive jerk!
Working in a creative field requires a delicate balance. We creative types are often overly sensitive, easily crushed by criticism and setbacks, and yet criticism and setbacks are inevitable.
In the publishing world, rejection and disappointments are as certain as death and taxes. None of us needs an inner critic to feel bad about ourselves or our work, to push us to get better. There are plenty of external sources to do those things for us. (Any author who’s ventured onto Goodreads, without protective armour, can tell you that.)
Forget the thesis I stated at the outset of this post. I was wrong. Inner critics are the worst! The very worst!
Anyone know a good assassin?
MAUREEN MCGOWAN is the award-winning author of two YA series, and also writes romance as Mara Leigh. Maureen left a career in finance to pursue writing fiction. Aside from her love of books, she’s passionate about films, fine handcrafted objects and shoes. You can find her on all the usual social media places and at: www.maureenmcgowan.com
P.S. Her inner critic says this post sucks.
P.P.S. She’s not as oppressed by her inner critic as the above implies. Thank you for your concern, but no need to call the authorities. Yet.