Starving the critic

Catching up on some of the blogs I haven’t read since the knee surgery, I’ve just come across Kris Rusch’s April 17 post on silencing the critical voice.  That’s a topic of perennial interest to me, because I’ve spent a lot of energy wrestling with the critical voice in my own head – as, I suspect, have most of us. Oops, I don’t mean you guys are wrestling with my personal critical voice, I mean most of us have that embedded critic and have to deal with our own voices. Sorry. I’m still taking occasional pain medications, to the detriment of clarity in thought and writing.

Kris talks about envisioning the Critic as that annoying person at a party, the one you walk away from as soon as you recognize that you’ve bumped up against one of those unhappy souls whose mission in life is to suck the joy and passion out of everything and everyone. I’d never thought of imagining my Critic as a real person; it’s an interesting idea. I may try that some time.

However, I’ve never been very good at simply silencing the Critic. I’ve found that a slightly different approach works better for me.

If I try to silence her, she shrieks louder. If I get drawn into argument, my attempts at rebuttal only give her energy. I used to waste a ton of perfectly good blank notebook pages by scrawling out attempts to rebut the Critic, and the more I argued, the worse I felt. She could out-debate me any time.

Lately, I don’t try to silence her. Instead, I let her say whatever she feels like. I even write it down. I just don’t give her any new material.

C: “This opening chapter sucks.”

Me (scribbling): “Ok.”

C: “You don’t have anything to say, that’s the problem.”

Me: “Ok.”

C: “Real literature has a Message. A bunch of people getting into trouble and out again isn’t a story, it’s just words on paper.”

Me: “Ok.”

C: “Furthermore, the protagonist is an idiot, her problem is trivial, and the whole concept of the book is deeply flawed.”

Me: “Ok.”

C: “You have a lot of nerve, calling yourself a writer! You should… you should…”

Longish pause.

Me: “Ah, would there be anything else?”


I can’t always do this; it’s way too easy to get sucked into debating the Critic. And even when I remember just to write down her statements, I can’t always walk away from them without a debate starting in my head. But when it does work, it’s surprising how quickly the unopposed Critic runs out of things to say. It turns a miserable interaction into a gratifying one, and usually gives me the energy for a prolonged writing session. And it almost always works better than sticking my fingers in my ears and chanting, “La la la, I can’t hear you.”

How are the rest of you dealing with the Critic these days? Any favorite tips, tricks, techniques?

23 thoughts on “Starving the critic

  1. I tell myself this is my first draft and I’ll fix it later. That usually works. Because I do fix it later.

  2. I don’t have a Critic for my fiction writing. For non-fiction, I go to my notes, or the other sources if they are on hand, and find the material in question. That hushes the voice, because I’ve confirmed that I was right (or at least that what I got from the sources was right.)

    Reading reviews in academic journals may have killed my writing Critic. Other places in my life… Ooooooohhhh boy.

  3. Last night I typed the last of my notes from my reread of Swain. The notes on 7 through appendix maybe aren’t as good as 2 through 6, but I got enough out of 7 and 8 for what I need now. When I was reading the bit about separating criticism from creation, my thought was “Okay, maybe I will need this, but it probably isn’t critical for me right off the bat with fiction.”

    I come to this post after deleting a email I was writing about some of my nonfiction projects. Project A is big, much larger than anything I have yet done, and still at a very early stage. A scares me. B, small, something I’ve done several times, nearly routine. B, I got partway into, then quit to continue when I had another day free. Came across a nice blog, fun thinking, and some of the stuff I’d put into B, was probably wrong, and needed rethinking. A month later, had some interesting work stoppages between my intuition figuring out that I’ve put serious flaws into the planning of A, and working out what the truth and false of the matter really was. (Definitely some serious flaws, eventually seemingly fixed.) Today something interesting reminded me of B, and revisiting the status I noticed how the common subject matter may have caused some of the inner critic/confused uncertainty issues to spill over from A to B.

    Upcoming fanfic project is my first creative project of any size, and like A and another project, has been scaring me. My inner critic could kill that dead. My best answer? Like with “my skills now will kill it in execution”, a project unstarted is still dead. If it is flawed? It’s fanfic, realistically, I’m maybe getting lessons about organization and project management out of it.

    So, I have no help to offer. Sorry.

    1. It’s complicated, isn’t it? I’m working on a follow-up post about distinguishing between Good Critic and Bad Critic. A tricky business, that. But I think Laura’s put her finger on one of the key points: ignore any voice that tries to stop you writing that first draft. You can’t fix it until you write it!

      1. I’ve got a dream pushing me on A. Perhaps the first real long term dream of the ‘how do I make this actually happen variety’.

        For a while I was “Oh, I have to make A happen, and exactly as first envisioned.”

        Then I realized that I can still chase the dream, even if A fails, as long as I am willing to spend the resources. My thinking grew better, and I started matching means to ends more effectively. (I also realized that I had failed to completely follow an emotion discarding rule when it came to stacking them to find the most emotionally motivating dream. Cutting a fraction of the stack off brought me back to equilibrium.)

        Five years ago, I would have been scared of the idea of attempting this. Actually, I think I did some asking around maybe even last year, and decided I didn’t want it. Five months ago, I was caught up in the idea of a sponsor, a master to apprentice under. Now, there’s a critical basic ability, and if I can’t push that skill area higher on my own, given the time before I can next do anything more structured, I’m not going to be able to make the whole work. I have, basically, all the resources I really need, besides time and organization.

        1. Prayer is really, really, really helpful.

          I was in a pretty deep hole.

          Prayer, as I recall, was the critical element.

          I need to go do that more.

  4. My favorite method that I *heard* of was to have actual and for real hats for various tasks so that there is a writer hat and a different editor/critic hat and a different business/administrative hat. And physically change your hat.

    It’s awful silly, but some day I’ll try it.

    1. IIRC, Swain mentions somewhere a guy who woke up, dressed for business, down to the lobby of the apartment building, next door, apartment in that building, and did the day’s writing there.

      Me? *Laughs*

      I started fixing my ergonomics only after the need for productivity got to the point that the pain was interfering with getting work done. I’ve shorted myself lots on necessary overhead and good judgement.

    2. The imaginary hat thing SORT OF helps for me, and I sometimes have to tell my internal editor to get the hell out of my writing zone or else there won’t BE anything to edit. At least, that’s when RL doesn’t eat my writing time.

      There’s the internal voice though I wish I could shut up, preferably for good.

      1. Well, the hats aren’t imaginary is the theory. It’s not that you just tell your editor to go take a hike and imagine putting on a different job/hat, but that there is a physical totem involved.

        Some people might do different tasks in different places for the same idea.

  5. I let the characters decide how things are going to go. If it comes out stupid, I blame them. ~:D

    Also, I wrote some sex scenes back at the beginning when I was just starting the books. Those scenes came out -so- bad that I think it killed my Inner Critic dead, dead, dead.

    Overall, I’m not writing some kind of Super Serious Literary Experiment that is supposed to amaze and entrance a bunch of jaded university professors. I’m writing science fiction about lippy robot spiders here. Its allowed to be a bit silly, you know?

    1. I would try letting my characters be the critics, but they are already busy dictating the story to me so I don’t know how much I can rely on them for valid criticism. Besides, some of my characters have personalities that aren’t conducive to constructive criticism (or a very strong attachment to reality for that matter). 🙂

      Ah… such is the life of a pantser (and wana-be writer… but I’m drinking milk! so I’ll get there eventually.)

      1. The trick I’ve found is that when everything goes wrong, I stand there with my hands on my hips and say “What on Earth were you thinking?!”

        Then they tell me, and I fix it. ~:D

  6. At the start of the last NaNoWriMo, our Municipal Liaison had us write down the name of our inner critic and/or draw a picture of her. The ML then collected all of the papers, put them in a box, and promised that we could have our critics back come December.

    Not sure it made much of a difference for me, but it’s an idea.

  7. Switch stories.

    You do have to force yourself to circle around, but if the story feels just too dumb for words, or I can’t get the words to flow, I hop back and forth.

  8. “Oops, I don’t mean you guys are wrestling with my personal critical voice,”

    Actually it sounded to me as if I do wrestle with your personal critic… At least he/she/it uses the same lines on me. But you have clearly won the wrestling match quite a few times.

  9. A trick to add is to write the criticism down, and every time it comes up with another objection, write that down. Soon you will have a little list. From this one can see the patterns and learn that the critic says nothing new.

    So when the next time the critical voice interjects you can say to it, I know you, this goes nowhere, I don’t have time to waste. I acknowledge you, but goodbye, I’ve got more important things to do.

    Acknowledge then let go being the point of the exercise. It takes practice, and won’t always work first time.

  10. my critic says ” your fiction writing stuffs stick to what you know you can get paid for”

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