Forum / Managing the inner critic—how do you do it?

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    Marcus Speh
    Jan 06, 11:58am

    Before I disappear once more in my teaching trapdoor, I would like to table another question. This time I would like to exclude the reader and audience question and focus on the writer's inner process instead. In particular the process of writing in the first stages when the germ of a new story must be tended to with utmost care and caution lest it should die an early death.

    One of the characteristics of this stage is the confrontation with the "Inner Critic" (for lack of a better term—better term anyone?) who asks all manner of grown-up, sharp, civilized questions and who evidently looks at the beloved germ with the eyes of a gardener rather than a Creator. Clearly, both inner critic and inner creator are needed to complete the work. As Dorothy Brande ("Becoming a Writer", 1933) pointed out, it's deadly to have them both in the room at the same time. However, for the practicing writer, they are of course both present at all times.

    While I have encountered this issue with my shorter fiction, it didn't bother me much then: with all short forms, the Creator can move in and can grow the whole thing comparatively quickly; or, if you prefer military metaphors: the short form knows the successes of "Blitzkrieg". Of course, that's not the whole story, but in my experience it is easier with short pieces to lay a strong foundation so that when the inner critic arrives on the scene, he can hardly do too much damage. At least this is might early analysis of the problem here.

    For longer forms of writing, the long 'short story' even, or the novella or (worst of all) the novel, I do not have current have an analysis or recipe.

    Hence my question: how do you manage your inner critic during the first stages of writing? Do you deflect the critic? Do you integrate the critic? And how exactly do you do it?

    Once again, all stories count, all experiences lead to Rome!

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    Marcus Speh
    Jan 06, 12:18pm

    I do not want to withhold the voice of a master—though this quote from one of Henry James' letters concerns external criticism, it also reveals the shape and structure of his INNER stronghold:

    «...I know tool perfectly well what I intend, desire and attempt, and am capable of following it absolute absence of perturbation. Never was a genius — if genius there is — more healthy, objective and (I honestly believe) less susceptible of superficial irritations and reactionary impulses. I know what I want — it stares one in the face, as big and round and bright as the full moon; I can't be diverted or deflected by the sense of judgments that are most of the time no judgments at all.»

    James' central proposition I believe is "I know what I want". This points at a solid position of thematic, philosophical certainty which over the period of many years of craftsmanship turned into imperviousness against the destructive impulses of critics. I think successfully dealing with the inner critic always comes first and will help you deal with the Outer critics, too.

  • Frankie Saxx
    Jan 06, 12:59pm

    My inner critic can be a real downer during composition. A constant litany of "Oh god, that's a stupid idea, why would you even write that, way to waste a tree there, Sachs!" The only way to shut it up is to promise myself that if, after I've finished the first draft, I'm unhappy with the work, I can shove it into the "shitty writing" folder on my hard drive and never show it to anyone. Then it usually just makes some sniffy noises about how I'm wasting my time and never going to amount to anything, but whatever, and buggers off to watch some reality TV.

    Then, after I've finished the draft, it comes back and and looks over what I've done and says (in a voice that sounds suspiciously like my mother) "Well, I suppose this is not entirely without merit."

    From there it usually rolls up its sleeves and goes to work Rosie the Riveter style as my internal editor, which is a much more pleasant relationship.

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    Jan 06, 03:51pm

    Not attempting to speak for absent or dead authors ("speak for yourself, strannikov!"): I distinguish "critical composition" from "critical assessment".

    Whatever story is being told, critical assessment has no contribution to make whatsoever until after a draft (more or less complete: art being the deft handling of tentative approximations with specific intent) is complete. Until a work achieves some "finished state" (however tentative), critical assessment has nothing to say. (In your earlier query, Marcus, the question seemed to come down to WHEN the reading audience is consulted, as here, WHEN to begin applying criticism: a significant danger in "online publishing" is exactly the danger of getting the reader involved too early, turning writing into something closer to performance art, as dismal a prospect as confusing journalism with literary writing.) Here, I argue critical assessment has no valid role, has no role to play at all, until AFTER the writer has first begun to think that the work is approximately complete and simply requires editorial tweaks or even substantive alteration, as long as whatever story that began to be conceived is finding its own integrity in the author's capable hands: it's the author's job to give the story what it requires to do its job (the completed story will take critical hits subsequently that the author by then will be in no position to answer for: by that time, he can blame his editor or his publisher!).

    "Critical composition" amounts to the comparatively simple function of the author's ascertaining that his initial draft conforms to whatever vision of the story he deems suitable to the narrative he relates or purports to relate: to the amount or to the character of editing or revision applied during initial composition and/or to any subsequent iteration of a "complete" draft. Critical composition consists at least in part of the story making its demands felt upon the author, we can say.

    Or let me be terse: two of my mottos, born of my years in book publishing (non-fiction): "once a writer, always an editor" and "in life it's always something, in publishing it's always something else".

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    James Lloyd Davis
    Jan 06, 04:18pm

    Never really had an inner critic, only an inner censor. Don't really understand the concept of self-criticism for writers, but that probably relates more to gaps in my education than anything else. I guess my biggest problem when I started writing decades ago, was in learning to ignore external criticism.

    I think I've finally succeeded.

    The writing that I do and the edits that follow are easier to accomplish now that I've learned to stop considering what anyone will think about my writing... and by extension, what anyone will think about me as a person.

    Like many young men, my greatest fear was that I would be misunderstood, which is probably why I wasn't more successful as a writer then. I was much too self-conscious. I think inner criticism, or in my case, censorship, derives from fear concerning what others will think of you. Now that I'm older and could care less about what anyone thinks of me as a person or as a writer, I'm free to go to places, to use methods in my writing that I never could back then.

    The best writers by this measure may be high functioning sociopaths. That explains a lot, really, but I'm sure there are other, better standards to apply to method.

    Some people might call it courage, but I think that's wrong. I call it the quality of not giving a damn. For some, it comes naturally with age.

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    Marcus Speh
    Jan 06, 04:51pm

    My current method to disable the inner critic (or censor, same thing for me) during the initial phase of writing is to do all my plotting and structuring in English but switch to German when I do my trance work, the actual writing. Somehow, crossing the language barrier neutralizes the inner critic rather effectively.

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    Gary Hardaway
    Jan 06, 05:08pm

    I can't confirm it, but I suspect that the writers I most admire learned to use the inner critic as a teammate. James is right about that voice becoming censorious- it filters everything to a point of silence and self-contempt. That's once source of writer's block, certainly.

    Commercially dependent writers must have a coach rather than a critic, exhorting them on to the rewards of meeting broad-based demographic targets, or maybe a chatty little focus group.

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    Gloria Mindock
    Jan 06, 05:43pm

    I don't have an inner critic. In my younger days, yes, but now I am comfortable with what I write and my subject matter. Yes, I want people to like what I write. If they don't, that is ok. I am very comfortable in my own skin. I write what I write. If I still had an inner critic worried about what others think, I would get nothing written. If I have trouble with a piece, I show it to someone I trust and who knows my writing.
    I like what James Lloyd Davis wrote here.
    In summary, I don't care what others think and that is so freeing. I can create what I want. I love my freedom and it helps me to stay fresh and take risks.

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    Barry Basden
    Jan 06, 06:08pm

    The neat thing about writing micro (~500 words or less) is that the first draft gets done in such an emotional rush that the SOB doesn't have time to say 'Hey, wait a minute.'

    Then, wearing my other hat, I can tinker with it--which I often do--for a loooooong time without crushing that initial spark.


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    Mathew Paust
    Jan 06, 07:34pm

    I've always been a limbic-driven, attention deficit disordered mess able to function best, if at all, under deadline stress. My creative mode has developed over the years as an unwitting marriage of my Larry Literate and Leepin Lizard lobes. Larry does the reading and the critical work, always in cautious touch with the sensitive and often prickly Leepin. Ideas. Not sure where they originate, but this is clearly Leepin's domain. The best ones tend to bubble up in the bathtub. It's become almost a ritual. It's where the two lobes duke it out in a frenzied struggle over a notion that must emerge with enuf effervescence to survive the toweling, toiletrying, dressing, march to the office and perhaps even a day or two of distractions before being put in play.

    At this point the duo goes into an autopilot sequence that approximates Barry's emotional rush excluding all but the most vigorous shout from The Judge (superego?) when a serious brain fart threatens to derail the train. My monkey mini-editor perches on my shoulder during the writing process, catching such fouls as clumsy construction, dead words, overpunctuation and like uglinesses as the fingers dance along. Monkey man usually gets two or three more cracks at the piece before it's put out to the world for...whatever. Often within seconds of tapping the "post" button the damned little prick finds inexcusable lapses he should damned well have caught before then. Would be idiotic to spank him, tho, as he's really all that stands between me and the unthinkable hell of knowing some esteemed stranger has seen a flaw in craft that could trigger unkind guffaws, a flurry of back-channel messaging and an unspoken return to the writers' equivalent of short pants and propeller beanies.

    [Jayzuz, I must pause for a second or two until this wave of nausea passes...]

    Just two days ago I received my first brutal "review", ostensibly from a stranger, altho I try to find comfort in the possibility it was written by someone who thinks he knows me and who hates my guts. Sending a book out there, especially if self-published with only a mini-editor monkey clearing it to go, is like sending your kid into a Hunger Games contest. Nothing more you can do as you watch it struggle to survive. This "worst novel I ever read" slam on Amazon provoked the emotional and cerebral quick flash run-thru of the various stages of grief (denial, anger, etc.) chattering over the deep dark doubt that maybe the SOB is right, that the book in fact stinks.

    We (Leepin, Larry and Monkey) posted a comment on the "review" today, which made us feel a tad better, and also played the reverse marketing game of hawking the book on Facebook and Twitter as "the worst novel ever written". I also unfriended the Facebook "friend" I'm pretty sure took the cheap shot. It was overdue.

    Can we ever get it perfect? No. Can we ever feel as if we've gotten it perfect, or is there always some other affirmation that's just out of reach? Yes. So what do we do to stay sane? Write for ourselves, as David and others have advised above. But a little interested, friendly feedback is always, always welcome.

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    Marcus Speh
    Jan 06, 08:12pm

    One of the pearls of wisdom that I routinely pass on to my coaching clients is the suggestion to create a distinct, palpable image, almost like a painting or sculpture, that incorporates as many elements of the solution to their problem. Mathew Paust's "Leepin, Larry and Monkey" characters are a good (written) example. In my experience, crafting such an image can go a long way towards better managing the problem and getting a handle on the future.

    Interesting also in apparent contrast to an earlier discussion — — how suddenly everyone says "write for yourself"...

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    Mathew Paust
    Jan 06, 09:17pm

    Marcus, I just posted a comment in the other discussion, expanding on what I said here. I write for myself but with an eye on a wider audience. Not necessarily a critical audience but the kind I find myself in when I read for pleasure.

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    John Riley
    Jan 07, 01:03am

    In practice my inner critic turns me into a sentence duster. I find that if I can ignore the previous sentences, particularly the last one, my inner critic doesn't go away but I've cut off his legs for a moment. They do grow back mighty fast though so it's always a challenge.

  • Frankie Saxx
    Jan 07, 03:29am


    Write for yourself, edit for someone else, maybe?

    I think you must always create for yourself, even if you also write for dreams of love, fame, or money. I find, for myself, to think of anyone other than myself when I am still creating is stultifying.

    I will maybe continue this train of thought in the other discussion, because maybe it goes better there. Also, I hear there are sausages.

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    Gloria Garfunkel
    Jan 07, 04:08am

    My creative process involves not so much an inner critic as an inner Black Hole where random topics, ideas, objects come into view in what feels like mostly a void. And then out of the void, eventually, something appears and I run with it for a little while and then I'm back alone in the hole again. At that point, I shift to another piece in maybe another hole and have some luck fishing there. I never work on just one piece at a time. I never think anything I write is very good but I don't care because I love to write so much and say what I think.

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    Barry Friesen
    Jan 07, 03:11pm

    inner critic

    To get at the control levers to manage the Inner Critic during creative work, it's most convenient (though not quite accurate) to think of writing as a blended Left Brain – Right Brain activity. To fully realize a piece of writing, we need both the wildness and freedom of swimming deep in Right Brain's imagination, and the rational Left Brain benefit of clear evaluation of structure, plot and coherence. These two modes are both different and opposed.

    The Inner Critic (judge, editor) is pure Left Brain mode. We can't do good creative work in Left Brain mode any more than we can do good work completing tax forms in Right Brain imaginative mode. The practical problem is what to do when the Inner Critic takes executive control over consciousness that we've set in creative Right Brain mode. The psychological problem is that creative work is fundamentally performance, and we can't both perform and evaluate performance at the same time. For a lot of writers, becoming self-conscious about the value of the writing performance stops the performance (just like it can do in lovemaking!).

    Writers with an "Uninvited Inner Critic Problem" (most writers) know that fighting back against the arrival of the Inner Critic just fuels the Inner Critic. Hence the strategy of writing fast and dirty, writing short, writing in bursts, to "get away" with being free before the judgment hammer notices, and shuts everything down. Hence also the passive stance towards the Inner Critic, as if it has the power to arrive at whim and shut down the creative part of the work session, and we are powerless to do anything about it.

    For writers with an out-of-control Inner Critic, there are often strong links with being externally-referenced as well, vs. internally-reference. For such writers, external comments or critiques about the creative work are often taken very personally, as they trigger the Inner Critic and evoke the "my stuff is really crap" fear. In turn, the same dynamic can link to the larger self-esteem plane, where the writer who cannot assert a strong belief in one's own talent and skill constantly looks outward, not for feedback and the very useful critical eye, but for continual reassurance and validation. Being externally-referenced about one's writing means discussion about the quality of the work is located by the writer in personal insecurities about writing, not the writing itself. That's why most writing sites restrict feedback to brief, polite, positive comments---nobody wants to awaken anyone else's Inner Critic.

    It's easier to regard the Inner Critic as a kind of valued Survival Mechanism, there to serve. After all, its real mandate is about balance and protection—it's there to curb the wild, ridiculous impulse, calm down the chaos of creativity, make order out of disorder, restore common sense to the Moment. Unfortunately, the Inner Critic believes solely in rationality, and tends to regard the fires of creativity as dangers it must shut down and extinguish immediately. From the Inner Critic's point-of-view, creativity is a threat to survival. Ha.

    The power over managing the Inner Critic lies in a secret about its own nature, of which the Inner Critic itself is unaware. This is the same power needed to manage obsolete Survival Mechnisms in general—although the Inner Critic is not an obsolete Survival Mechanism: it's just that its timing can ruin creative work.

    An obsolete Survival Mechanism is just a defensive habit we developed to protect us long ago, when it was absolutely necessary. "Don't trust anyone." "People will take advantage every time." "Love isn't possible." We develop these when we needed them most, and they were true for their time. They were emergency maneuvers to protect us from being engulfed by awful fires of the time. Later, though, there are no fires, hopefully, and these obsolete Survival Mechanisms still get triggered to take Executive Control—until we dismantle them.

    We don't need to dismantle the Inner Critic—we need what it can offer about the linear components of our work. We merely need the Inner Critic to hang back during the creative phase, and come when invited, not unbidden.

    The secret that obsolete Survival Mechanisms don't know is that, officially, they serve to protect us; that's their intent—but once they're ingrained, they arrive to protect their own survival, too. They see themselves as absolutely vital to us, which is why when we try to push them offstage, they come back twice as hard.

    So here's the part that sounds insane—or ridiculous, absurd, sociopathic. If we step back and just LOOK at "who" the Inner Critic is, it is cautious, careful, evaluative, risk-averse, perfectionist, conservative, and VERY much invested in the status quo. With a character like that in the process, what happens to it when we choose to walk the total-risk high-wire act of creating entirely freely imagined storyworld in the fires of imagination?

    Well, Inner Critic freaks out.

    It thinks we're trying to kill it, or at least fire it from its job. So it rushes in and takes over and immediately supplies a hundred really excellent reasons to "prove" that what we're doing is stupid and ugly and worthless and dangerous—the critic goes beserk!

    It takes Executive Control of the Moment because that is ITS way of surviving the "attack" of creativity. But it doesn't really WANT to take over.

    It just wants a turn.

    Here's the strategy: When the Inner Critic arrives, pause the creative process and move attention solely onto Inner Critic, "as if" it is a "who" that you can address. ASK IT directly if it would be willing to leave for awhile during the creative process, and come back later. PROMISE it that when it comes back, you will listen to every single criticism it has about the creative work, until it's judged every little thing it wants to judge. Then ASK IT how long it's willing to stay away. LISTEN to what Inner Critic has to say in response.

    The strategy is to make a bargain with the Inner Critic directly, promising to give it a full hearing in exchange for unimpaired creative time.

    Then write. When the time is up, hear the Inner Critic out. (If you miss this step, it will never trust you again to make this bargain.) Then set up another creative phase.

    A reported bonus here is that when treated respectfully like this (vs. being treated as the enemy of creativity), what the Inner Critic later offers is usually extremely valuable linear feedback about structure and standards and other linear, useful things. That is, the Inner Critic gets to its real job, offering rather rational and objective and constructive feedback. When it's fighting for its survival, it has to pull out all the stops and dump all over the work and the writer—anything to get the attention and take over. When it is included as part of the overall creative process, its feedback is constructive and does the job of enabling the writer to see things about the work that can't be fully seen in the intense heat of creation. Furthermore, there's the bonus of readily being able to do longer works, in a sequence of shifting modes between the creative and the Inner Critic.

    The caveat here is that we writers are awfully sensitive beings, and some of us have a fair-sized streak of self-loathing. Self-loathing is a Beast that needs to be fed regularly, and writing is a perfect vehicle to beat ourselves up about, over and over and over again. The Inner Critic is readily available to be part of the team, if writing is the purpose. But if the real purpose of writing is to obtain regular proofs of worthlessness, the Inner Critic will happily serve in that way instead.

    Anyway, that's one strategy for consciously making the Inner Critic an ally in the writing process. Love the diverse descriptions here of different strategies people use, and the news of writers untroubled by Inner Critics OR Outer Critics!

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    RW Spryszak
    Jan 07, 04:33pm

    I am the inner critic, and never really *finally* like anything I've ever done. Even when I'm "finished" with something I keep coming up with ways to make it better, to the point where the editor has to say E-NUFF.

    I for sure have an inner critic. But it's me at all times. So I guess the answer is I include all that in the continual process. As it were.

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    Mathew Paust
    Jan 07, 04:59pm

    Me, too, Bob. I pick and pick and pick and pick... Years before we had cellphones I would stop at pay phones on the way home after filing a story for the morning editions. I'd remember something I wasn't sure I'd included or wonder if I'd said it one way or another or left out this or that word or... I used up all my spare change calling the copy desk mile by tormented mile. Those editors shuddered when reporters were issued cellphones. They hated to see me leave the newsroom for home after filing a late story. I still have that phone. Still use it, occasionally. It's held together with duct tape.

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    John Riley
    Jan 07, 05:16pm

    @Bob. One of my favorite stories is how Maxwell Perkins sent someone to pick up the manuscript for "Look, Homeward Angel" from Thomas Wolfe. They had instructions to not leave without it because Wolfe had refused to give it up. So you're in great company.

    The story is also a bitter sweet reminder of the days when book editors actually edited.

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    Marcus Speh
    Jan 07, 06:02pm

    Barry, really enjoyed your detailed, explicit approach wrapped in a story and a half. If you're right, and I think you are, that «from the Inner Critic's point-of-view, creativity is a threat to survival," then your «strategy of consciously making the Inner Critic an ally in the writing process» sounds just like the right ticket. This has really struck a very deep chord with me and I think I'm going to try your recipe. Thanks!

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    Mathew Paust
    Jan 07, 06:31pm

    Barry/Marcus, I know some "outer critics" who believe creativity is a threat to survival, too.

    John, not sure Wolfe ever stopped writing until his heart stopped. Supposedly Perkins would send his manuscripts back with suggestions for massive cuttings, only to receive them again twice as long as before. Perkins had to chop up one long seemingly endless manuscript into the pieces that would become separate novels. Wolfe's fingers are probly wriggling with a ghost pencil in his coffin at this very moment. And Perkins is slashing with a blue pencil in his.

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