Working with the Inner Critic

Sometime during the middle of my MFA program, I stopped being able to write.. Every time I sat down to compose something, I could no longer hear my creative voice, but instead a voice that constantly picked at my writing.  The voice told me my work wasn’t good enough, and that what I had to say wasn’t worth saying.  It took a few months for me to realize what had happened: I was hearing all the critical voices that I’d been listening to in workshops for the past two years–voices that said my writing was clichéd, or that my stories were mere fragments, or that my writing wasn’t edgy or urgent or hip enough…   These voices had amplified my already-overdeveloped inner critic, making her way too loud….

So I started working to silence that inner critic.  In my living room, I wrote with a group of women colleagues who were feeling likewise discouraged by our MFA program.  We wrote longhand so that we wouldn’t be tempted to delete.  We shared our work aloud and commented supportively on each other’s pieces.  (This was actually the beginning of Writers in Progress).  During this time, I let myself write things that I wanted to write.  I didn’t try to revise what I was working on into anything else. I simply wrote what I wanted to write, every single day, for thirty or forty minutes at a time. Slowly, I started to hear my own voice again. The inner critic was silenced. Or at least muzzled and made to sit whenever she tried to attack..

But it turns out, there is a place for that inner critic. After all, some of the metaphors we write are forced or unoriginal, sometimes we do fall back on cliche’.  Ignoring the real weaknesses in our own writing isn’t going to help us become stronger writers.

Now I’ve learned to make room for the inner critic, but only during certain times and in certain places. I go to a different coffee shop to edit a story, or I set aside a weekend to revise a chapter I’ve been working on. I try hard (though I don’t always succeed) to keep the editing process separate from the creative process, to give my inner critic space, but not enough space to smother the work.

One of my graduate school professors says he writes at one desk and edits at another.  We may not all have enough desk space to create such a clear divide, but the separation seems important to me. Whether it’s a specific location or a predetermined time, giving your inner critic defined room to breathe will hopefully prevent her from taking over entirely.  

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