When we talk about our inner critic, do we understand where it comes from? Or do we assume that it comes with being born into the world? So many writers and artists talk about their inner critic, which I find helpful in normalizing that inner, irritating voice of doubt. Dani Shapiro, novelist and memoirist, talks about it in Still Writing, where she lists the voices that come to her—is she boring, can anyone understand her, does she make sense?
Some of my inner critic voices: “How dare you write about that.” “You should be ashamed to put that on the page.” “Everyone will think you’re crazy if you write about that.” “It’s terrible that you did those things, and now you’re going to write about them so someone will read it? What’s wrong with you?”
My inner critic was so bad for a while that I couldn’t even write in my journal. Each word and each sentence seemed wrong, I had no right to write, it was a useless activity, what was the point? But I’d been to enough book readings where I listened to each author talk openly about their inner critic and all the work it took for them to get their books done despite that voice. Each author held a book and read to us, a published book they wrote in spite of all the obstacles. That’s when I realized that if you just keep writing, eventually the mountain of inner critic boulders that seem to pile up in front of you will get smaller as you climb. I learned that even if you are a famous author, you have to wrestle with these forces. That this is what happens to all of us, not just beginners, and not just me.
Sometimes the inner critic is more of a feeling than an actual voice. It weighs us down, makes us detour around the tough stuff. We pull back to avoid uncomfortable feelings, like when we need to offer details about a situation where we feel ashamed or guilty, when we need to encounter some of the darker passages of our lives, to go into the labyrinth again where we fear getting lost.
When we can define and see the inner critic clearly enough to write down what it says, it’s conscious enough to work with, but what if we just don’t feel like writing, what if we don’t exactly hear a voice—we just don’t write. We don’t get to it, we have to clean the house, wash the dog, vacuum the drapes and weed the garden. We need to have coffee with our friends, though we tuck our iPad into our purse “just in case there’s time to write.” Which there never is because the groceries need to be bought and cookies made. On and on it goes. There are all tasks in life, along with car washing and repair and vet visits, but really—there IS time to write in there somewhere too—if you’re not harboring an unconscious level of the inner critic’s brakes on your creativity.
As a therapist, I have worked with people for many years to help them release the psychological bonds that keep them from living the life they’d rather live, and help them uncover the hidden regions that are beneath consciousness that block them from their creativity, whether it’s in the arts or in life itself. I find that writers can be more astute than most in hearing the inner critic’s voice, mostly out of sheer practice of fighting it off, but even they can have these hidden areas that keep them silent.
I think that sometimes hidden shame and guilt about what we want to write can fuel the inner critic’s power. It’s like an iceberg, we don’t even know it’s there or how large a space it takes underneath, where we can’t see it. When I coach my students, I look for clues to the hidden elements that signal they’re getting in their own way, making themselves small. Sometimes it’s clear in the story—for instance if they are writing about abusive parents, or if they had a harsh English teacher, or had been taught they had to be perfect. Those are ideal situations where shame can grow, and the inner critic develops from that—but of course many people have an inner critic who aren’t abused. There seems to be a continuum, from a “mild’ to “mean” inner critic.
What to do? First, don’t ignore those negative voices—they can slow us down and get in the way of our writing. The voices often do not just “go away.”
Write down what the voices say and talk back to them! If the voice says you don’t have a good memory, counter with, “These are my memories and I as I write, perhaps I will remember more.” Or if it says, “You can’t write,” answer back, “I write well enough for this first draft, and I will get better the more I write, so I should get started now.”
If the voices are more of “what will people think,” you need to create a safe bubble by committing to write only for your writing group or writing buddy or coach. After all, no one will know what you’re writing about the family or your secrets unless you tell them or show them.
I suggest that writing needs to be protected like a new plant in your garden. Protect it until you have most of a manuscript, until you know what you have to say, when you see it on the page. Most people freak out too early in the process about what people will think someday, when they have written nothing yet.
Step by step your book evolves, chapter by chapter, sentence by sentence. Allow and invite your writing to show up, and your inner critic will become softer and perhaps less belligerent. You can win over your inner critic by writing!
1. What does your inner critic say to you, and when?
2. Do you talk back to it? If not start today!
3. Is your inner critic really the “voice” of your family?
4. What do you need to do to feel safe to write your memoir?