Most of us who aspire to write know too well that imp living in our heads, our Inner Critic, and how it conspires with other imps to shut down our efforts as not being ‘worthy’. Emma picks it up, turns it over, dissects it, puts it back together again, and returns it to us as Helpful Imp instead. Have a read!
I know so many aspiring writers who would say that their problem is not getting going: good ideas come along often, and for a while they find it easy and exciting to devote lots of their available time to the project. But “for a while” is the problem: their past is littered with brave beginnings that petered out, half-filled notebooks, unfinished drafts, and finished first drafts that they never revised “for their reader”. So I thought I’d pause the Write Your First Novel course, for a moment – I promise I’ll get back to it – and have a quick think about this.
The “Divine Spark” – or not
The first problem is the way our culture conceives of creative practice, from interviews and events to the self-help, feel-good rhetoric and movies sloshing around in public space. It’s so often a version of the “divine spark” stuff: the Romantics’ idea that you are visited by passion which demands to be fulfilled. To be fair, that is almost certainly what drove you to start writing, but the consequence is that when the passion fades, we assume it’s a message that this is the wrong project, or we are the wrong writer for it.
So it may simply be that you need to internalise what all professional authors know: that some days writing is boring, some days it’s difficult, some days it’s baffling, some days you do it incredibly badly and slowly and stupidly, some days you cut far more than you add, some days you are seized with terror or fury at your own inadequacy to the task – and almost all days you’d be earning more working in a supermarket. When Hilary Mantel was asked if with all her success and experience and prizes, she felt more confident starting a new project, she said no: that with every book you are right back at the foot of the mountain with absolutely no confidence that you will be able to climb it. That is just business as usual, so things being difficult is not a sign that you should give up.
If the reason you tend to abandon projects is that another, more promising one comes along then, like much adultery, it’s very likely that it’s chiefly about the problems back home with your original relationship. I blogged about the allure of The Other Novel a while back, so I won’t go on here.
The Thirty-Thousand Doldrums
This is a more practical form of running out of steam, which seems to be incredibly common in writers of all kinds. I think that many of us, starting on a project, have the story-fuel – the larder full of imagined, remembered and researched material – to last for 25-30,000 words of a story: the first third, say. After that you have to refuel, and I’ve blogged more about this, too.
The Inner Critic
But if the reason you give up is those voices whispering that this project’s no good, you’ll never do it, it’s a waste of your time, you’re stupid to persevere, it’ll never be published, then we’re on slightly different territory. These are Anne Lamott’s Chattering White Mice: the voices of what Jay Earley calls your Inner Critic. I like that link because it makes clear that these voices are trying to help you and keep you safe . They are just very out-of-date about what you need.
The thing is, writing makes you vulnerable. You may not have the least intention of baring your soul, but here you are, working hard, for a long time, at something difficult, with the intention of sending it out to discover if anyone likes it. You are risking exposure, disappointment, rejection, disapproval, scorn, and humiliation – and the more you’ve put into the project, the worse those will feel. So to keep you safe, the Inner Critic gets in first, by saying whatever comes to hand which will get you to give up. If “You’re bad at writing and you’ll never be any good” doesn’t work, it says all the other things it can think of that will get you to come back to safety.
Much out there on Inner Critics is quite shouty-fighty: shut them down, beat them, ignore them. It’s all very exhausting. The rather amazing Internal Family Systems paradigm, which Earley is working with, is far more gentle. It begins by acknowledging that the Inner Critic is trying to protect you from all these horrible things: its intentions are good, it wants to help. But what if, instead, it knew that you could look after yourself? What if you could show it that they can trust you to cope, to be OK in the end? Then they could stand down, and finally have a rest – and wouldn’t that be nice!
A potentially gifted writer and I were talking about all this, yesterday, because they’d just felt the energy of several weeks’ blast at a new project suddenly sucked out by those inner voices. And I had a revelation.
The Stakes are Getting Higher
We all know from plotting that our stake in a game is made up of two things: what we stand to gain if we win, and how we stand to suffer if we lose. When what you might gain gets bigger and richer then the potential suffering of losing gets bigger, and therefore scarier.
So if the Anti-Writing Demon’s job is to protect you from the dangers of writing, then when it smells danger it will start to murmur, and as the stakes rise, the murmurs get louder and more insistent. There’s “danger” here, they believe: this project is turning into a Good Thing, you are more and more committed to it, you will finish it, you will it send out, people with power over it and your writing life will read it – and who knows what agonies will follow?
As my friend the thriller-writer R N Morris says, “The longer you go on, the more you have invested in it, so the more you stand to lose. Walk away from it early on and you haven’t lost so much.” Your Inner Critic and the Anti-Writing Demon therefore team up and work hard to make sure you do walk away.
But what they don’t realise is that by this very token, they’re showing you that this is a project you shouldn’t walk away from: that it has legs, mileage, potential, excitement, value – if you only keep going.
Inside and Outside the Writer’s Bubble
In the same conversation children’s writer Sarah J Dodd said: “I have realised that my inner critic often prevents me finishing a first draft or going on to do a second. BUT if I wait long enough (3 years in the case of current WIP), I find it has gone away, replaced with Inner Cheerleader who also happens to be sensibly critical but also wildly enthusiastic.”
I think this is fascinating, because we usually think of drawer-time giving us distance to be less wildly enthusiastic, less “in the bubble”, and more able to stand outside the story and see objectively how it’s (not) working. Inside the bubble, to keep what Rose Tremain calls the “anarchic, gift-conjuring, unknowing part of the writer’s mind” working freely, we have to shut of the “knowing” part, the premature “editor”, the judging-too-soon part of our minds.
But Sarah’s experience suggests that Inner Critic voices – which sound so like our teachers, twitterers, workshop mates and industry gurus – are not real, objective voices carried into the bubble, but produced inside it by our own subjective selves. Maybe it’s our more “knowing”, “editing”, “judging” parts which would know the Inner Critic’s judgement for the untrue or unhelpful thing it is – except that being in the bubble requires us to shut out those useful, knowing parts.
So what does this all mean?
- The fact that your Inner Critic is chattering is not a sign that you and/or your writing are pointless.
- The core creative process may, by definition, make it difficult to police inner, critical voices, and discern whether what they’re saying is good sense, or simply a protective spasm designed to stop all movement.
- It’s tiring and unhelpful to keep having to overcome or shout down your Inner Critic, and it’s certainly unhelpful to scorn yourself (i.e. let your Inner Critic scorn you) for failing to cope with it. It’s actually doing its best to protect you, as with a protective muscle spasm. Acknowledging its efforts and good intentions, while reassuring it that it can trust you to cope if anything bad happens, may be enough to get it to calm down.
- The shoutier your Inner Critic becomes, the stronger the sign that this project is not only not pointless, it’s all beginning to get very pointful: that it has legs, that it’s substantial, it has potential, the work is worth it: that it’s better, not worse, than you’ve done before.
So maybe you’d better get on with it.