The Critic In Your Head and Other Scary Monsters
There are probably writers out there who never have to deal with the fear of
writing. I hate them and I hope they all have boils and smelly breath and never get
to taste the flavor of salty caramel ice cream. Honestly, I do not think I have ever
met a writer who has not dealt with fear, but it's possible that knowing my likely
reaction, they have simply chosen not to inform me of this fact, so as to avoid my
condemning glare. The writers I know are paralyzed by fear sometimes, but also
have to deal with it as a matter of course.
New York Times best selling authors who are sure that the last book was their best
one, that their career is over now. Multi-million dollar movie book deal authors
who have given up writing because it is too painful to deal with the criticism that
comes along with success. And writers who win multiple awards for their
beautifully poetic prose and delicate depictions of character and setting who don't
know if it's worth it to go through the painful process of writing another book that
will never have commercial success. And of course, beginners who have sent out a
manuscript or two, had maybe a few dozen rejections, and want some kind of
guarantee that if they keep at it, they will eventually be published and that all their
hard work will be worth it.
There are no guarantees in writing. No one knows if any particular manuscript will
sell. No one knows what the next big hit will be. If editors knew that, they would
only buy best sellers. Well, that's not actually true. Editors buy books they love
sometimes even if they aren't going to be best sellers. But the big media
conglomerates that own publishing houses, if they knew that editors could figure
out which books were going to be best sellers, were certainly put pressure on
editors to buy only those books. But after having been in this business for a few
years and after having watched people vault to success or sometimes just slowly
become successful, I will tell you I don't think anyone has an easy time with the
problem of the fear of writing.
I am not someone who believes that writers are "special" people, delicate souls
who just experience the world differently than everyone else. I don't think that
writers have access to a creativity that the rest of the world doesn't have. I don't
for a minute believe that writers are more valuable human beings than people who
work at a fast food restaurant, at the local car wash, or who pick vegetables in the
hot sun. Or CEOs of major corporations, for that matter. Lots of other people have
to deal with fear. Policemen and soldiers and firemen live with fear of death. Wall
Street businessmen deal with fear of bankruptcy and ruin. I suppose politicians
deal with the fear of ruining health care, possibly causing nuclear war, or just
having all their mistakes thrown out on the front page. Still, I do think that writers
have to deal with a special kind of fear.
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When you become a writer, you are signing up for a job that is more painful than
other jobs to your psyche. Even though everyone says that you have to separate
yourself from your book and not take rejections personally, the truth is that
everyone takes rejections personally, at least a little and at least when they first hit.
Your book isn't you, but it sure feels a lot like you. You spill your most intimate
thoughts on the page and then you sell those thoughts. There is a kind of arrogance
in the idea that people will pay to read your fantasies, but the flip side to that is that
when people tell you that your fantasies are trash, that your writing is crap, that
your characters are juvenile and that your plot has giant holes in it - it cuts to the
heart. Of course, we try not to dwell on such things, but they are real. And the less
personal your writing is, I daresay the less interesting it is.
When I wrote as a kid, I had almost none of this fear. I had all these grand dreams
of selling novels. For years in junior high and high school, I wrote a series of New
Year's resolutions and top of the list was always getting a book published. Not a
specific book, mind you, because I didn't often have a manuscript. Some years
ended without me writing a word, thus making it impossible for my dream to come
true. Other years I wrote something and sent it out, and got a form rejection or two.
The fear of writing is something, I am convinced, that is learned. It grows with
each rejection, and the more time you spend at school acting as a critic of literature
(which is what my degrees are in), the more conscious you are that every word you
write will someday be analyzed and deemed good or bad by whole roomfuls of
students and academics who write papers on single sentences in a manuscript.
When I tried to write again after graduate school, it was a struggle. I wanted to
write something that was literary and deep. I focused more on the words than I did
on the story, which inevitably made both worse. But I didn't know how to fix the
problem. I wrote a few words a day, less than a page. It was only when I quit my
job as a college professor and stopped reading academic papers about other
authors' writing that I was able to put aside my own judgments of my writing and
work on getting a story down. Once the story is written, I do pay careful attention
to every word. I am meticulous with every draft of a manuscript. I want every word
to matter. I am a generally clean writer in terms of conveying my meaning
properly. But a lot of the revision of a manuscript ends up being scene changes.
And until that is done, the more attention you pay to the beauty of your own words,
the more impossible it can be to write something that will actually benefit from that
kind of attention.
As a published author, I spent many years reading every criticism, every Amazon
review, every hint of a mention of me and my novels that I could find. I figured
that if I had the right attitude, if I went into a review understanding that it wasn't
about me, that I could learn something from each critic, then I would be fine. I had
heard authors tell me that they didn't read reviews and I thought they were silly
and juvenile. I thought they were a little mentally unbalanced, frankly. I didn't say
this out loud, mind you. I am socially challenged, but I am not that stupid. At least,
And then, I started to notice that when I was working on a new novel, there were
these voices in my head. They were the voices of critics. I didn't intend to
memorize the stupid Amazon one-star reviews of my book. I didn't pore over
them. I read them once, acted like a mature adult, and put them aside. But the thing
is, that kind of a review sears into your memory. You can't forget it even if you try.
At least, I can't. Maybe you're better at it than I am. Or maybe you are just fooling
The problem with hearing a critic's voice in your head while you are writing is that
it makes it impossible to write a new book. Most authors learn that whatever they
thought they knew about writing from an early book, they feel they have to learn
all over again for the next one. The openness to learning all over again is part of
what makes each new book a wonderful and different experience. If you ever read
a book by an author that feels like a retread of the last book, you may wonder what
I do - did the author spend too much time reading reviews of that old book?
The second problem with the voice of critics in your head is that the effort of
silencing them can sometimes be so intense that the desire to write disappears. It
becomes a chore rather than something to look forward to. I suppose this is
inevitable in any hobby-turned-career, that some of the pleasure is gone as skills
increase and work is done to specifications, on deadline, and because of money.
But in order for the work to remain pleasurable to read, I think there also needs to
be some play in it, some sense of creative satisfaction to the author.
So I stopped reading reviews, and the barrier when I woke up in the morning began
to decrease. Then I learned some other techniques for silencing the critical voices
in my head.
Here are a few things that have worked for me. I don't know if they will work for
1. Start with a pre-writing exercise. This is often my blog, which I write first in the
day so that I can convince myself that yes, I can write. Writing, after all, is just
putting words together to communicate clearly your thoughts to another. But I
don't have any anxiety about my blog. If you do, that isn't going to be what you
should pre-write with. It can be a journal, a list, even something like an exercise
log where you write how you feel for the day. Sometimes I have an open document
I call "log" where I start describing the scene I want to work on that day, or write a
few sentences about what I love in a novel and what I think needs work.
2. Password block my computer and make sure it is in a part of the house where
no one can ever have access to my words. This isn't about privacy or about
keeping secrets from my family. Virginia Woolfe writes about how important it is
to have a room of your own for writing. For me that is true, but not because I need
quiet to write. I need a room of my own so that I can protect my fragile writing
from the eyes of those who might see its flaws. Other eyes looking at a project
before I am ready to share, even if they say nothing, even if they don't even read it,
can still increase my anxiety about a project past the point where it is pleasant to
work on it.
3. A writing group or a friend who know that their job in a first draft is not to
criticize, but to offer encouragement. My children are sometimes useful this way,
although I don't ask them to read things before I am ready for at least a little
commentary. Sometimes I will ask someone to read an early draft and I will say up
front that I only want positive feedback. This doesn't mean that I want them to lie,
but only to say things that I should keep. If they begin to tell me the problems, I
will want to simply throw the manuscript away and never work on it again because
it is too much. If they tell me what is working, then my assumption is that I can
keep those parts, and only throw everything else away.
4. Lying to myself. Even if I am on deadline for a project, I sometimes tell myself
a series of little lies. Like, I'm only playing with this idea. If I don't like it, I can
show my editor something else instead. If it doesn't work out, then they will have
to push the deadline out. I lie to myself and say that it doesn't matter, that I don't
have to be a writer, that I can get another job. I can be a secretary, I type 100 words
a minute. Or I can teach German at a local college. Or become a personal trainer.
Or sell handmade projects at craft fairs. I have loads of skills. Failing at writing
won't be the end of the world. Or I lie to myself and say that I'm only going to
read through what I wrote the day before, not change anything. Just think about it.
And I don't have to write anything else today if I don't feel moved to. Or I will tell
myself that if I write one page today, then I can be done.
5. Bribery. It works on my kids, and it works on me. There is no reason that you
shouldn't bribe yourself. I have chocolate in my office, and I dole it out to myself.
If I write a full chapter, then I get a mini candy bar. I know, chocolate isn't good
for you. If you have other treats that work, then by all means use them. I work out
pretty hard, so I can spare a few extra calories on treats. Find something that really
makes you want to sit down and work. For me, it isn't always food. It can be a
movie. I slip one into my computer and watch 10 minutes. Then I tell myself that if
I write another page, I get to watch ten more minutes. Once when I was really
interested in a movie, I ended up writing twenty pages in one day. I also use the
internet as a bribe. If I write a page, I allow myself to go to one web site and read
whatever I want there before I have to go back and write another page.
6. Being kind to myself. When I go in and teach my fairy tale writing workshop
for kids, I make them a promise that when I see their first drafts, I will not correct
all their little mistakes. I think this is an important agreement to make with
yourself. I'm not saying you don't correct your grammar. Or typos. Those are little
things. But treat yourself kindly. If you make a mistake, don't tell yourself that you
are a bad writer. If you see a problem in a novel, don't tell yourself that it's time to
throw the novel out. Imagine a kind editor in your head, if you don't actually have
one yet. Think what that editor would say to encourage you to keep going, and then
say it to yourself. Sometimes it helps to actually say it out loud. Or to write it down
and put it someplace where you will see it frequently. I'm not saying that you just
keep writing when you know that something is wrong. Go back and fix it. But
accept that what you are doing is an incredible, difficult thing. Accept that this is
part of your process, and that you will get better at it in time.
Writing is not a physically strenuous job. I know that. I am lucky to be a writer
who gets paid. I am lucky to have a husband with a regular job that pays the rent
and the health insurance. But there are things that are uniquely difficult about being
a writer, and my emotional well-being sometimes takes a hit simply because I care
so much about my books and my words, and because I put so much of myself into
them. I will admit, I have a couple of projects that are so close to my heart that I
simply have not yet been able to deal with criticism on them. They are waiting for
the day I will be ready. Maybe that day will never come, but for now, those
manuscripts are still protected by the need to keep myself sane.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison