Director, Producer, Artist

Thoughts on Writing and Dealing with the Inner Critic

Posted on: March 11, 2014

So many people have shown an interest in what I shared at my keynote speech in Kansas City that I thought I would share a boiled down version of it.  We did video record it, so one of these days that will be up somewhere, but in the meantime, here are the points I thought were important for writers (and all creatives: this means you) to hear.

1) Facing the fear and doing it anyway:

Desire is what drives us to write. Desire to create, desire to be heard and understood, desire to understand ourselves.  Sometimes it is a desire to be applauded by others.  What immediately follows is fear: fear of rejection; fear of failure; or fear of success.  It is important to understand that everyone feels fear.  What one must nurture and develop is courage.  Courage is like a muscle: weak at first, but stronger the more you exercise it.

2) The art of listening:

Once you have geared up your courage, I find that it is important to practice listening to your inner voice, the voice that gives you good ideas.  This voice that is usually pretty quiet but the more you practice listening, the louder the voice will get.  There are many ways to get that voice louder.  What is key is that you spend time alone doing something that takes some kind of focus.  Cooking, sewing, gardening, driving, journaling… all occupy the logical mind and allow your subconscious to offer up the idea.  What matters is that you don’t discount or judge yourself or the idea.  Just jot it down.  Say “thank you” to the voice.  You are practicing getting in touch with what many people call “flow.”  Then when you begin to write, that same voice will be present, offering up quiet little gems, suggestions, and ideas.

3) Developing a relationship with your creative self:

What word do you say most often to yourself, “Yes” or “No”?  Positivity is a practice.  Our creative self is a child, and that child needs to be listened to, fed, nurtured, and allowed to play.  Most importantly, it needs to be allowed to make mistakes.  If we are always in “discipline” mode, striving for perfection in all things, it is no surprise that when you sit down to write you are in agony.  Being kind to oneself also takes practice, but it is key for getting the kind of creative work out of yourself that you know you are capable of.  Everyone, repeat, everyone is creative in his or her own unique way.  It is one of the great gifts of being alive.  Only you, however, can give yourself permission to let that creativity out.  Being kind to your Self and letting your Self gently play is a big part of achieving that permission.

4) Risk and Authenticity:

The willingness to risk is what separates those who want to write from those who do write.  You’ve got to simply jump onto the page.  There is no other way to go about it.  The more you “think” about it, the less likely you are to do it.  Writers write.  Actors act.  Painters paint.  It is a physical practice that only develops with attention.  There is no question that very few writers are geniuses from the get go, so give yourself a break.  If you have shown up at the page today, you deserve a gold star.

As for authenticity, do you want to be successful posing as someone else, or would you prefer to be successful on your own merit?  It doesn’t really feel that good when you cheat on a test in order to pass, so why would it feel good to follow a form that someone has imposed upon you as a writer?  Structure and technique can helpful, but any teacher worth their salt will tell you that once you know the rules you are free to go ahead and break them.  Some people need to go right to breaking them and that is okay too, as long as you are trying to strive for truth and authenticity in your work you are bound to have some success at connecting to your reader.  And connecting to your reader is the whole point.

5) Preparing for “kickback” from your inner critic and how to handle it:

There are many names for the voice that comes up within once you have taken that giant leap out of your fear and onto the page.  The “inner critic,” “my personal demons,” and “Guardian asshole,” (my personal favorite) are some of them.  That voice tends to be especially loud right when you are about to let your work be heard or seen.  The fact of the matter is, that voice comes from somewhere in your life, whether from a tough teacher, or an impatient parent, or even a well-meaning colleague.  Their words grabbed a hold and stuck.  Now they belong to you.  What a special gift.  They can stop you from writing, from re-writing, and definitely from putting your work out there.

Knowing that those voices will come is key to moving past them.  There is no writer I have ever heard of or known that didn’t struggle with self-criticism or perfectionism.  We’ve all heard of writers who have tried to drink it away, eat it away, or even shop it away, but I have found the best way to silence the voice is to acknowledge it.

Next time the critical voice comes up, try this: say to yourself, “Thank you for sharing, I know you are trying to help me.”  Your kindness can truly stun it into silence.  If it persists, say, “Thank you for sharing.  Now stop it!”

I believe the inner critic is connected to the inner child.  When indulged it becomes a wild brat that just wants to tear the room (and all your relationships) apart.  Be a good parent to your inner critic: kind, understanding, and no-nonsense.  If you’re having a particularly rough day, make yourself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, take a nap, and then get to work.

6) Handling criticism from others:

We all have had that cringing moment when a friend or well-meaning colleague gives us advice about our writing that they clearly could have kept to themselves.  Online, I’ve been personally attacked for several of my essays and called choice names I won’t repeat here.  The Internet is now a place where everyone is empowered by anonymity to share whatever bile is brewing within.  Choosing how to handle this criticism is similar to how you handle your inner critic, but takes into consideration that you are dealing with an uncontrollable live human being.

Here are some suggestions on how to deal with criticism from others: You can say, “I am sorry you feel that way,” or “Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts,” and then change the subject or find an excuse to end the conversation.  The point is to simply not engage.  Engaging with someone who is determined to be right is not going to help you move forward with your work, nor is getting into a pissing contest.  The fact is, there are millions of people in this world and some of them are simply not going to like what you have to say.  We as writers have to come to acceptance about that.  Again, it is a “yes” versus a “no” mentality.  The more you chase acceptance from people who want to simply “be right,” the more you risk getting shut down in your work, or worse, becoming self-righteous yourself.  You risk becoming so affected by their hurtful words that you start to change yourself to please them – this critic that you might not even know or like, and by doing so move further and further away from your authenticity.

Your truth, your authentic Self is a gift to the world, and accepting it is the key to your happiness, your sense of self-worth, AND your writing.  Furthermore, I suggest that you try not to judge where acceptance for your writing comes from.  The audience that embraces you is going to grow and blossom and expand as long as you allow yourself to grow and blossom and expand.  Acceptance from others doesn’t mean we don’t still have learning and growing to do, but it is a nice arrow saying “This Way.”

It’s funny how our minds so want to hang onto the hurtful words, as if they were proof that our fears were right all along.  It reminds me of an old story:

One evening a grandfather told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all.  One is Evil – It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is Good – It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute, and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins the battle?”

His Grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”

Feed yourself loving support.

7) The importance of committing to yourself and your work:

It is nice to get permission to do the things we want to do.  It is nice to get encouragement.  It really, really helps to have someone in your life that will say to you, “You can do it.  You are worth it.”  We really need those people in our lives and if you don’t have them naturally in your birth family you must seek them out by all means.  But bottom line, it comes down to you committing to your life as a creative person.  Your belief system about what you are allowed to achieve in this life is something that only you can control.  It may take time, but it is a battle worth fighting.  Because there is no way you can change your life without you making the commitment to change first.

In twelve step meetings there is a saying that goes like this: “Awareness, acceptance, action.”  We first become aware that we want to accomplish something: we want to write.  We want to write a book and have it read by others.  Then we must accept that this is a calling.  This desire is in us for some reason and we must accept that it is there.  Then you must take action, over and over again. YOU MUST NOT GIVE UP.  No matter how many years it takes, no matter how much you must overcome to get to that page, you MUST NOT GIVE UP.  Stoke the fire of your dream.  Nurture it.  Feed it.  Practice awareness, acceptance, and action over and over again.  You deserve to have that wonderful feeling of making a dream come true.  But only you hold the key to making it happen and that key is commitment, commitment to doing the work.

As they say: writing is re-writing.

8) Finding a sense of purpose in your work:

There is a difference between fiction and non-fiction, for certain, but there is also a commonality.  The best fictional stories touch something deep within us.  They take us on a journey that makes us look into our humanity.  The bottom line is that as writers, we are connecting with our audience, CONNECTING with others through our storytelling and that can be a powerful experience, if you allow it to be.

That feeling can also be uncomfortable for some people.  We don’t want to shine too bright for fear we will be shot down.  My feeling is, “what other choice do you have?”  You can be silent and miserable, or put yourself out there and be freaked out.  Which is worse?  Both are uncomfortable.

Here is a secret most people don’t like to talk about.  There is a deep, quiet satisfaction in putting your authentic Self out there in your work.  We are not only helping ourselves have a more meaningful life by committing to our writing, we have the chance to take our lives on a journey, a journey that will without doubt draw new people into our world.  In this way, writing and publishing your own work is a great adventure.

You are the captain of your ship.  Where would you like to go today?  I invite you to dream big.  Imagine the impossible.  As the saying goes, “If not you, who?  If not now, when?”

I would like to leave you with this quote from one of my favorite writers, the playwright John Patrick Shanley.

In the third scene of “A Dreamer Examines His Pillow,” Dad says, “The individual life is a dream.” For me this is a most moving idea.  It frees me from my fear of death.  It puts my ego where it belongs, in a place of secondary importance.  It binds me to the human race, and binds the race itself to the atoms in the stars.

Who am I?  This is a courageous question.  As a writer and as a man I am involved in one central struggle – to discover and accept who I am.  I believe all fear has its roots in denial.  I have at one time or another denied everything.  Every fact of my specific self.  My parents, my Bronx origin, my Americanness, my Irishness, my appetites, my morality, my need for love and acceptance, my jealousy, my violence, my anger.

I am not a courageous person by nature.  I have simply discovered that, at certain key moments in this life, you must find courage in yourself, in order to move forward and live.  It is like a muscle and it must be exercised, first a little, and then more and more.  All the really exciting things possible during the course of a lifetime require a little more courage than we currently have.  A deep breath and a leap.

Writing is acting is directing is living your life.  I have told you the things I have just told you so that you know something of my approach to playwriting.  I see no difference between writing a play and living my life.  The same things that make a moment in my life succeed, combust, move, these same things make a moment in my playwriting have life.  And when I move in my writing, I have moved in my life.  There is no illusion.  It is all the same thing.


Other than the JPS quote, copyright Cady McClain 2014








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