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The Inner Critic is a part of the psyche that every creator knows only too well. Like Gary Larson’s Chicken of Depression, it perches itself in the corner and reminds you that you really aren’t ever going to measure up to The Greats. The Inner Critic is the voice that undermines you at every turn and, just as you get wise to one of its strategies, out-foxes you with another.
Last year I wrote the clunky first draft of a second novel. I had spent months patiently engineering a sabbatical from work so that I would have the time and the headspace to tackle it. It had been a long time since I’d properly immersed myself in a new fictional world and I was certain I’d be delirious with joy when my sabbatical started and the words could finally flow. The sabbatical launched with a research trip. On my return, I sat down at my desk and wrote and wrote and wrote. For a week. Then I spotted the chicken. It was perched on the wall I’d just hit. My internal commentary went something like this: Every word is pedestrian. Your first book is rubbish. What’s so great about being a writer, anyway? I hate writing. I hate being this lonely and this bored. This is definitely going to be my last book. I never want to do this again. Why the hell did I decide to do this again? I comfort ate. I drank too much coffee to the point where I felt unwell and crotchety. I struggled to get out of bed on days that I didn’t have to do the school run. The negativity invaded my dreams too and so, for a while, even sleep went out the window. The Inner Critic is an expert and covert saboteur. And like labour pains, when it has been a while, one forgets.
Some of the most creative and productive people I’ve met have some of the most strident, most denigrating, Inner Critics. Three years ago I interviewed game designer, Martin Vaux, who co-created award-winning cult card game Lords of War. He talked about the constant carping inner voice that he has to deal with on a daily basis. ‘I’m scared. All the time,’ he said. ‘Because there’s no way of being sure that what I’m doing is any good. But then there’s a risk, a cost, in not doing something. And that applies to anyone in any walk of life. If you wait, you’re just gonna die with your ambitions unfulfilled.’
However much you achieve in your creative career, the Inner Critic is there to stay. You can’t lose it but you can develop your defences. You can get wise to it, persist in spite of it. You can start to deconstruct it whilst remaining blind to the possibility of failure for just long enough to finish that poetry collection, that novel. One antidote is to develop a network of creative friends and allies who, guaranteed, will all have their own Inner Critic. If you can afford it, get a psychotherapist. If you can’t, there are some good self-help books out there. Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ audiobook ‘The Creative Fire’ makes for excellent listening, or Julia Cameron’s ‘The Artists Way’. Because in the longer term, engaging with this aspect of self rather than ignoring it will be essential for longevity as a writer.
When I look back over my own writing journey, I see a discernible pattern: I’ve had my most debilitating moments of doubt, fear and worst of all, ambivalence, when I’ve finally managed to finagle the time and space to write. In other words, at the point of commitment. Realising that this is so doesn’t stop it from happening. In fact, I’ve come to realise that this is simply how it’s going to be for as long as I write.
The Inner Critic generally operates in the unconscious. I really believe that it is more often our inner barriers than our outer circumstances that stop us creating. Let’s face it, all the other writers and artists out there also have a day job, kids, a household to run and/or a hundred other commitments. In my own experience, the Inner Critic is a more persuasive advocate for maintaining the non-creative status quo than any real-world person or situation.
I have found that, for me, the best way to engage the Inner Critic is through dreams. He (yes, for me it’s a ‘he’) has appeared frequently in my dreams and only ever pops up when I’m writing rather than when I’m going about my day job. As a dream character he started off being menacing if not plain terrifying. Over time, he has mellowed. He is still big, still glowering, still unsmiling, still harsh, but he is no longer terrifying. I’ve also noticed that when he appears in a dream scenario now, other more nurturing aspects of the self often walk into the room to counter him and these other characters, over time, have become stronger, more robust in appearance, more vibrant and more vocal.
There is a plus side. The Inner Critic, like all aspects of the psyche is multifaceted. Perfectionism is his or her middle name. So as well as being highly effective at derailing your efforts, if harnessed and counterbalanced properly, the Inner Critic can actually prompt you to do finer work.