Did you ever sit down in front of your computer to write—or pull out your journal and open to a fresh page — and then slowly back away from it, and decide to go do something else instead?
Have you ever been in the middle of writing, and touched into something so deeply archetypal (in a negative way) that it freaked you out and you metaphorically went running up out of the dark basement as fast as possible?
Yup. Me too.
There are times in life, either single incidents or just plain tough terrain that we’re walking, when writing can bring more anxiety than calm, more fear than ease. There are times when that beautiful, blank, listening page turns into a platform for some very deep, dark things to come to light; times when what jumps out on the page is just plain scary.
So how do we stay in connection with those deep parts of ourselves that want to come to light? How do we work with ourselves to midwife something new onto the page — and into our awareness — that has remained under tight lock and key, probably for very good reasons, and maybe for a very long time?
In short, how do we write when it’s scary?
In this 3-part series, I’ll be looking at some of the fears we struggle with as writers, how that fear can get in the way, and how we can begin to work with ourselves and through our writing, transcend, integrate, and harness what scares us away from the keyboard into something useful, powerful, and productive.
Let’s break it down:
The first thing to acknowledge is the Inner Critic. A lot has been written and said about this inner voice that shows up in both loud and subtle ways to let us know, unequivically, that what we are writing is dumb. If that voice gets full reign and we believe it, it can bloat to the size of a whale and tell us that who we fundamentally are is dumb.
The above is just an example. Your inner voice may not say exactly this word, but it will be some version of it—usually whatever hits home in your tender spot to undermine your confidence and your forward movement.
So, first things first. This is just a voice. Probably an internalized voice from the past, but it is not who we are. It’s just a thought stream — and a fear stream — that shows up when we’ve dared to step outside of our comfort zone. Given that most creative endeavors are intrinsically about stepping out of our comfort zone, at some point we need to learn to deal with this nasty inner critic.
One way to begin is to journal. Through journaling, we become familiar with more than just the voice of our inner critic — we become familiar with many different voices and aspects of ourselves. Journaling is a way to get to know ourselves more deeply, to go beyond the polite idea of who we think we are and become intimate with who, and how, we really are. In this way, we become more familiar with when and how our inner critic shows up, not just when we are writing, but also in our everyday life.
Awareness, understanding, and recognition of that inner critic — which can be quite subtle! — is key. How can we work with it if we are at the effect of it without recognizing what it is, or when it’s showing up?
Another key is to recognize where you are in the writing process.
No matter the genre, when you are first getting words on the page, that is the time to unleash your creative spirit. It is also the time when you are down in the trenches, doing your archeological dig for story, for poetic rhythm, for the bones of the piece you are creating. Welcome to first-draft land! It’s what Nora Roberts calls her POS (piece of shit). It’s what Ann Lamott calls her “really, really shitty first draft.” In essence, it’s the place where you get to play, make a giant mess, follow bunny trails to see where they lead, and in general, discover.
Later on, when you are editing, rewriting, and shaping your piece, that inner critic energy can be harnessed to actually be useful. Is that the best word to use here? Does this convey what I am intending? The ability to slice and dice, to split hairs ten different ways — well, that’s where the vital energy of that critic can shine and really be harnessed for something positive and productive. And here’s the distinction I want to make:
The voice of the inner critic is an overview type of voice. It’s a bird soaring above you, squawking, “Good grief, look at that! Wrong! What on earth are you thinking? Wrong again!”
But you are in the trenches working, playing, digging, focusing up close on the fossils by the riverbed and tracking them downstream. When I say know where you are in your writing, it isn’t about where you are in your story or article, it’s about where you are in the process of crafting.
Any time you hear an overview comment in your head and you follow it up and away from the river of your focus, it means you’ve left discovering and entered the land of editors, critics, and audience.
Discovery, first draft, POS, whatever you call it, is essentially a solitary experience. It’s only you, and you are that stream of focus.
When you enter the land of editors, you enter the land of other.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is a choice based upon perspective. Once you recognize it, you then have a choice about whether you fly up and out of your work/play/dig, or ignore that critical voice until you’re ready to edit. That’s when you’ll actually find it helpful to get a bigger-picture look at your whole piece. Ultimately, you can choose to stay where you are and not be pulled up and out of discovering. It’s a figure/ground thing: where do you want to place your focus, and what do you want to work on?
Once it’s time to edit, give the energy of that inner critic a job. Put that stinker to work for you! When it’s attacking you and your creation, it’s misplaced (obviously, right?) – but it can be honed into something profoundly useful. When that voice cries, “Wrong!” Ok, then, you might answer, give me a better choice…
Really? I don’t think so!
And truly, that inner voice hasn’t gone silent, it’s just that it, too, is now being asked to go beyond itself.
Consider yourself on the right track!
This is where your physical, embodied self knows what it knows… Let me explain.
You’ve just asked that inner critic to give an answer it doesn’t know. Yet that inner critic is part of you, right? And it has a certain vital life force energy that is seeking expression. Seeking integration and healing. So give it options and then listen.
For example, you want to use the word ‘snowing,’ but that isn’t quite right. You know it isn’t quite right because you feel it in your body. It sounds “wrong” in your ear. Ok, that inner critical energy is at work now, telling you so. “Nope, wrong,” it’s saying, “wrong and stupid, and such a cliche too! For heaven’s sake, just give it up! You’’ll never… ________________.”
Fill in the blank, ad-infinitum, right?
Push past all that drama and nonsense. Ignore that part of it. If you get hooked here, you’ll be sunk, so don’t let it get the best of you. By pushing past it, this is what it might look like (in abbreviated form):
Yeah, yeah, whatever. Ok, ‘snowing’ doesn’t work. What about the word drizzling?
No! Idiot! That’s rain!
The thing is, you will know it when you hear it. The right word resonates. It sounds right. It feels right. It looks and flows right.
And. Your inner critic just helped you get there.
But you have to push past the meanness, the smallness, the cruelty of that voice. Over time, as you work this critical energy and pull it in to work for you, the nasty stuff will begin to drop away because that’s not where you are putting your attention and awareness.
My spiritual teacher says there is nothing good or bad in this universe, only our perspective and what we do with it. And it is true in relation to the inner critic as well. It is fundamentally a vital life force energy that we can harness and use wisely, like plugging in a lamp and allowing the electricity to give us light. Or we can jam a pin into the socket and get jolted out of our shoes.
In the beginning, we may struggle to go through the shocking phase of that critical inner voice. Essentially, it is showing us where our personal inner work lies. We have to engage it, integrate it, struggle within ourselves to push past the attacking, berating qualities of that voice and give it “honest work” to do. Over time that critical voice can, and does, develop into an immense and powerful writing ally. But it takes time, awareness, courage, and some tough grit to lean in past the attack of that voice to access the juicy vital life force energy inside.
Transforming the inner critic is ultimately a journey of discovery. Self discovery. In a very real way, the inner critic is simply a developmentally immature part of ourselves. Or worse, a crutch that we use as an excuse not to write. Or both.
Through journaling we get to know the ins and outs of this critical energy, and our relationship to it. And in getting to know that voice, we may discover, and need to come to terms with, some very uncomfortable truths about ourselves. And it’s all part of this larger endeavor called Writing.
Fundamentally, our task as writers is to write. To harness whatever energy is presenting in a wise and timely manner in order to produce new creations which take us beyond our limited self beliefs, our known borders. If we’re good at it, we might help others do the same.