August 17, 2018

Putting your inner critic to work

A few years ago my inner critic was not only speaking to me a lot, but it was also easier than usual for me to “hear.” What I mean is that I was able to notice my critic’s voice in real time and write down what it said. During that time I always kept a few outdated business cards in my back pocket so I could pull one out and write on the back of it at a moment’s notice.

I’d write something like, “That scene you wrote yesterday is stupid and pretentious,” then put the card back in my pocket. Ha, caught ya, little voice!

Just writing these nasty things down and getting them out of my head provided helpful objectivity. I could examine the cards in a clear light and see them for what they were—absurdities, lies, and sneaky half-truths:

  • “You should be exercising all the time.” Absurd.
  • “You should have lots of houseguests to prove that you’re a grown up.” Untrue.
  • “You’re not as competent as other people.” Quite true—in some settings.

My favorites are cards that contradict one another:

  • “You should be working on your book, not just sitting here.”
  • “Writing this book is a self-indulgent waste of time.”

Sometimes my inner critic criticizes me for criticizing myself, then criticizes the quality of my criticism—apparently self-criticism is both a bad habit and a high art.

As these cards piled up on my desk, I discovered ways to work with them. They were a gift. Many of my cards repeated the same messages in different ways. I found it helpful to my inner work to sort my cards into themes so I could identify a few deep, core messages that I was stuck on—great material to reflect on.

But what I want to focus on here is how I used my cards to power some of my character development as I wrote my novel, which will be published soon.

Catch the critic’s voice

First I had to practice catching my inner critic’s voice in flagrante. That voice is a slippery one, and it has its own agenda (self-sabotage, self-protection). I tried to make it easy for myself to write those statements down quickly, because like dreams or unconscious bias or anything else we don’t control consciously, they fade or morph into more acceptable thoughts as soon as you turn your eyes in their direction.

Assign the critic’s messages to your characters

Once I had a stack of cards, I went through them slowly. For each one, I asked myself which of my book’s characters might “hold” the card’s message for me:

  • Which character might make this unfair comment to someone else?
  • Which character might lie awake obsessing about this potential catastrophe?
  • Which character might be hiding this unspoken thought behind his smile?

I discovered quite a few new things about my characters this way. While I sometimes felt bad giving them my icky half-formed thoughts and feelings, I think it gave them more depth and nuance—or at least it helped me to connect with them in deeper ways!