Jessie: In a tiny village surrounded by leaf piles

If you get a bunch of writers together and wait for the conversation to scratch down to the things that matter it becomes clear that we all have something in common: a challenging relationship with the dreaded inner critic. The critic pops up during every project and hisses dispiriting counsel into all writers’ ears. I call mine Carlisle.

Early in my career I took a workshop on creativity at the New England Crime Bake facilitated by author Shelley Carson, PhD.  In it I learned that all creative projects work  through a series of predictable stages and that these stages use different parts of the brain.

It turns out that the creativity needed to make interesting connections and create early drafts of a novel is cooked up in a totally different part of the brain than is critical evaluation. This  explains the creative paralysis that occurs whenever the critic tries to weigh in on the work too early in the process.

As I started thinking about my brain as divided into different chunks that governed different aspect of my work it occurred to me that I could treat these parts as a team of employees who all had a role to play in getting the job done. This is how Carlisle came into being. Giving the critical, evaluating part of my brain its own personality and a clear set of responsibilities has made a significant difference in my productivity and how much I enjoy writing.

Now, whenever I start a project and I hear Carlisle begin to whisper and then to shout that I am attempting too much, the words are wrong, the idea is a dud, I address him by name and acknowledge the value he brings to the team. I mention how much I appreciate his concern for my reputation and how important his rigorous scrutiny is for the overall quality of any venture. Then I remind him that there will be nothing for him to evaluate if he doesn’t let the other sections of my brain do their jobs too. I promise I won’t ever send anything off to my editor without him having a thorough crack at it first. Then I send him to the break room for a cup of tea and a nap.

I can’t say he never pops back up to lurk over my shoulder before I am ready to welcome him but I but I can say it happens less and less often. I think it’s because he doesn’t need to say increasing unkind things, at greater and greater volume, to capture my attention. When I stick to my side of the bargain he tends to uphold his too.

Another, unexpected benefit of this way of thinking is my own attitude towards Carlisle’s criticism once I’ve reached the revision stage. It turns out that when he participates at the right point in the writing process I feel as though I have the expert help of a trusted friend and invaluable ally. I love revisions now and actually find them easier than the first draft.

Perhaps all this makes me crazy but it’s a pleasant sort of insanity. I’d love to hear how you manage your inner critic. Do you name it? Avoid it? Stick your fingers in your ears and hum?

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5 Responses to Negotiating

  1. Amber Foxx says:

    What a great idea. I have to name my inner critic after a helpful former critique partner whose voice I keep hearing as I write–and tell her to wait her turn. Love the team concept.

  2. Kate Cone says:

    Thanks for this great “Monday morning” post, Jessie! I have just begun naming my critic, who somehow is “Veronica.” Maybe I’ll change it to Lord Winston and have him wear a tux. Then I can send him off to entertain the royals while I create. I heard the great Julia Cameron talk about this a few years ago. Her inner critic is named Nigel. “Thank you for weighing in, Nigel, now go…” Hal and Sidra Stone wrote a book called Embracing Your Inner Critic. Your technique and the reasoning behind is makes total sense.

  3. In a related thought, maybe the reason I’m having so much trouble getting motivated lately is that I my muse needs a proper name. Poor thing, drifting along all these years without an identity! The critic, on the other hand, already has a number of names, but none of them are suitable for use in mixed company! Fun post, Jessie.

  4. Barb Ross says:

    I love this idea. Jessie, in future posts, you must tell us about the rest of your “team.”

  5. David Edgar Cournoyer says:

    Thanks for the clever post. Creating an alter-ego responsible for criticism feels very early 20th century (Napoleon Hill?) but it works! I’m working on a way to get mine to stay in someone else’s head and visit only infrequently. Also in the works is a new suite for the alter-ego that tells me that I can do anything I put my mind and effort to.

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