on avoiding the inner critic

You know that voice inside your head, the one that shows up whenever you create, or want to create, or think about creating? The one that says, pssh, please, knock this off, you know you can’t do it, you know it’ll never be good enough, you’re wasting your time. As Wil Wheaton often says, it’s Carrie’s mother in your head, screaming THEY’RE ALL GOING TO LAUGH AT YOU!!

I think every creative person has that voice floating around somewhere. Nothing, not even sex, makes you more vulnerable than making art, forming pieces of your soul into something others can recognize and putting the result out into the world, all the while hoping it will be well-received, or at least that people, or even just one person, will like it.  Or at least not hate it. At least, not laugh. We don’t want to be laughed at, we don’t want to be ridiculed.

But everybody has a weak spot. Even your inner critic. If you want to get past that voice to a place where you can really create, you have to find out what that weakness is. It turns out that mine has two: force of habit and early morning.

I used to buy a lot of books about writer’s block – how to recognize it, how to get rid of it. I did The Artist’s Way a few years ago to unlock my inner creative person, because I was suffering under a double whammy: a crippling dependence on my inner critic’s opinion and a frustrating marriage that sapped everything in me that wanted to create, each of which fed off the other, spiraling me into despair, often finding me at 3:3o in the morning crying in a ball in the corner of my study because I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I had to figure out the block.

The Artist’s Way did unlock things for me; it helped me understand why I was blocked, and helped me fix it. It was a painful growth process, but totally worth it. It was during that time that I really started to play with the idea for the book I’m working on now, making notes, building worlds, doing really preliminary exploring. (My inner critic was super strong at that point, so even in making notes – just notes! just playing with ideas! – about creating a world, it would scream in my head that I was stupid, that I had no right to create anything, that I should give up before I could get laughed at.)

The book was just some ideas for a while; sketches, thoughts, an evolution of story. I tried writing it while still inside my failing marriage and the story failed because it was pulling too heavily from real life – good release as a fictional journal type of thing, but not the story that I wanted to tell. It wasn’t ready yet. But I was unfolding as a creative person, starting to accept that creating is a process, and that – contrary to what my perfectionist tendencies told me – it doesn’t have to be perfect right out of my head. (That was super hard for me to accept. It looks so easy here in text, clean letterforms making a simple statement, but believe me – there were tears and cold sweats over not being perfect out of the gate.) So, great. I was having ideas. I didn’t do much with them, though.

Back to those books about writer’s block. They all gave varying advice, but the one thing they all had in common was “write every day.” Great, super, who has time for that? I go do my corporate job from 8-4:30 every day, I go home and make dinner and spend time with my boyfriend and go to bed. How am I supposed to make a daily commitment to writing when there is no time? Enter the early riser. I was lucky enough in October to move to a condo where work is only 15 minutes away, so by getting up at 5 instead of the 6 I’d need to to get to work on time, I could spend the first hour of my day writing. The bonus there is that Matthew is a night owl, so that early in the morning, he’s asleep. I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about skimping on us-time, nor would I have to deal with the distractions of trying to write while he was keeping himself otherwise entertained.

In carving out daily time in the early morning, I also discovered a most exciting side effect – at 5 am, when it’s still dark, my inner critic is asleep. My alarm goes off, I turn on my computer, I start putting words on the page. My word goal is only 500 words a day, which I’m generally able to get down in the hour I give myself – some days I fly through it, some days I drag and struggle – but my inner critic is still snoozing away, or at least hasn’t gotten himself up to full yelling volume yet and can still be ignored.

The last thing working on my side is that after a couple months of doing something every day, it becomes habit. Now, unless I’m sick or exhausted or for some reason have to adjust my schedule, I follow the same routine: 5 am alarm, start writing. I find that habit soothes the inner critic, like giving him bread to chew on to keep him busy while I work. I don’t have to fight past him to get to the page anymore now that it’s habit.

So, force of habit, early morning. I made the decision to write every day on November 4. Now here I am 4 months later and, at only 500 words a day (give or take a day here and there), I’m more than halfway to my word count goal. I still have to remind myself that creation is a process, that it doesn’t have to be perfect the first time. I’ve adopted as my mantra: You can edit later. You don’t have to make it perfect, you just have to make it. And I take comfort in the fact that through the wonder of the internet, I can know that people I admire, people who are creators for a living, have that same voice in their heads – they’re just real people, pushing through to make something. If they can do it, why not me?

It seems to be working really well for me. What helps you quiet your inner critic?

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