Muzzling the Inner Critic


Back in the bad old days of the Middle Ages, a device known as the branks, or scold's bridle, was used to torture women deemed to be too loud, too bitchy, or too inclined to cruel gossip. Locked into this hideous, metal gag, the unhappy female couldn't speak without injuring her tongue against the spikes.

I'm appalled, of course, but part of me says, "Heeeey, I've got a use for that. Finally, something to shut up the hellborne shrew sometimes known as the inner critic!"

You know her. She's the voice that mocks that daring new idea you just had, the one who sneers and rolls her eyes at your last paragraph, the bitch who whispers into you ear the cruelest lines of every rejection, nasty comment, bad review, or taunt you've heard since second grade. Is is any wonder you can't write, with this harpy from hell leaning in over your shoulder?

So you have to find some way to silence her to allow you to create. Some writers have tried blunting her sharp tongue with drugs or alcohol. Others whine incessantly. Countless more have given up their dreams (which allows her to sit back in smug satisfaction). But let's discount each of these self-destructive stop-gap measures.

One thing that's worked for me is to give the shrew her space - within limits. Every morning, before I get to work, I edit. During this time, I listen to her commentary and winnow out the wisdom (and it's there) from the patently-ridiculous. But the deal is that after that she has to keep her mouth shut when I'm writing. My evening sessions, especially, I consider experimental, a form of brainstorming on paper. And in brainstorming you save all ideas, no matter how bad you suspect they might be. My internal editor might raise an eyebrow now and then, but she's mostly content to bide her time, waiting for the morning, when she will get her due.

Once in a while, though, she gets out of control, so I whip out of piece of paper -- this has to be in longhand, since the computer's for "real writing" -- and try to make a list called "Ten Reasons I Can't Do This." Once I've written down each dollop of nastiness, I read the list -- and usually start laughing. On paper, the scold's "reasons" look so stupid, so self-pitying, that its easy to wad up the paper or tear it into confetti and toss it in the trash where it belongs.

These are just a couple of my methods. You can find more in two of my favorite writers' resources, The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron, and (especially) The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. These may be the most important writing books I own. Certainly, they're the two that I reach for most often -- because self-doubt never really goes away. It is only temporarily muzzled by the writer's act of will.

So does anyone else have a great method for silencing the inner critic? It's an arm's race here in the trenches, and I'm always looking for new weapons...

Or maybe someone has a spare scold's bridle she could lend me.


Lark said…
Thanks for your comments. They really hit home today as I struggle to work my way through a particularly critical chapter. My inner critic is telling me the first 7 pages are shite and my afternoon would be better spent floating in the pool reading. To add to the pressure, I'm working in response to an agent agent I'm interested in...and the shrew on my shoulder is telling me every word sucks. At least you've asured me I'm not the only person who goes through this.

Jo Anne said…
First, I'll say since I'm usually the loudest and most opinionated in any room, thank God I didn't live in the scold bridle's day; I'd have had a mangled tongue. :-)

As for the inner critique, she comes after me often - and this week I had to smack her down after critique group. I have long had an inferiority complex about not having a college degree. Thru the years, many kind writers have said, "Neither does Nora Roberts."

My critique group? Each and every one of them Rice grads, Mensa, kids of Harvard profs, not only well-educated, but nerdy, top-notch well-educated. I'm one of 2 unpublished in a group of 8. After group Wed night, my mind got noisy comparing my bit of fluff romance to some of the their work, and my inner critic whispered - forget whispered - the bitch yelled that I have no talent, and no business writing a story - because after all, I don't know diddly about ANYTHING.

But then I considered what I learn from these sharp CPs, not only what they do right, but also what they're doing that's going to make their works hard to market: too long, set in a difficult time period, not starting the story at the right place, or being so attached to their words, sometimes they lose sight of what's important to story. Gee, exactly the same issues I deal with. And in writing, these folks value my opinion as much as I value theirs.

What do I do to shut the critic up? I think about other things I've accomplished thru hard work - and trust that I can make it happen in my writing. I trust that if I sit down to do the work, the muse will show up more often than the critic (thank you Steven Pressfield and THE WAR OF ART) - and that my imagination will trigger the right direction of my words and my story.

And I keep a few writer's quotes in mind. Nora's "I can edit bad words, but I can't edit a blank page." or how about "A professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit." (Richard Bach)

About my education? Dean Koontz says "Fiction is about the interaction of people, about their complex relationships. The initial reaction that a story MUST elicit from the reader is empathy, the vicarious experience of the feelings, thoughts, and attitudes of another person." Thanks, Dean. I UNDERSTAND people and life.

And I think my favorite - a quote by E.L. Doctorow, "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the entire journey that way."

So how do I keep the bitch at bay? I keep writing.

Oops, sorry - that was a bit of a rant.
Everyone goes through this. Truly. Resistance is simply the fear of change, the same fear you've probably conquered in many other aspects of your life. You can do it this time, too. Set a deadline and make yourself stick to it. It's great training for a career in writing.

Jo Anne,
Even if I didn't know you're a terrific, thoughtful writer, your eloquent post would prove it true. College degrees, IMO, have exactly zero bearing on creating commercial fiction. I have several degrees and a ton of English hours, which only taught me to de-construct, not to create. A keen eye for detail, an ear for dialogue, and an all-consuming love of the written work are all the skills you really need. And talent isn't passed out with diplomas.

So the next time your inner critic says otherwise, just roll your eyes at her, and I'll loan you a virtual nag's bridle. :)
Joni Rodgers said…
Profoundly correct, as always, Colleen.

My simple but crude method for silencing the most vociferous member of my inner monkey chorus:

I stand in front of the mirror, and in the no-nonsense tone I generally reserve for bad dogs, I say, "Because I am JONI FUCKING RODGERS, that's why!" And sometimes I add a little "boo ya!"
Hah! You go, girlfriend!
Christie Craig said…
I agree that inner critic can be hard to control. The thing is that sometimes they actually have a good point to be made.

I hate it, but I try to give her a little wiggle room. Not that I listen to everything she tosses out. And I always seem to know when I'm feeling low that's when I can't listen to her. The days I'm hard on myself personally, I'll be harder on myself in my writing.

Good Post, Colleen!
Lerissa Patrick said…
Hello all: I'm working on an inner critic workshop that I'm presenting this weekend, and ran across this article and comments while looking up info about popular approaches.

There's another way that runs counter to everything our culture teaches and believes about our critical inner voices. It's a method I teach called Focusing that assumes that everything within us has our best interests at heart, even if their methods are harsh. If you listen from a place acceptance and compassion, these inner critics can relax. Ultimately, they can become friends - allies, even.

Anway. I don't want to use your space to self-promote ... there is a web site called where you can learn more.

Good luck with your critics - inner and outer!

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