You’ve been here before. It’s the morning after returning home from a life-changing trip. You’ve admired countless amazing sights, immersed yourself in the local culture, learned so many things about yourself and the world you never would have understood otherwise. You’re a different person. You need to tell someone, to organize all of these exciting thoughts running through your head and broadcast them to the world so that your peers will understand the magnificence of what you’ve been through. You sit down at your laptop, open a blank document, and…
You have so much to say, but every time you place your fingers to the keyboard, nothing seems good enough to type. Instead of words on the page, what appears is that familiar voice inside your head, that inner critic you’ve grown so acquainted with.
That’s no good, it says.
It doesn’t capture what you’re trying to say.
Nobody’s going to know what you’re talking about.
You can’t write. You might as well chip away at those shows on your DVR.
Okay, maybe yours isn’t as cruel and personal as mine is (for that, I can thank years of anxiety and depression), but every writer has an inner critic, a voice that fights against every sentence, every word. It’s why so many writers agree with the aphorism: “I hate writing. I love having written.” They understand that there is an infinite amount of ways to relay a message to their audience, so they’re constantly terrorized by this voice telling them that they’re not quite getting it, that someone is going to dislike their style and criticize their ability, that by the time they’re reading over what they’ve spent all their time on, they’re going to be ashamed by what they wrote. It’s happening to me as I write this: Really, Devon? You’re gonna open a paragraph with “Okay”? Is a personal tone really the right choice here?
The inner critic is like your own personal monster, sitting next to you as you work and judging your every choice. If you want to get your story out into the world, if you want to share what you’ve learned on your journey abroad or inspire your followers to embark on their own adventures, the first step is to learn how to deal with everything that little monster is going to throw at you. With that in mind, here are a few tips to remember the next time their constant noise is drowning out your creativity.
No holds barred in a first draft
The most freeing thing you can tell yourself as a writer is, “It’s only a first draft.” Once you accept that things can be tweaked, added, removed, changed, polished, and perfected during the editing process, you have what you need to fight off any criticism your inner critic tosses your way.
Worried that the opening isn’t intriguing enough? You can come up with a better attention-grabber on the second run-through. Can’t think of the right verb to use in that sentence? Highlight a placeholder in red and come back to it with fresh eyes. Think that out-of-the-box tone you’re taking isn’t gelling with the rest of the piece? Who cares! Give it a shot and if it doesn’t read well tomorrow, you can always rewrite it. Anne Lamott reflects this idea of letting go in her book, “Bird by Bird,” when she discusses the necessity of “shitty first drafts.”
“You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page,” Lamott says. “Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means.”
The anything-goes mindset is where genius is born. Sometimes we get so caught up in trying to be perfect that we become immobile, frozen by the thought that every idea we have is lacking. When nothing seems just right, we end up not writing anything at all. The world’s best and most creative minds weren’t born that way; they were developed through experimentation. Any performer who’s ever gotten up on stage has had to find a way to accept and ignore the countless eyes staring up at them and judging their every move.
By shaking off the shackles of “that’s not good enough,” you’re free to indulge your imagination and try the things that might otherwise scare you. Anything that comes to mind, get it down on the page. You’ll find yourself taking leaps, drawing associations, and setting forth ideas you didn’t even realize you had. And yes, a good amount of it will have to be removed in the second draft. It’s likely that future you will sit down to edit and go, “What the hell was I thinking?” But the pearl that remains after you scrape away the gunk that surrounds it will likely be that pristine product you were searching for from the start.
Enter the conversation
If we think of writing mechanics — grammar, syntax, tone, voice, diction, figurative language, etc. — as the writer’s toolbox, then the purpose of those tools is to build a story and a message. And, unfortunately, when it comes to the big-picture, beyond-the-sentence-level stuff, the inner critic often speaks the loudest. After all, your message is your most important concern — why write if the reader isn’t going to hear what you’re saying?
While your goal should often be to let the critic’s thoughts pass without paying them any attention, if they’re telling you that you need to tweak or rethink your message, it can actually behoove you to listen up for a moment, so long as you don’t let the critic’s negativity drag you down.
In her essay “On Commonness,” author Leslie Jamison writes about her teacher’s advice that the problem with a piece of writing can often become its subject: “If you hear a critical voice in you saying ‘no,’ it doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t go there. It just means that you should also make the piece about the resistance itself.” Let’s say, for instance, that you’re writing about your climb up Mount Kilimanjaro. You keep talking about what an amazing, fulfilling journey it was, but every time you say that, you hear the reader pushing back: Yeah, but you didn’t make it to the summit. You had to turn back at Camp Four because of altitude sickness. How fulfilling could it really have been? If you let that critic hold you down, you’ll never finish the piece. At the same time, however, if you choose to ignore what they’re saying, you’re missing a key element to the story. Instead, take Jamison’s suggestion and make your story about the resistance you’re experiencing. Identify the reasons you’re still thrilled by the journey you took even if you’re disappointed you didn’t reach the top, and explore the idea of whether or not a summit should define one’s sense of accomplishment. Now, you’ve created a more compelling and honest piece overall.
The idea here is to use the critic to your advantage, to dig deeper into the truth of your message and hone what it is you’re trying to say. By entering into a conversation with your anticipated counterarguments, you’ll develop a stronger voice and story.
Alright then, you might be thinking, it’s all well and good to personify my critic as a mean voice inside my head or a monster sitting next to me, but at the end of the day, it’s still me, right? Wrong. It’s easy to think that the voice — the one telling you that you’re not good, that the story isn’t coming out right, that there are endless ways you could be better communicating your point — is a part of you, but really that’s just your ego. The real you is much deeper. And in order to let yourself be heard, you have to find a way to tune out the noise.
One of the simplest ways to do this is through meditation. Though once thought of as a strictly spiritual practice reserved for Buddhist monks and people with henna tattoos, meditation has very much entered the mainstream. There’s even an app for it (several, actually). In this modern age of distraction, people from all fields and backgrounds have taken to meditation as a way to calm their mind and be still. All you need is five to 10 minutes a day, preferably right before a writing session — sit comfortably, close your eyes, focus on your breath (inhale, exhale, repeat), and whenever a thought comes to you, let it float on by.
What you’re doing when you’re meditating, essentially, is distancing yourself from your inner critic. You’re training your mind to recognize that you are not your thoughts, that they don’t have to control you. To be clear, you’re not silencing your critic; even people who meditate every day for years and years still have those thoughts. Instead, you’re learning to not dwell on every one that enters your mind. This is why so many famous creatives have adopted the practice.
If you can let loose in your first draft, learn how to incorporate your inner resistance into your message, and strip away the thoughts that are holding you back, there’s no limit to what you can produce.