Tuesday, 23 April 2013 07:46

Being a writer - Dealing with the internal critic

Dealing with the internal critic

Or

A 12-Step Programme for Coping with Mavis

I have a voice in my head. It never says anything nice. It undermines any attempt I make to write. Examples of the things it says are you're a fraud, you'll never amount to anything and who told you you could write, anyway? On and on and on, wittering ad nauseam.

Sound familiar? You're not alone. It seems like whenever I 'fess up to this internal censor, a common response from fellow-creatives is a stunned good god, you get that too?

Simply put, this inner censor wants me to stop writing. It's been there since I was in my early teens, and shows no sign of going away. Sure, it's had to change its script a little over the past few months what with the launch of my debut novel 'The Palace of Curiosities', but it has simply developed nasty new mantras. One example: when people say they like 'The Palace of Curiosities', they're only being nice.

I used to listen and believe every word I heard. Result? I stopped writing. For years. Call it writers' block if you will. An important part of my writing life has been improving how I deal with these internalised put-downs. I've shared some ideas below – if any of them help, that's great.

1 - First off, I worked out when the voice first appeared. 'Forever' was not an acceptable answer. Speaking personally, my earliest creative efforts were encouraged. However, that changed in my teens when I started to explore the weird, the odd, the different, the opposite of sugar and spice. Suddenly (and it was sudden) the support and praise evaporated. Ta-dah! My internal censor was born at the precise moment in my life when I was developing into an independent person, and it grew fat on raging hormones and adolescent angst.

2 – We are born free of internal censorship – it comes later. My ability to write and my love of writing were both there before the censor. It helped to separate that out.

3 – Another key was to recognise it was a voice in my head, but not 'my' voice. I can separate my self from the put-downs. Who first planted doubts in your head? You sure as hell didn't.

4 - Part of the externalising process was to create a character and give it a name. I call my internal censor Mavis, because it's silly and helps diminish the yap-yap-yap. She is not a huge terrifying demon; she's small and she's squeaky. It's much harder to take such a creature seriously.

5 – She makes herself pretty easy to spot, as her script lacks originality. She trots out the same old tune, the same old words. I recognise Mavis on one of her rants, rather than believing that what she says is true. It isn't.

6 – However, I don't try to ignore her: she just shouts louder. I acknowledge she's there, say hello Mavis; listen to what she has to say, then I get on with whatever it was I was doing. My suggestion? Hear it, note it, move on.

7 - Develop your own practical strategies. One of mine is writing early in the day. Mavis isn't a morning person. I get up before she does, while she's still snoozing. Once I've started and am on a roll it's not so difficult: the blank page is when she's at her most undermining.

8 - I write longhand when I'm starting out, whether it's a novel or a poem. There are many reasons why I do this (and they're the subject of a different blog). As a strategy for getting round Mavis it works like this: to the censor, handwriting is 'scribbling', ie not serious or important. She stops paying attention - and I get to explore ideas without her peering over my shoulder and sneering 'well, that's not very good is it?' If she does start snooping around I say I'm just scribbling. Nothing for you to bother about. I work under the radar and sneak my words past her – rough, unedited words – but words. I can't edit nothing, which is what she's aiming for.

9 – Don't try to reason or argue with the censor. You'll use up all your creative energy and never, ever win. There's no point trying to reason with the unreasonable. My censor says things which logically I know aren't true. But oh boy, does my fearful emotional jelly of a self wobble. That's her power. If I try to engage logic, I end up going in circles. She always has an argument to top mine. She always gets the last word. She's always got a 'yeah, but - '. These arguments leach away time and energy when I could be writing.

10 - Speak out. Say she exists. Stop being ashamed. Stop believing her.

11 - Talk to other creative people. Find out what their internal censors act like. Share strategies for coping.

12 - For years I tried to repress her, ignore her, make her go away. It didn't work. I've accepted I'll never be rid of her. And maybe, just maybe, there's a positive side to all of this head-talk. It keeps me on my toes. With Mavis around I won't become one of those writers who think that every word they commit to paper is perfect and woe betide any foolish mortal who dares suggest they might need to edit the hell out of it.

And if I do become big-headed, blasé or swan around saying do you know who I am? – tell me. Loud and clear.