Monday, July 23, 2007

In Defense of the Inner Critic

This guy gets a lot of bad press among writers. He’s blamed for everything from writer’s block to a lack of originality and a fear of experimentation. The common consensus is that he should be banished from the writer’s kingdom for the duration of the creative phase.

I suspect we all view the essence of our creative endeavors differently. At its best, crafting a story is a mysterious process only dimly understood. I learned a long time ago that if I’m having trouble with a scene or character or plot point, one of the best ways to handle it is to go for a walk, take a shower, or just go to sleep. (“Are you sick, Mama? Why are you laying down?” “Oh, no; I’m just contemplating a plot problem, honey. Wake me up when it’s time to start dinner…”) Why? Because whether we’re writing fantasy adventure stories or carefully plotted thrillers, our subconscious plays a huge role in the process. Part of learning to write is learning to trust our subconscious.

So what does this have to do with the Inner Critic? Steve Malley has a great description of the Inner Critic as a pedantic old scholar complete with wire-framed glasses. One can hear him tut-tutting over split infinitives and indefinite antecedents. More than just a Grammar Queen, this is the guy who tells us that our prose is s**t, that we can’t write for s**t, that we must be an idiot to think we can write a book anyone would want to read. This is the guy we really don’t want perched on our shoulder when we’re in hot pursuit of our story. When we’re blazing off into uncharted territory, self-doubt or even self-awareness can be fatal.

But this Inner Critic has an altar-ego, and he’s the guy I like to have along when I’m writing. This guy has nothing to do with self-self doubt and everything to do with storysense. This is the guy who tells me a scene is going on too long and I need to wind it up. He tells me I don’t have enough conflict in a scene, or that I need to come to a better understanding of a certain character’s motivation before I write any further, or that I’ve written too many action scenes in a row and I need what Dwight Swain calls a “sequel.” He’s a critic in the sense that he tells me when I’m going astray, but it might be more helpful to view him as a guide, like a yoga master gently helping me into the correct form for downward dog or tree pose.

I suspect there are writers who are so purely in touch with their inner storyteller that their stories simply unfold in flawless detail and all they have to do is write them down. I’m not that lucky. I frequently find myself starting to go wrong, and I’m thankful for that gently guiding voice that tells me I’m making a mistake and how to fix it.


Chap O'Keefe said...

Inner Critic's biggest problem is that he won't let me write ugly! Not even when I'm pages and pages behind schedule.

Steve Malley said...

Once I'm through my godawful first draft, that little fellah's my best friend.

After all, the world's full of Outer Critics...

(Still reading HP7, but couldn't resist a quick peek through the interweb!)

Charles Gramlich said...

I tend to think of the guy you're talking about Candice as "myself." I don't like to think of myself as either the pedant critic who tells me that my work is shit, nor the wildchild who simply opens a vein and splatters. Sometimes, the "me" will allow the wildchild to play around, and that is fun, but he keeps the child on one of those stretchy leashes and can real him in if need be.

liz fenwick said...

I'm with Steve on this one. I don't want sight of him while that first draft is flowing but boy do I need him for each draft there after.

sheepish said...

I think when you are just starting out you probably need to keep the bugger quiet otherwise you'd give up. Maybe it gets easier to listen constructively the more you write. At the moment I am concentrating on getting words on the page.