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Vanquishing the Killer Critic

Who is your inner critic?  Not the thoughtful one, the editor who urges you to work harder, to reconsider that word choice. The other one, the nasty one who makes you miserable, and keeps you from doing your best work, or sometimes keeps you from writing at all.

I’ve been taking classes online at Sketchbook Skool [1]. One of the recent workshop instructors was Marloes DeVries, [2] who is a whimsical, thoughtful cartoonist. She asked us to draw a cartoon (or even a stick figure) that would represent the voice of our inner critic, and then write around it all the mean things it says.

I knew immediately who’d I’d draw, the awful art teacher I had at 15, whose criticism and general hatred of everything me caused such a wound that I gave up the art I’d been practicing practically since birth and didn’t pick it up again until three years ago. I can’t remember his name. But I was able to call up his face easily for the exercise.

As I’ve been teaching creativity for a couple of decades, I could see how this might be freeing, and couldn’t wait to try it.  One morning, I sat in my art corner by the window with bright, clear light, and drew him, exaggeratedly. Meanly.  It gave me great pleasure, I have to tell you.

Then I got to the writing down the mean things he said part, and found myself weeping giant, powerful tears.  Over something that happened more than thirty years ago! 30 years!  I was suddenly so furious that I slashed out those comments with verve.

How did I let that voice get so far into my head that I didn’t do something I loved madly for decades??

Because the wound was deep. Because creative people are very sensitive beings. Because it’s hard to have confidence in doing something that the world considers the realm of geniuses and fools.

Who do you think you are?

Many of us carry around wounds of this sort about writing or creativity or the desire to live a different life from those around us.  It might not be something dramatic, as it was with this art teacher. It might be as thin as a cutting comment from a relative who thinks poorly of the “creative class”, those people arrogant enough to think they can earn a living by making things up or creating cool apps or television programs or making sculptures.

Must be nice.

The #metoo hashtag the past week has raised awareness of the impact of harassment in women’s lives. Women are also fed an avalanche of messages about their creativity and the acceptable ways we can write or paint or sing—there are very rigid rules about what is “good” art and what is “foolish” or “lightweight” or “unimportant” are.  The male defined literary establishment has told us for eons that stories about domestic life and relationships are not important.  Unless a man writes the story, of course.

This is sentimental crap. Girls can’t be real artists. 

You don’t need the critic who is only there to tear you down, remind you of all the reasons you don’t deserve to write, all the reasons you are an imposter. A thoughtful writer develops a barometer of where her voice is over time, when a sentence is weak, or a storyline needs more work, but that’s not the evil critic I’m referring to. I’m talking about the nasty voice, the one that undercuts you at strange junctures—like maybe especially when you’re about to do something big, or cross a threshold, or make a discovering in your work.

Here’s the way to tell the difference: the healthy voice offers suggestions in a thoughtful tone, or a straightforward one. The killer critic sneers or slams. The healthy critic says, “Hmm. Do you think that might be a bit weak? Can you make it stronger?”  The killer critic says, “You’re never going to learn to do this right. Why are you even bothering? You have no talent.”

It can take time to distinguish between the two, and many of us carry around a mean voice for many years or decades without vanquishing them. But one way to know the difference between thoughtful and evil is to listen to what the voices say.

Take a few minutes to ask yourself if there is an evil critic who needs to be silenced. Is there more than one?

Not everyone wants to draw a cartoon (though I encourage you to draw a figure of some kind to represent that critic–you might be amazed) but we are all writers here—you can certainly scrawl out all the killer phrases of your critic on a big piece of paper, writing down all the cruel judgments it makes. 

If you can identify where that particular judgment came from, acknowledge it. For a relative who meant well—my mother, for example, who wanted me to write literary fiction, so urged me not to write romance as a sixteen-year-old (“don’t prostitute your talent that way”), say thank you and scratch out the comment with a big sharpie that eradicates the comment.  For the really evil ones like my Very Bad Art Teacher, first acknowledge the damage this person did, and then, for the sake of all the art you can unleash into the world, do some slash and burn. Maybe actually burn the piece of paper.  Maybe cut it into little ribbons and drop them into the composter to turn into something nourishing.

I’ve done a great many creativity exercises in my time, but this one freed me in truly remarkable way.  Maybe it will work for you, too.  Check out the class, Imagining [3], at Sketchbook Skool, and be sure to check out Marloes’ work on Instagram [4]and the web [2].  This is one of her cartoons:

http://marloesdevries.tumblr.com/image/158066612157 [5]

Can you make out the difference between the good editor and the killer critic? Do you know the source of the worst of the mean ones?  And finally, if you try the exercise, what do you think? 

About Barbara O'Neal [6]

Barbara O'Neal [7] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [8], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [9].