When Your Inner Critic Won't Shut Up

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I've been working on a poem lately that has proven difficult. It's a bit more complex than what I usually write; and to add to that, I'd pre-emptively decided that I was going to enter this poem in CBC's Poetry Competition. Entries must be between 400 and 600 words...and I don't usually write poems anywhere near that long. It's possible to submit a collection of poems, but I just had it so firmly in my mind that this was going to be one poem. With a minimum of 400 words.

So where I usually revise a poem by cutting out all that is unnecessary, I found myself keeping an eye on the word count, adding in things that I knew weren't really adding to the poem. Trying to make it work. Getting really frustrated in the process.

And then I did something even worse: I went on to the Canada Writes website and started reading through last year's winning and shortlisted poems. And reading the author bios. And getting really, really discouraged.

Julia Cameron calls it "the critic" in The Artist's Way. Kim Addonizio simply refers to it as our demons. Basically, it is this sad, scared little voice that sometimes gets very loud, trying to convince us that our creative endeavors are silly, stupid, tired, pointless, worthless, etc. etc. My demons were loud yesterday. I'm not a published author! My poems are not like these poems! I do not have an MFA! Oh god, should I get an MFA? I can't afford an MFA! I'll never be published! Give it all up now!

Stop. Stop stop stop stop stop! Step away from the internet!

I did just that. While babies napped and 4 year olds watched a show about crocodiles, I unrolled my mat and did a few rounds of sun salutations, then a few more poses and finally a blissful savasana. Just lying there, feeling my body sink into the floor, watching my mind very briefly go quiet. Then I got up and hugged my kid, made some pizza dough, got outside, came back in, drank a beer, and went to bed.

And this morning, on waking, I knew. Don't listen to those demons, first of all. Because writing is my life breath; it is so important for me to do. I must do it even if I never get published, never win an award.

And I knew, too, that I must stop trying to write the 400 word poem that will be entered into the CBC Poetry competition. Instead, write the poem that needs to be written. Write it on your terms. Cut out all those extra words that are making it a poorer poem, anyway. It seems so simple but I, and I hope I'm not alone, often get into these rigid places where my mind is set on something and so it must be. It's useless, though, to try and fit ourselves into a rigid structure that just isn't working. The outcome will make us feel like shit, and it certainly won't win any prizes.

Once I'd freed myself of these expectations, I was able to come back to the poem and see it's truth and beauty. The demons were quiet again, sitting petulantly in the back seat, looking out the window as I let my muse drive the car.

That poem won't be entered in the CBC Poetry Competition. In fact I don't know that I'll enter anything in any competition right now! Instead I'll focus on writing the poems that need to be written. And if they happen to fit nicely into a box, then maybe. But I'm done trying to force them.

It occurs to me as I write this that these things hold true for parenting, as well. It's funny how often I see parallels between my writing life and my parenting life. Just as with this particular poem, I get these ideas about how my kids should be, or how I should be as their mother, or how our day should be structured or whatever. And then I just try so hard to slam that square peg into that round hole. And nobody is happy, and it never works. I need to parent the kids I have, the way they need to be parented in each moment; and I need to be the mother that I am. The harder I fight these things, the harder our lives are in general.

It should be noted, too, that comparison comes in to play. Don't compare yourself to other mothers; don't compare yourself to other writers. So obvious, but so difficult in practice!

So how about you, readers and writers and parents? How do you shut up your inner critic so you can just do what you have to do?

STOP

Image via Flick user TheGabeC. Licensed via Creative Commons.


*This post is a part of the What I'm Writing link-up.


20 comments

  1. Yep, relate to all this! You are so right about how toxic it is to comparing yourself to others, when what you need to do is 'write the poem that needs to be written. Write it on your terms.' (Btw, you might enjoy this infographic by the very brilliant Guillaume Morrisette which I posted on my blog at: http://www.rebeccaannsmith.co.uk/how-its-really-going-when-you-ask-me-how-its-going/ - it still makes me laugh). Good luck with it all.

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    1. Thanks! I will check out that link. : )

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  2. This is beautiful, inspirational! I too have a deeply ingrained inner critic, however I have learned to hear it when it starts to speak and acknowledge it but also look for the reason that it comes, for example; tiredness, hunger, hormones, etc. And I try to step away from it an give myself what I need, like you have so clearly done here. x #WhatImWriting

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    1. Looking at what brings up the critic's voice is a great idea. And I love that you hear and acknowledge that voice. It is still a part of us, after all. In her book "Ordinary Genius", Kim Addonizio says we can't have our angels (genius, muse, inspiration) without our demons. That they are part of the same whole. Thanks for commenting!

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  3. The line 'write the poem that needs to be written' resonated so much. I have been agonising over my blog/writing lacking direction so much that I have stopped writing, I've paralysed myself. Sometimes, we need to just write. #whatimwriting

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    1. You are so right, Sara! It happens to me often, too. I hope you're able to get back at it.

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  4. Isn't it funny how the inner critic is so much louder than all the supportive voices? It doesn't matter how often I'm told I have a talent for writing that critical voice always manages to drown all the others out! One of the curses of being a writer I guess...

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    1. It is! It takes some practice and lots of self-love, but we can move past it!

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  5. This is so true - great parallel. I hadn't thought how you could compare writing to parenting, but we all do these things, in both those areas. Stepping away from the internet is probably one of the best pieces of advice you could give anybody. We are all hooked!!

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    1. Yes we are all hooked! And it's great for connecting with others in the often isolating worlds of writing and parenting, but we have to learn to be the masters, I guess!

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  6. This resonates with me too - I think we all have that inner critic. I LOVE the image of the sulky demons in the back of the car with the muse at the wheel - I can see her there, hair blowing in the wind, a slight smile on her face as she knows the creative journey is back on track. And I'm so glad you decided to write the poem as it needs to be written and not to make it overly long. And we should all stop comparing ourselves to others pretty much ever... except for just a teeny bit to be inspired. Love this post, thanks for linking to #whatImWriting

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    1. Maddy, you're so right that a little bit of comparison can be inspiring. I hadn't thought of that! But often it does spark us on to try something new, to push ourselves and our craft that little bit further. It's about finding a balance between wanting to be a little more like someone you admire, and feeling hopeless that you'll never be exactly like them. Thanks for your comment!

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  7. oh how I hate my inner critic. it's why I've learned to write and post and not worry. sure most of what I post wouldn't make it through my perfection review filter but it's better than never writing and when I look back I'm not sad that some substandard writing is out there, because there are also the gems

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    1. Yes, we absolutely have to go through the "substandard" stuff to get to the gems!

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  8. So glad to read you managed to keep these demons quiet!
    I agree, one has to write what needs to be written. I often find that when we try to stick to rigid rules, the words simply do not ring true.

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    1. And that's exactly the problem I was having! It just did not feel right. Thanks for commenting!

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  9. Oh it's hard. I guess like you I TELL IT-- shut up!

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  10. This is a very pertinent post for me right now - I'm teetering close to that place where the demons take over and tell me it's all rubbish, but like you I'm getting a little bit better at dealing with them each time it happens! My main problem at the moment is juggling caring for my son (who's with me pretty much all the time) and writing with all the pesky work-related things I have to do too. I thought I had it pretty sussed with getting up early to write, but now he's started to wake early too, and on top of that has been not very well the last few days so everything's falling apart, especially my confidence at my ability as a writer! So I'm spending today remembering to breathe and telling myself that this will pass, we will find our balance again, and the words will begin to flow more easily... I hope so anyway ;) xx

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    1. Oh Sophie, I feel this so much. Balance writing and mothering and the rest of life/work is so hard. So hard. I totally relate to finding a groove only to have it thrown completely out of whack. I hope you're still breathing through it, keeping an eye open for a new space in which to fit you and your writing. It will come. Sending love your way. xo

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