Stopped Before You Begin: The Role of Self-Critic In the Writing Process

Happy New Year – It’s time to get back to work!

I’ve been reading a lot of Natalie Goldberg lately, mostly because I received two of her books on writing for Christmas.  I have many books on writing, and being a writer, from E.B. White to John Gardner, Anne Lamott, Woolf.  What I like about Goldberg, as with Lamott, is her personality.  There’s whimsy and there’s honesty and there’s humor.  There’s also the Wild Mind (the title of one of her books) and the topic of this week’s blog.

What lives in the wild mind is our truer self – the self of first thoughts, subconscious reactions, and original ideas.  The other mind, what Goldberg calls the “monkey mind” or the little point of focus we put all of our energy into while the great universe of the wild mind flows all around us is the critic, the editor of our mind. You’ve heard about this persona, it’s the one that tells us we aren’t any good at writing (or painting or music), that our ideas are dumb and our writing is worse.

I like this concept of the wild mind, or more to the point, the aspect of our creative selves that has first thoughts.  First thoughts are unedited, honest, and usually pretty accurate.  There is a lot of shocking stuff in the wild mind.  There is a lot of interesting stuff in the wild mind.  What we tend to do with the contents of the wild mind, however, and this isn’t just according to Goldberg but according to my own observations, is that we edit it.  Like some state controlled media outlet, we take the raw truth of the wild mind and remove the offensive, controversial, and honest parts and replace them with second and third variations so that no one is likely to be offended or think less of us.  I think this is why we do it.  We don’t want to be judged.

But what happens when we allow the critic/editor to do its work?  Our writing comes out bland.  Am I right?

A few blogs ago I discussed writer’s block, and how writer’s block is nothing more than over thinking.  Once we have a rush of unedited thought we tend to think about what we just put down and we feel guilt.

I first experienced this as a child.  As a pre-teen I was fascinated by stories of World War II.  I loved the Americans versus the Germans especially.  I recall writing a scene for a story I was excited to tell.  In my story the American forces were crossing the African desert, literally crawling over the dunes to get to a vantage point where they could look down on the enemy and assess the next steps in their strategy.  As the scene built and the forces were about to reach their objective, a previously undetected threat was descending.  A Messerschmitt warplane was approaching fast.  As the scene concluded the American forces suddenly realized they were about to be compromised.  I concluded the scene with the words: “And then all hell broke loose.”

But I was so ashamed for having written the word “hell” that I destroyed the page and never went back to that story again even though for me, in that story, it was the correct sentiment. I still remember the rush I felt for having written it, not because it was a “swear word” but because it captured the feeling I had for the scene.  This is how writing should feel.  I think about my shame and embarrassment now and realize nothing bad would have come from my hell breaking loose, but in reflecting on that moment I realize that I am still crippled by the editors of my internal state.  I still struggle with freeing the wild mind.

There is another component to this wild, or free, mind versus the monkey, or controlled, mind – that of the positive voice.  Goldberg calls this the “sweetheart.”  Goldberg’s sweetheart tells us positive things: “good job writing your pages today,” or “I am excited by your story idea,” and “I know you will succeed.”  The sweetheart is a variation of positive thinking.  Like The Secret, we find our dreams of success coming true because we believe in ourselves.  When we put energy into doubt, into believing we will fail, and into being disappointed we get what we focus on.  We are not trained, for whatever reason, to thrust ourselves into the task at hand with the expectation that it will succeed.  I sincerely believe that the people who are successful doing things we wish we could do actually will themselves to succeed.  Sure they have doubts, but they put their energy into succeeding.  Film makers, artists, engineers, doctors, business owners.  As a species it feels easier to frown than smile, and it feels easier to lower our expectations than to demand success.  But the effort to succeed is no harder than the effort to fail.  This is where we need our positive voice to come forward.  It’s like an imaginary best friend and it works like this:

“Ty, I’m really glad you’re doing such an exciting project, I know you will be able to do those tough edits later, but right now just get it down, buddy.”

“Look at the progress you’re making.  You’ve written x pages in only a few weeks!”

“Keep honest, buddy!  Write “drunk” – we’ll edit sober later!”

“Hang in there.  You’re going to succeed at this thing and I’ll be right here to help you.”

Telling ourselves these things replaces what we might often be saying instead:

“It would be easier to get a regular job.”

“Writing is too hard.”

“Most successful writers were published by now.”

I’ve quit writing many times over my earlier years because I believed these things.  I got a big boy job and made big boy money and thought I solved what I needed.  But I didn’t solve what I needed because I need to write.  Goldberg says that those of us who are laden with the urge to write might be able to get away from it for a few months, but if we never come back to it we will end up drunk, insane, or suicidal.  She also has the wonderful insight that many people wish they could quit doing whatever career they’re doing now and be a writer, but writers never want to be anything else.  If this is the case, and I believe it is, we better get that inner cheerleader warmed up because we’re going to need it.

Remember that our minds are where we live as writers.  They hold the knowledge, experience and vocabulary that we, individually, know.  The best we can do is to add more knowledge and experience, read a lot, and train the critic to become the cheerleader.  Replace the negative voice with the positive even if you don’t believe it at first.  And keep going.  Be randy, be naughty, be disappointing for having said that.  You will be forgiven and your writing will be respected.  Most of all you will respect yourself, and writing really is about understanding our minds and sharing what we have to say about ourselves.

A final thought on freeing your mind.  Even if you are working on a serious piece – a short story, a novel, play or poem – do some writing exercises in addition where nothing is on the line.  By scribbling on a piece of paper or opening a separate page in your word processor and ranting and raving you will free yourself up to be more creative when it counts.  Five minutes may be all it takes to wake up your inner prankster.  And remember, when the editing time comes for the serious work you can make any adjustments you want to.  Just get the truth out, gnash your teeth a little, feel those feelings.  Get the hell out on the paper and don’t worry a thing about what someone else thinks.  There’s always someone more controversial, and for sure there are millions who are more conservative.  Which side do you want to be on?

Best wishes for the New Year.  I, for one, am excited for 2013.

See you soon, you wild-minded people.



7 comments on “Stopped Before You Begin: The Role of Self-Critic In the Writing Process

  1. Good post! Can I ask you, what is your favorite book about writing> I would be interested in reading up on writing and maybe get some ideas for my blog. Thanks! – Amanda

    • emperort says:

      Hi Amanda,

      There are so many good books on writing out there, and in recommending one I would say it depends in part on the personality of the writer. Natalie Goldberg and Anne Lamott are two writers whose personalities really come through, and in that way they seem “companionable” because they seem real on the page. In my graduate school years John Gardner was my mentor (through books – he died in 1982) and I still see his writings on writing as supreme. I also found The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron extremely helpful in freeing my creative blocks. So rather than recommend one book – though perhaps I suggest beginning with Wild Mind or Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg – look into each of these writers and see what they have to offer. From there you will discover so much more (books like The Forest for the Trees by Lerner, for example).

      Best wishes and thank you for your comment!

  2. lilygutschmidt says:

    I can definitely relate to this post. I am freshmen in High School and I used to love writing, but now whenever I sit down to write down something for school I just think about if it will meet the teachers acceptations and it extinguishes the creative fire that is usually dancing in my head. Do you have any recommendations for books on writing for High School students? are the ones you recommended above valid?

    • emperort says:

      Hi Lily,

      The ones I’ve recommended here are certainly appropriate for any writer who is dedicated to the craft of writing and wants to learn more. I can’t think of a specific title geared toward high school students, but there’s an idea for you – you could write one! Remember something about expectations of your professors versus the freedom you have when writing for yourself. In school your teacher is looking for proof that you are connecting with the material and lesson plan. When you write for yourself you are free to play with language, ideas, and genres. And don’t forget the value of imitation as you get started. One of the common exercises for new writers is to copy, line by line, some of the works of your favorite authors. As you get a feel for the language you will begin to formulate your own ways of using it. After you have practiced writing for a while (a million words, perhaps) you will arrive at your own unique way of expressing. We all have it, we just need to practice until it comes out.

  3. fslack says:

    Terrific post! I am constantly fighting the “crippled by perfectionism” battle, and that darn negative voice just keeps on piping up. Sometimes I don’t even sit down to write because I know there will be a battle in my head – which is no fun and exactly the opposite of how good writing should feel. I need to crush that voice and let the fire burn free!

    • emperort says:

      fslack – thank you for your comment. Goldberg gives us four steps to writing, and I list them here in no particular order: 1) Keep your hand moving, 2) Don’t think, 3) Be specific (“pine” versus “tree”, “Porsche” versus “car”) and 4) Lose control.

      These rules pertain to the first draft, of course. In editing and revision we want to be critical, attentive, analytic. But to get going the answer is to just go. Half-dressed, still tipsy, with teeth unbrushed and hair uncombed, just go.

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