We all have an inner critic, and if that critic helps us improve as writers, so much the better. But when does the internal critic become toxic? There are times when my inner critic is the first kind: a rather exacting professor who can be difficult and even irritating, but at the end of the day, I improve as a writer under its oversight. Far more common, however, is the other kind: coming at me more like the dementors do in the Harry Potter stories, sucking all the creative life out of me. (For those not familiar, the dementors are terrifying spirits who literally take out all the good in the world, including the souls of people, which ultimately drives their victims insane.) All humorous dramatization aside, this is the kind of toxic inner critic I am talking about.
In her classic book, If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland devotes much of her instruction on managing criticism, both internal and external, and how the wrong kind of criticism actually hinders rather than helps. According to Ueland, criticism taken too far actually destroys “the fire of imagination and inspiration,” and if not managed well, can keep someone from writing altogether. Ueland feels that writing is crucial to our well-being, and when we write, we are happier and healthier people. In her words:
All people who try to write (and all people long to, which is natural and right) become anxious, timid, contracted, become perfectionists, so terribly afraid that they may put something down that is not as good as Shakespeare. And so no wonder you don’t write and put it off month after month, decade after decade. For when you write, if it is to be any good at all, you must feel free,–free and not anxious.
Ueland goes on to say that the remedy for such anxiety is as follows:
The best teachers for you are those friends who love you, who think you are interesting, or very important, or wonderfully funny; whose attitude is: ‘Tell me more. Tell me all you can. I want to understand more about everything you feel and know and all the changes inside and out of you. Let more come out.” And if you have no such friend,–and you want to write,–well then you must imagine one.
While I agree with Ueland — her book is one of my favorite books on writing — I want to expand on her concept of the importance of love and self-trust as qualities that are crucial to the writer. I found out much later in life the importance of self-acceptance as a key piece of the equation. While some might think they are one and the same thing, let me explain what I don’t mean: I am not talking about the warm and fuzzy world of positive affirmations but something much deeper and grittier than that. What I do mean is the act of embracing your shadow, which is essentially accepting the parts of yourself you don’t like and not just the parts that you do. The truth is, the parts we don’t like and often repress have a lot to say and teach us if we allow them a voice. There is a lot of creativity and inspiration that comes only when we unify these disparate parts of ourselves. Paradoxically, writing is often how we do that: the end is also the means.
Let me illustrate what I mean by that from my own experience. In my younger years, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. While I had suffered from depression off and on for most of my life at the time, in my early 30s I had to be hospitalized. I wrote a lot in that time, volumes and volumes. Some things were very dark, but for the first time, I allowed myself to write without later destroying what I had written (a common occurrence before then). Without my inner critic running the show, I simply wrote. In tunneling through all of my shadow (as much as I was aware of at the time, since it is an ongoing process), I paradoxically found the light and goodness in me as well. Rather than being separate, it was all one.
After I was released from the hospital, I shoved all those painful experiences deep down in my psyche and eventually felt I had finally moved on from the past, and in many ways, I had. I raised my family and built a successful career negotiating and writing contracts. Life had its ups and downs as it always does, but the debilitating depression was in the past. However, an interesting fact emerged: my best writing came from those dark and painful years.
I didn’t make the connection as to why until recently, that my toxic inner critic was still at play, but in more subtle ways. It would still bully my shadow-self when it would crop up, but it was no longer as successful as it had once been in keeping it all at bay. Our soul is wise, and it knows when we are ready to face certain things and grow. I began to realize my shadow-self was not something to be ashamed of or that needed to be excised like some cancerous tumor, but that it — all of it — was me, and it had something important to say.
The first step was seeing myself outside the familiar lens of judgment. Any act of creating (writing or otherwise) involves making the invisible, visible. The invisible is our imagination, our soul, or our spirit: the purest and deepest truth of who we are, and showing that takes courage. Bottom line: If I can’t be fully visible to myself, how can I ever be to anyone else? From a half-hidden state, my writing is thus reduced to a carefully edited mask rather than something viable and alive.
As James Baldwin said, “We must learn to make love with whatever it is that frightens us.” It may seem counter-intuitive, but the shadow is only “tamed” or “transformed” through love, through art, through finding our voice. At the bottom of the feared abyss is who we really are, which is the true source of our genius and inspiration. In short, there really is no separation between what we don’t like about ourselves and what we do, but rather it is a chiaroscuro effect. As every painter knows from the use of that term, light and shadow play together and are actually inseparable: we would have no shadow without light, and no depth without shadow.
In conclusion, we may not have a magic wand like Harry Potter did to vanquish his dementors, but as we know from the story his true weapons were actually courage and love, the same things we need to vanquish our own.
Please share anything you have to add; I’d love to hear from you.……………