Today, as I celebrate my Twitter milestone, I want to discuss one of the low points that comes with being a writer—specifically, the inner critic. We all have a different name for it, but it’s the inner voice that causes us to question everything we write. Storytelling is a subjective art, and it’s important to limit the highs and lows that come with our craft, especially those caused from within. With valleys so low and mountains so high, it becomes easy to lose track of why we chose to take this path.
My inner critic is vicious. I don’t mean “berate me for a typo”—although she certainly won’t hold back—I mean “gut the story and leave it to die” vicious. At the best of times, she can force me to hold my writing to a higher standard. At the worst of times, she causes crippling writer’s block. It becomes a delicate dance to keep her in check, and it’s not always easy to hide from my own self-doubt.
Critiques are an essential part of the writing process. They help us develop, revise, and polish our work until it shines. There is a certain point, however, where they can go too far. You might be questioning me right now. After all, how is it possible to over-perfect something?
Back in my school days, in-class essays were the bane of my existence. We were expected to draft, edit, and turn in essays on vast works of literature using examples from the text without the actual books in front of us—and it counted for about 40% of our overall grade. I’m not sure what kind of sadistic person decided this was the way to test students, but I’m not a fan.
It’s the two and a half hour time limit that kept tugging at my brain. That ticking clock felt like a bomb, waiting to explode and ruin my academic career. Through it all, there was the little voice whispering in my head that the essay wasn’t good enough. Fine. I adjusted the outline, and practically wrote the essay on a separate piece of paper before committing it to the blue test book. I can’t name the exact moment the voice went too far, but I noticed when it started questioning my spelling.
To be specific, my inner critic was questioning the word “water.”
I was so far in my own head, I started to question basic spelling—and I was an English major. Yes, your work can always be better, but your inner critic can only do so much. It’s important to take time and distance from your own work, to have a second and third pair of eyes look over it. Especially when it’s something as dear as your own story.
There’s something personal about writing fiction; we’re creating life with our words. The barbed tongue of the inner critique cuts deeper when it’s my own work, my own world. It rips it to shreds and stomps on the shards, leaving me to pick them up and wonder if it’s worth the effort to piece it all back together.
Her worst convictions forego critiquing the story altogether, and go straight for my creative core. She strikes with a poison-tipped dagger, condemning it to be twisted in place by each rejection—and in this industry, there are a lot. In fact, there are far more valleys than there are mountains.
After all, we only focus on one step at a time. Write the story, revise it, get an agent, go on submission, write the next one. There are so many pit stops, and there is only so much fuel in the tank. Sometimes it feels like our stories are strapped on to the top of the car, held on with thin pieces of rope and likely to be lost somewhere along the way.
Why do we do it?
Perhaps there is not a single career choice more masochistic than writing. We, the many, are destined to trek through valley after valley in the hopes of following in the footsteps of the few giants climbing the mountain. Yet this is a choice so many of us willingly make. There are stories needing to be told, and who else would tell them?
These are the stories that call to us and demand our attention, whether through dreams or a song or a daytime reverie. There is a reason we chose to pursue this, a reason these words came to us. Even as I type this, I can feel my inner critic waiting to pounce. I suppose I should count myself lucky she’s waiting for me to finish this post.
If I let my inner critic dictate my life, I would never write again. It’s as simple as that. There are doubtless benefits to her voice, but sometimes our codependency can be toxic. When the voice lashes out, I need to remember I do this for my love of writing—fickle lover though it may be. Though a writing career would be a dream, it’s never been about the money. While it may not be the love story I used to dream of as a child, it’s the one I have, and I’ll cherish it all the same. Inner critic be damned.