The Writers’ Inner Critic

Writers are brutal self-critics. I’m part of a small chat of mostly writers, a Breakfast Club-esque group of six of us at varying stages of our careers and working in varying genres. Between all of us, we write fiction, non-fiction, academic articles, academic books, leftist political commentary, fanfic, short stories (spec and lit fic), memoir, sports writing, ad writing, YA spec fic, and adult literary fiction. Pretty broad. Every one of us has had times where we go in on our own writing, and the group has had to talk us down.

These self-directed Two Minutes Hates make up the bulk of our writing talk despite them not being frequent. They’re hard on all of us. I personally make a point not to share every rejection (and I get rejected frequently because all writers do). It’s not so much that it’s repetitive or unsympathetic or what have you. There’s an intense dysphoria I feel (and I believe other people feel) when I spend too much time talking about anyone’s rejections and successes.

To explain (maybe over-explain) this dysphoria, I want to go back to this concept of double consciousness I mentioned in this postPhilosophers like Freud and Hegel model a human mind as fragmented, as defined by its ability to comment on (and critique) what is currently happening. That meta-critique isn’t always kind. Freud thought of several disorders of the mind as rooted in a too-harsh superego. W. E. B. Du Bois essentially says that because marginalized people must internalize what the prevailing culture says about them to survive and avoid danger, that superego ends up repeating a lot of horrible things, causing people to self-surveil and self-oppress on behalf of an oppressive culture.

I include the W. E. B. Du Bois discussion of double consciousness not to say everyone who writes is oppressed, but to both include writers who are oppressed (whose feelings are certainly complicated by institutional racism, sexism, ableism, classism etc.  in publishing) and illustrate how much actual harm and distress can be inflicted by a person’s inner critic turned back on them. Writing, especially writing fiction, is solitary. Often, it’s wrapped up in putting a whole other fictional person’s self critical meta-narrative on the page, so we spend a lot of time with our critic. Talking about our writing insecurities, giving voice to that inner critic, also magnifies it. Hearing other people’s inner critic echoes our own. Perversely, hearing other people’s successes contrasts with our critic. “So and so got an agent. What’s her name got a book deal. They did it faster. They got more money Why didn’t you?”

Everyone feels the same way, and some of us handle it badly. They feel like crap and gossip or snipe, or they feel like crap and isolate. They get resentful. This doesn’t just happen with pitching books, it’s a craft thing, too. Part of letting go of a novel is outgrowing it. A novel’s done once you realize it’s a hackneyed piece of shit and you’d be embarrassed for anyone to read it, in other words. You can choose to take that as a cue to spell check and query that sumbitch, or you can let it paralyze you. If you’re not careful, writing can become the space in your life where your self-critic is at its cruelest. It can kill your joy. It can make you stop writing.

This inner critic is a big part of why it’s common writing advice to keep your publishing journey close to the vest. As with all things in life, not everyone has your best interests at heart. Not everyone deals with their inner critic in healthy ways, and some people really do see this as a competition (even as they insist they don’t). Your peers who are good folks and want to be sympathetic are limited, though. They can’t sympathize too much because discussion of your successes and shortcomings are filtered through theirs in a way they don’t enjoy, and that feels awful. Why are you even putting all this effort into expressing yourself, only to be unable to connect to other people? Our critic turns our work and everyone else into a dark, cruel mirror.

The really messed up part?  You’re gonna feel just as bad no matter how much or little success you see. It feels exactly the same. It’s like being stuck with Satan in a sensory deprivation tank, and the choices are listen to this foul, horrible self-loathing, or feel floaty, disconnected from reality, unsure of how to improve. Writing ends up being an act of sustained faith and hope in things unseen.

But knowing that I and other writers are simply keeping faith is ultimately where I’ve found comfort. Less in craft talk, less in critique, more in a kind of parallel play. I am present and doing the work at the same time as others who are doing the work over months and years. I don’t feel connection because I am understood. The evidence of my connection is in seeing others keeping the same faith, observing the same practice. That’s become my bedrock.

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