Confronting the Inner Critic

"You call that writing? I've known FROGS that write better than that!"

For the past two weeks I’ve been sick. Not raging fever and completely incapacitated sick. Just sick with this year’s respiratory virus. You know the thing. It comes around every winter/early spring, knocks you upside the head with a sore throat, congestion, and maybe a cough. In the normal flow of events, it runs its course in a couple weeks and then moves on to its next victim. Time passes, and you forget you ever had it.

This year’s crud, as we call it, features exhaustion. For the first week, it was all I could do to move from the couch to the toilet when I needed to pee. Even after it began to let up, minimal effort tired me out. I’d feel fine for a couple hours after I got up in the morning, but after noon or so I had to lie down and recuperate.

Being tired is difficult for me. I guess it’s difficult for everyone. For me, it’s difficult in a particularly annoying and frustrating way. See, I devote a LOT of energy just to being okay. By “being okay,” I mean ignoring all the internal programming and belief systems that tell me how terrible I am, both as a person and as a writer. The ongoing internal monologue with its myriad voices insisting I’m no good, I don’t do things the “right” way, no one will ever read my books, everyone hates me, etcetera. Over the years, I’ve learned to disconnect from those voices, let them, in the words of Natalie Goldberg, be “the sound of distant laundry flapping in the breeze.” When I’ve had enough rest, maintaining that distance is no great problem.  But when I’m tired, the shields I’ve built disintegrate. After a bad night, or an illness, or even an especially long day, the voices get louder and louder until they’re the only thing in my reality. I get anxious. I question myself. I ask my husband for validation, over and over: “Are you mad at me? Am I in trouble? Am I bad? Do I have worth? Do my books suck? Is everyone lying to me?”

“No, no. no, yes, no, no,” he says. It doesn’t quiet the voices, but it gives me something to hold onto until I get some rest and can go back to ignoring them.

Over the last two weeks, while I’ve been sick, I haven’t been writing. Now I’m feeling better and I need to get back to it. Notice how I said “need” there instead of “want.” I need to get back to it because I’m only about a third of the way through the first draft and I had planned an early summer release (HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Yeah, right.). I need to get back to it because the story needs to progress. But right now, I don’t really want to go back to it. I’m having a horrible time getting motivated to sit down at my desk and open the Chapter Nine document, which is where I left off. Some of this is no doubt due to the fact that I’m not entirely over this crud. But most of it, I fear, is due to my inner critic.

"You call that writing? I've known FROGS that write better than that!"
“You call that writing? I’ve known FROGS who write better than that!”

Book seven has been an interesting journey so far. When I finished book six, I thought book seven would be an entirely different story than the one I’m writing now. In fact, the plot I thought would take place in book seven hit me in the head when I wasn’t very far into the first draft of book six. (This happens often. I know I need to concentrate on the current story or task, but these other ones seem so much more attractive and exciting! I gather this is common for authors.) I even churned out the first scene of that plot to append to book six when I released it. And after the obligatory break to recover from my book release, I plunged ahead. About six chapters in, however, I realised THAT book  did not belong at that place in the overall series arc.

Well, okay. I had another project in mind. For about a year (ever since I got addicted to White Collar, if truth be told), I’d wanted to write a book about a confidence game. It’d be fun, and it would give me an opportunity to show Timber in a different light. The desire only got stronger when one of my husband’s construction clients turned us on to Leverage. So, fine. I had long cons and grifters nudging my brain. I decided to do the con book NOW instead of in some distant future (I’d originally slated it for book nine).

I tossed the idea around for a while until I came up with a plot I thought would work. I hadn’t started with any plot, just this vague notion of “Hey, you know what would be great? A CON!” I began writing. And although I felt certain I’d made the right choice as far as the series arc–if you’ve ever grappled with trying to shove a decent book into the wrong timeline you’ll know what this feels like–the new story gave me trouble almost from the start. Not because I questioned my writing ability; I’ve grown confident about that over the years. But because my inner critic woke up and opened fire.

"You realize flying is stupid and dangerous, don't you?"
“You realize flying is stupid and dangerous, don’t you?”

To put it in simple terms, I am experiencing more doubt and judgment of this story than I have of any I’ve written in a long time, maybe ever. It takes a particular form. I think the story is stupid. No, I don’t really think that. But that’s what the inner critic keeps telling me. The story is stupid. I don’t get any more than that. Nothing concrete, no reasons it’s stupid. Just stupid by virtue of existing. Every time I open the document–whichever chapter I happen to be working on–the chant starts up in my brain. “STUPID. IT’S STUPID, STUPID, STUPID!” Sometimes I get a bit more: It’s unrealistic. No one will be able to suspend their disbelief about this. It’s off the deep end. It’s too farfetched. I even went as far as to enlist a second Alpha reader to give a look at the first act and give me a straight opinion. She did give me a few tips about things that needed addressed. But none of them was an outright dismissal of the setup as “stupid.”

Yet I keep hearing it.

To complicate matters, as a writer I am a “Pantser” rather than a “Plotter.” In case you don’t know these terms, here’s a brief definition. A “Plotter” is a person who plans everything in the book in advance, before embarking on any of the creative writing portions of the task. They make meticulous outlines of every chapter, sometimes every scene. They know every rise and fall of the script. When characters interact and what happens when they do. Where those interactions lead. You get my drift. A “Pantser,” on the other hand, writes by the seat of their pants. For me, this means I start out with an overall idea, a set of probable characters, a beginning, and an end. If I’m lucky, I get a middle too. Usually when I start a chapter I have an idea where I want to end it, but not always. Sometimes I stumble on a chapter ending unawares. Sometimes the unimportant transitional scene I thought I could cover in two pages turns out to be WAY more vital that I guessed and ends up taking a couple thousand words. And that’s okay. I trust my process, and I work better with a loose set of guidelines than with a strict playbook. And sure, sometimes I get stuck. Then I stare into space a lot and try to hear/see/feel what happens next. Or I get my husband to take me out to dinner and we hash things out over a meal.

Anyway. I had less of an idea than usual going into it what this new book seven would be about, and it’s taken several turns along the way. What I thought would be the main theme turned out to be irrelevant to the story I’m telling. A character point I thought I could cover in very little space turns out to be major. Characters I hadn’t planned at all keep appearing and influencing the story, and some of them aren’t who I thought. A scene I thought would be a major plot driver looks like it has no purpose and no motivation behind it except that it’s “cool.” And so forth. And every time something like this happens, the inner critic screams at me. “STUPID, STUPID, STUPID!”

inner criticI know what this is about. It’s about fear. Most obstacles I have to overcome in my writing are about fear. I was afraid of writing explicit sex scenes. I was afraid of making my heroes violent. I was afraid of killing antagonists. I was afraid of being judged for stuff too close to personal experience. This time, I’m treading unfamiliar ground. Most of my books are driven by relationships. This one is driven by events. Most of my books have a strong magical component. This one focuses more on mundane skills. I love stories about cons and capers, but I’ve never tried to write one before. I’m unsure of where all the twists and turns are leading, and of whether I can pull this off. I’ve taken my characters out of their comfort zone, and so I have taken myself out of my own comfort zone. And in those places where I’ve allowed myself a modicum of comfort, I question it. “Are you really using that plot device again? Isn’t that a bit much?” “Well, yes,” I tell myself. “It does look like that plot device. But really you’ll see that it’s totally different.” This doesn’t help. Even when I got really Meta and had a couple characters comment on how the device keeps popping up, it didn’t help.

I’m not sure why my fear manifests as “STUPID,” however. Probably some messed up shit from my childhood. Both my family and my peer group put a high premium on intelligence. Being smart was virtually the only way I got any validation. It’s the personal quality I feel most secure about and the one I value most. So convincing me that I’m stupid, that what I’m doing is stupid, is my inner critic’s surest way of getting me to abandon the project.

That’s what it wants. That what the inner critic always wants. It wants you to stop. It wants you to give up. Doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about a creative project or personal growth. The inner critic abhors change of any kind. It wants you to stay comfortable, not to challenge, because your comfort zone is where your inner critic has the most power. Horrible, but there it is. It’s true especially for people who have been damaged, because the inner critic is part of what helps damaged people, or people in dangerous situations, survive. It keeps you safe by steering you away from actions that can hurt you. By reminding you what happened last time. By warning you away from shaky ground. By hurting you–just a little, so you don’t get a bigger hurt later. By calling you stupid.

It makes you a nice, cozy nest where nothing harms you and nothing challenges you and nothing changes.

But you’re not the same person now. I have to keep telling myself this. I am not the person who had to tread carefully. I don’t live in that world any more. It’s a memory. It’s not NOW. And in the NOW, I want to stretch out. I want to challenge myself. I want to go places I haven’t been and see things I haven’t seen. I want to grow, and I want my writing to grow. And I can’t do that by giving into the inner critic and staying in my nice, cozy comfort zone.

Of course, when I come to this place, the inner critic gets louder and louder. It hurts me more and more, trying to keep me from taking the next step to the place where it won’t have so much power. I have no real idea how to combat this, except by slow steps, with the occasional burst of frenzied activity. But I move on in the faith that, eventually, I will move beyond the range of that voice.

I know the game. I refuse to play.