Listening to Your Inner Critic

When to Listen, and When to Ignore, Your Inner Voice

After a round of deep cuts and major revisions to my book, I hoped that this version of the story would finally be done. Upon re-reading, I discovered that the story hangs together better than ever, but . . .

There’s always a BUT. “Let’s talk about your big but, Simone,” says Pee-Wee Herman. I needed to figure out if my inner critic was right or not. I posted this on Facebook: “What if our inner critics aren’t wrong?” The response was swift:

(That last one is from a very confident friend of mine.)

I no longer beat myself up over everything I do. I’ve stopped thinking I’m an untalented hack wannabe failure. But this time, my inner critic sounded right, and the hardest part was disentangling the truth from the self-flagellating messages my brain sends every day.

My inner critic told me, “The story is fine, but the writing is meh. I’m bored.” I was uninspired by own language, and I wondered why anyone else would feel compelled to keep reading if I didn’t think it fully communicated what I wanted it to.

I moped about it for a few days. I called my friend who has been a big cheerleader on my project. I emailed my editor. I loaded and unloaded the dishwasher. I texted our handywoman about the garage door.

Finally, I faced my inner critic square on, and asked myself: Is any part of this true? And if so, what am I going to do about it?

The true part: the language of the story was not as rich as the story itself. I knew it was true because it wasn’t an attack on me, it was a reasonable assessment of the work itself. That was the part of the criticism I needed to act on.

I did two things: First, I copied out longhand a full page of Joan Didion’s writing. Didion is the writer I would most like to be compared to, and writing out her words was a way of learning how she constructs a sentence and communicates an idea. She is much more deliberate than I am. She is slower, not in a boring way, but in a richer way. I could immediately understand why my writing seemed both too fast and not interesting enough. I needed to slow all the way down and describe the feeling in each moment or idea.

The second thing I did was put on the Billboard Top 100 songs from 1984, the year when my story begins. When Doves Cry was the number one hit that year, and hearing it brought me back to the exact time I needed to evoke.

I am so glad I listened to my inner critic. This was a rare instance when she was not undermining my self-esteem; she was telling me something was missing from the work itself, and that I needed to do something different to make my work better. I’m going to go back to ignoring here for awhile. I have a lot of writing to do.

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