Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The pros and cons of the inner critic

For me, almost every poem begins with a series of false starts.

I used to be very squeamish about my poetic beginnings. I’d write a couple of lines that pointed in the direction I wanted to go, and they would strike me as so terrible that I would scratch them out—completely obliterate them. In fact, after scratching leftrightleftrightleftright, I’d make little random shaes and letters over top and scratch them out again so no one could possibly read through to the original.

I mean these lines were bad.

They still are, actually. My first lines are clichéd at best, vomit-worthy at worst. Just thinking about them has always kept me humble with magazine submitters and students whose early efforts aren’t up to snuff. Little do they no what a horrific first-drafter I am.

You can imagine my distress as I shift into novel-writing mode.

I recently came up with an idea for a novel. That idea turned into a scratch outline, and then a very detailed outline—and it now exists as a notebook filled with plans, drafts, drawings, character sketches, Venn diagrams, house plans, botanical information, and more.

The problem is the starting point. How does one begin a novel? When you start a poem and you stink up the joint, you can cross out—obliterate—one or two offending lines and start over, with full confidence that the bad lines are serving as a step toward some good ones.

Starting a whole novel and messing up is a much more daunting proposal, if you ask me. Those aborted lines and stanzas equate to about a quarter the length of the resulting poem. Does this mean that I’ll have to write fifty pages of a novel to figure out how terrible it is and start over? I’ll need a wrist brace for the scribbling!

After my last post, on overcoming writer’s block, some friends and I were talking about the problem of the inner critic and how to silence it. For some, the inner critic shuts the whole operation down. In this respect I’m fortunate to lose only a quatrain here or there.

I can easily relate, though, when the topic is long-form fiction instead of poetry. I share the sense that there’s such a thing as wasted effort—such a thing as something to lose. I believe I can write something too stupid to recover from. I think there’s a chance I could blow the whole illusion that I’m a real writer with something valuable to say.

With poetry, I’ve reached the point where my inner critic is a help instead of a hindrance. I can smile as I scrawl, fully assured that something good is coming. My inner critic sometimes dissuades me from new ways of experimentation, but that’s part of what it means to have a voice. That critic also tells me when I’m boring myself and every potential reader, and this sways me back toward new ground.

I’m not sure if I could properly deal with my inner critic until I hit my forties. Then she just began to strike me as that sharp-tongued girlfriend who will say absolutely anything—the one you feel a little embarrassed to take anywhere for fear of what criticism might pop out. She’s a hoot once you learn to deal with her—once you lose the capacity to feel offense. While she’s frequently correct, she’s often wrong, and although she can be richly entertaining, she’s not altogether kind.

When it comes to my novel, though, I’m brand new, and I haven’t exactly built up my calluses. The inner critic doesn’t point me in a better direction; she completely silences me. Until I get that first page done, there isn’t likely to be a second one. (I’ve been toying with the idea of working around her by starting in the middle, but that’s a post for another day.)

For me, the solution to dealing with the inner critic comes down to four words: permission to be stupid. Until I realized the importance of letting myself write and think ridiculous, stupid things, I was never able to make the kinds of bold connections that most thrill me in a poem. The inner critic is conservative, and innovation, in writing or any other aspect of life, is anything but.

Sometimes I actually begin a writing session by saying those words: permission to be stupid. I’ve even written it at the top of the page. I’ve written poem drafts where I had to edit out lines that actually said things like, “Wow, this is dumb.” But you know, giving voice to the inner critic helped me to pinpoint that voice and separate it from my creative mind. Once the inner critic is put in its place, it can be very useful. The problem happens when it stops us in our tracks—but, like beginning my novel in the middle, sometimes it’s just a matter of finding a way around it.

No comments:

Post a Comment