I cringe whenever I hear someone say writing is hard because it’s not – at least, not after you’ve overcome your perfectionism. Once you do that, then writing becomes pretty much effortless, the way it was for many of us when we were young and it was a natural form of self expression.
The thing to do with your perfectionist inner critic is NOT to acquiesce to it or try to shut it down – tactics that only increase your fears and exacerbate the problem – but allow it to speak its piece. Here’s how:
First, recognize that the “creator” in you is fragile – not because you’re weak but because creativity is challenging and the world unsupportive; also, most of us are also undermined by perfectionism, ambivalence and internalized oppression. Perfectionism causes us to set unrealistic goals and then, when we inevitably fall short, to bash ourselves via the inner critic in a desperate effort to get back on track. At that point, we can only think of one solution in the face of all that terror and abuse – to get the hell out (i.e., procrastinate).
The missing voice in this scenario is that of the Wise and Compassionate Adult (WCA), and that is the voice you need to build, and listen to, to be prolific. Instead of trying to squelch your critic, have the WCA dialogue with it via journaling:
Perfectionist: That paragraph you just wrote is horrible!
WCA (nondefensively; with honest curiosity): Why do you think that?
Perfectionist: Well, it’s got all these problems… [delineates]
WCA (thoughtfully): Well, you do have a point. That second sentence is really a stinker. And the metaphor in the third one got mangled. And I screwed up the tenses in the fourth…but you know, it’s only a first draft.
Perfectionist (panicking): It’s a really BAD first draft!
WCA (staying calm): Do you really think that? I’m not so sure. Anne Lamott says first drafts are supposed to be “shitty” – and doesn’t it make sense that the first time you try to write something it’s going to have a lot of flaws?
Perfectionist (grudgingly): Well, maybe.
WCA: And, it’s not like the piece is set in stone. We can edit!
Perfectionist: I guess so. But I’m still really worried about what this says about us as a writer.
WCA: What do you think it says?
Perfectionist: That we’re no good. That we have no talent. And that we won’t succeed.
WCA: But nearly all writers write lots of drafts – including really successful ones. Look at some of the stuff we’ve seen in workshops – or even that gets published. And look at the manuscript pages that accompany the Paris Review interviews of famous writers: some of those are loaded with corrections.
Perfectionist: Well, maybe. But – [changing tactics, and building up a fresh head of steam] – if it takes us forever to write a good paragraph then we’ll never finish the book!
WCA: You know – I agree: a paragraph really isn’t much compared with a book. I promise you that I also want to get more writing done, and write better and faster. That’s what I’m working toward.
Perfectionist: [doesn’t say anything, but calms down in the face of the validation and support]
WCA: But the franticness and name calling – that hasn’t ever worked for us, has it?
Perfectionist: [resigned] I guess not.
WCA: In fact, it’s blocked us, at times, hasn’t it?
WCA: And isn’t it better to write a little, or slowly, than not at all?
Perfectionist (emphatically): Definitely!
WCA: So would it be okay if we just took things one paragraph at a time for now?
WCA: Great! So let’s get back to our writing, shall we?
(This dialog is a bit condensed to fit within the confines of a blog post, but you get the idea. Always give yourself lots of time and space to thoroughly explore the issues.)
Note how the WCA agrees with the perfectionist’s viewpoint when that viewpoint makes sense. This work is not about denial or setting low standards. Also note also how the WCA keeps the conversation productive by steering it away from name calling and self-abuse, and toward problem solving. A WCA wouldn’t tolerate bullying of herself or anyone else in the real world, and she’s not going to tolerate it in her own head.
Students of mine have described the WCA as the voice of the “wise teacher” or “good grandparent.” Writer L.M. May offers a particularly hilarious incarnation of it in a recent blog post. She describes her inner critic as, “an English professor guy who likes to wear tweed,” and her WCA as “Flo,” who:
“…runs a small trucking company in North Carolina and loves to eat cole slaw burgers for lunch. There’s a stack of James Lee Burke and Nora Roberts paperbacks on the corner of her desk that she likes to read during breaks. Often she wears NASCAR T-shirts. She has 0% patience for whining or crap…When Dr. Inner Critic showed up and wouldn’t shut up during the first draft work I was doing, I imagined sending him off to Flo to whine at her instead about the quality of my writing. Writers, by training, have very vivid imaginations. My imagination gave me a whole short scene of Inner Critic beginning his whine about my writing, and losing steam as Flo glared at him. Then she asked him, “Are you going to do L.M.’s work?” which made him hunch up as he replied, “No.” Then she ripped into him verbally with insults about his stupidity and laziness until he slunk off. I got back to work since there was a quota to meet. Inner Critic left me alone since showing up again would mean another yellfest from Flo.”
I’m not big on insulting a part of yourself – even your inner critic – but Flo’s vehement, “overprotective” approach is just what many writers need to feel safe in the midst of the act of creation. Ovid said that, “Every lover is a warrior,” and every writer needs to be, too: a warrior on behalf of her own creativity.