Writing and the love-hate relationship with the inner critic

How is it that something you think isn’t any good can end up bringing such pleasure?

I asked myself this question after hearing I’d been selected as a winner in the Brisbane City Council’s ‘One Book Many Brisbanes’ short story competition. When I had finished my story, The Fountain, it wasn’t with any great love for the work that I had printed it off and submitted it for the competition. I blame my lacklustre attitude to the work on my inner critic; that nasty little she-gremlin that sat beside my computer as I wrote my story. She is uncompromising and brutal in reminding me when something is not good enough. Not yet. But if I had not listened to her exacting demands, would my story have been successful?        

There is only one person who should be harsher about a piece of writing than a reader who doesn’t like it, and that’s the writer of it. I curse myself for allowing weightless adverbs to weasel their way in to my work when I should find a stronger verb. I smack my forehead when tautologies slow the action and play havoc with syntax. I berate myself for those run-on sentences that leave a reader breathless, and not from the imagery.

Then there are the characters who carry my batons of belief. I care about them like family and trust them to do justice to my beliefs and preoccupations on the page. But then that inner critic begs the question: why should a reader feel for them—believe in them—in the same way as I do? Good question, I reply, and set-to making sure they will. I understand every nuance of theme and plot—how to interweave them keeps me awake at night—but my inner critic mimics the reader’s yawn at the banality of it or commands a petulant “What?” if they’re too subtle.

It took several weeks of agonisingly hard work to write The Fountain. It was written at a time when I should have been scribbling notes across Christmas cards and force-feeding brandy to a plum pudding. It was the middle of a hot summer. I kept questioning why I had chosen to raise the core temperature by sweating over what seemed like six thousand words of clunky prose inhabited by poorly developed characters. My inner critic demanded the characters sit up on the page like virtual holograms for the reader; that the sentences flow, not judder like an old car; and that the landscape be so clearly drawn that the reader should almost feel that they were looking at a photograph, not reading words. Oh, how she worked me when all I wanted to do was eat Christmas cake and hang tinsel.

When I wrote and rewrote again, several times, the penultimate line of the story, it carried with it a sense that a reluctant compromise had been struck with my inner critic. With the competition closing date almost upon me, the she-gremlin had to finally accept that I had probably done as good a job as I could. But it didn’t feel as though I was handing over a darling baby to the judging panel when I submitted it. It felt more like I was off-loading a troublesome teenager to the grandparents, and good riddance to her.

Once the madness that can be Christmas was behind me, I re-read my story to see if I could warm to it more than I had during the stress of the pre-Christmas rush. It was with relief that I could. In fact my story said exactly what I intended it to and I had to wonder if a begrudging “thank you” to my inner critic might be in order.

My story started as an idea about changing landscapes; a broad theme that my inner critic demanded should be light on sentimentality but heavy on pathos. The story’s central character marks time from her verandah as she watches how wealth erodes the natural landscape around her. When a large and garish fountain is positioned in her new neighbour’s dam, it becomes the object of her contempt. But with time, she comes to see the view beyond the fountain again and helps her neighbour to do the same.

I rarely feel I meet the exacting demands of my inner critic. Had I not listened to her, though, when writing this story, I doubt if this character would have become someone the judges wanted to believe in; nor would they have understood or cared about the challenges and struggles that she faced.

While other writers like to blame their inner critic for writer’s block, for stifling creativity or shutting down the ability to engage in writing at all, I see her role quite differently. I believe it is the inner critic that forces writers to produce their best work. It’s the inner critic that protects us from our own complacency. It prevents us slipping into sentimentality or ramming home a philosophy only of interest to the writer. It stops us being satisfied with mediocrity. It’s the inner critic that makes us delete the lines we are too fond of, scrap a character not pulling its weight and to rewrite and then rewrite some more. Therefore no matter how insistent or disparaging that nagging voice of the recalcitrant inner critic, it should be listened to.

The love-hate relationship I have with mine, though often discouraging and always frustrating, is a healthy one. If she weren’t there castigating my work sometimes and doling out grudging praise at others, I don’t believe my success would have been possible. It’s my inner critic that compels me to strive for something better than good.

This article first appeared in WQ Magazine (print) Issue 152, June 2006