Emily Hanlon

Emily Hanlon

The Fiction Writer's Journey

Nothing Kills Creativity Faster than Criticism

Where did the inner critic come from?

Posted 3/1/08 | Updated 6/7/20


Let's look at ways the Inner Critic blocks and confounds your writing.

He may insist you produce an outline before you begin to write. Or she may insist you write only from your own life because, "How can you write about what you don't know?" Or he might have you spending hours trying to find the right word, or shifting around sentences until you find yourself in a quagmire of grammar, thesaurus page-turning and general frustration.

You know the Inner Critic is at work when you look at the clock and discover you've spent an hour on a single paragraph, worse a single sentence, and the computer screen is mostly blank or the page is so scribbled on and crossed out and torn from erasing, you can't read it anyway. That's the moment when you throw up your hands or crumble your page into a ball or press the delete button thinking, "Who am I to think I can write? I can't even find the right word. I'd do better going to Adult Ed and taking a grammar course. God, I'm stupid!"

Where Did the Inner Critic Come from?

The Inner Critic emerges from our childhood; she is most often a parental voice, but can also have characteristics of a schoolteacher, religious leader or peer group member. Quieting the Inner Critic, however, knocking her down to size, isn't about blaming anyone. Everyone alive has an Inner Critic who didn't start out as our enemy.

In fact, our Inner Critic started out as our friend and guardian and never stops seeing himself in that role. Talk to your Inner Critic and he will tell you that he has your best interest at heart, as he did when you were a child and he reminded you not to touch the hot stove, look both ways before crossing the street and never talk to strangers.

But there are other scenarios, less positive, where the Inner Critic turns what should be a positive into a negative.

The Inner Critic Lives to Maintain the Status Quo

My Inner Critic Takes Hold

I am five years old and sitting on the couch with Mommy and my big sister. Mommy is reading a book, but sometimes I can't sit still and I can't help it, but I start thinking about other things. Like now, I'm looking at my new shoes and pointing my toes in and out, in and out. I love my new shoes. They're so pretty, all black and shiny with little straps instead of ties. And I think these are princess shoes.

I'd like to be a princess and dance the night away like the princesses in my favorite story, The Twelve Dancing Princesses. My daddy bought me that record and I never get tired of listening to it. I can name all twelve princesses and I know all the songs and I'd like to go through the forests of diamonds and rubies and I'd wear shoes just like this.

"Emmy, why can't you ever sit still and listen like your sister does?" Mommy asks.

I don't really hear Mommy because I feel so happy. So happy that I have to slide off the couch and dance. And I do. I twirl and sing and look at my beautiful, shiny black shoes.

"Emmy!" Mommy sounds angry, but I don't want to stop dancing.

"Emmy!" She still sounds angry.

I dance faster and start singing the names of the twelve dancing princesses. "There's Laura, Nora and there's Cora, Velia, Celia and Cornelia —"

"Mommy!" my sister cries. "Make her stop! She's ruining everything!" Then I feel Mommy pick me up and put me back down on the couch.

"Why can't you be a good girl and sit still and listen to the story?" Mommy asks. "How can you learn anything if you can't sit still?"

My Inner Critic interprets the situation:

  • Emmy has to listen better if she is going to be smart.
  • Dancing gets you in trouble.
  • Making up stories gets you in trouble.
  • If you're going to learn you have to sit still.
  • If you can't sit still and can't keep your mind from wandering, you're stupid.

Now go back and look at what my Inner Critic said to me about my writing. Stupid, stupid, stupid. That is a major motif in my Inner Critic's attack. I'm stupid. I can't think clearly. I dance around too much. I never go in a straight line and just get the job done. No wonder it takes me so long to write a book. My mind is mushy. I'm not sharp. I'm not smart. If I'd just sit down and listen to the story for once, I'd get it right.

The Inner Critic's Intentions Aren't Bad

Neither my Inner Critic nor yours is intentionally destructive. What mine wants is for me to be seen as smart. Getting good grades was of paramount importance in my house. And I strove, I struggled, I studied, studied, studied. But as life would happen, there was within me all the time this little girl who got distracted by her new shiny black patent leather shoes and loved to dance to her own inner beat.

That little girl who grew up to be the voice of my writer just loves to daydream and meander. She can't stay focused on the outer world for very long. She loves to garden without gardening gloves, dig until she is too exhausted to move, grow a wild garden without thought to color or plant size or order, and she can't keep her office neat for more than a day.

That little girl/writer can waste time like nobody's business. And my Inner Critic has just so much patience for her. My Inner Critic wants to pick up that ne'er-do-well and plop her down, feet firmly planted, in front of the computer. No more dancing for you, young lady! You sit there and listen — translate: sit at your computer and work.

I am a great meanderer, and in my heart I know my meandering is of vital importance to my inner life, my writing and my spirit. My Inner Critic has no idea how important meandering, dancing, gardening, picking flowers or even a couple of hours wandering in and out of shops can be. My Inner Critic knows only purposeful doing.

More and more as I grow older, I yearn for the simple, aimless joy of sitting on the couch, my legs straight out, watching as I point my toes in and out and stare at my new shiny black patent leather shoes.

©2008 Emily Hanlon. All rights reserved.