Is it a universal trait of human nature to have a negative voice in our head that criticizes each creative attempt?
Or is that inner commentator a product of our success-oriented western culture? I don’t know, but I definitely have it, and it appears to be a widespread condition.
Some people say that this critical voice sounds like their third-grade teacher, who always made fun of their handwriting. Or their mom, who discouraged their creative dreams because she didn’t want to see them hurt by failure. Or their dad, who feared they would turn out to be crazy, starving artists and, so, continually lectured on gaining material success through a good job. Or a friend who, after reading an excerpt says, “It’s good.” But the word “good” is weak, and the friend stares at the wall as she says it.
Personally, my critical voice doesn’t sound like anyone else. It sounds like me. It is me. And it comments not only on my writing, but on everything else I do. “Why did you say that?” my voice castigates me in the night. “Why can’t you keep your mouth shut? Why can’t you say the right thing? Why can’t you…can’t you…can’t you. . .”
So we tip-toe around the critical voice, hoping not to awaken the beast and start up its rant. And we know from sad experience that the critical voice has a field day if we attempt something new, something creative, something that requires confidence. Like writing.
We have a story. An interesting adventure. An inspirational example of overcoming adversity. A funny family situation. A fascinating slice of history. But the critical voice says: You aren’t a writer. Who would care about that? You can’t even spell. You don’t have time. You’re just an ordinary person. You have no talent. That’s silly. You don’t have the whole story planned out. You can’t tell that about the family. What would everyone think?
And that’s before you even start.
If you shut your ears to the voice and actually write something on a page, the demon really goes into overdrive: Are you kidding? Who do you think you are? You’ll be laughed out of town. A first-grader could do better. Is that a dangling preposition? See, you don’t even know. You can’t spell that word close enough to find it in the dictionary. You’ll never be a writer. Never never never.
So you crumple up your precious beginning, toss it in the trash, and your story goes untold. What a tragedy.
No one is as mean to us as we are to ourselves. But if you look at it logically, it’s just plain silly. Because when a baby begins to walk, we don’t expect it to run a marathon. Or dance like Baryshnikov.
Of course our first efforts are feeble, fumbling, and crude. A beginning writer or artist is like an apple seed first opening. The seedling must be nurtured. It must be nourished. It must be respected for its potential, rather than for the current tiny product. But give it sun, nutrients, and the water it needs, and it can bear bushels of fruit for years.
The seedling writer needs the water of encouragement. He needs the nourishment of instruction in writing craft–tools that can be learned.
And he needs the sun, which, for a seedling writer, is the process. Just do it. Just keep doing it. Don’t edit, don’t fret over punctuation or grammar. Don’t worry about who will read it. Just pour words out like sunshine on the page, and all the rest can come later. There are hundreds of resources, many of them free, for writers who have begun.
But no one else can begin for you. No one else can silence your critical voice but you. Don’t let that screaming harpy keep your creative voice locked in the dark cellar of fear. Take a chance, open the door, and let the sunshine of your creative voice stream onto the page.
In the next column: Do you have an STD? Or, I should say, do you have a Spelling Training Deficit?