Critic Meets Child

Written as encouragement for those taking part in the Safe Space charity Write-athon 

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 “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Thomas Mann

I laughed with relief when I first heard this wise quotation from the great German novelist. I can never quite relate to those who talk cheerily about the way their work “just flows out”, because the truth is that my first draft often emerges with all the lightness and fluidity of a house brick. I’m at that stage again with my new novel for young people, and it’s a fact: writing is difficult.

Good writing, I mean. There was something redemptively provisional about being a staff journalist, because the oppressive deadlines meant that nobody really expected my news feature to be a polished and perfect gem – just adequate and, more importantly, filed on time.

By contrast, if ever I give myself “as long as it takes” for a treasured creative project, it expands magically towards infinity. God knows how I would ever have written three books if a supernaturally patient editor in London hadn’t been badgering me for copy. I think I’d still be fiddling with the first chapter of the first book – possibly even looking at the cursor winking on the blank screen.

Making Mudpies

It’s not that I hate writing. In fact I’m rarely happier than when I’m tapping away in my journal, letting the imperfect thoughts and half-formed feelings swarm through the laptop keyboard, knowing that nobody will ever read a word of it. I can write thousands of words in a couple of hours, as long as it’s just for my own inner exploration. Like a child making mud pies, I forget to judge myself, and simply lose myself in the flow of what I’m doing.

But as soon as there’s any prospect of someone else seeing the mess I’ve made, the inner critic kicks in. He’s a very familiar part of me – and quite merciless in panning even my first sentence as hopelessly inadequate. He stands there like a school master, rolling his eyes, tapping the desk, telling me I’m not going anywhere till I’ve done something better than that. There was a time when I truly hated his guts.

In recent years, however, I’ve found a way to work with both critic and child which has really transformed the experience of writing for me. It started with a life coach, Angela Court Jackson, who suggested that I might like to try thanking the critic.

“ You’ve programmed him for a reason,” she said. “I don’t know if he motivates you to get to your desk on time, or what – but on some level he works for you. I’m wondering if he might quieten down a bit once he knows he’s being heard.”

Thanking the Critic

The more I thought about it, the more I realised she was probably right. The critic may not be as exuberant and free-spirited as the creative child (who, let’s face it, probably wafts around barefoot giggling at dandelion seeds in a way that’s guaranteed to irritate him), but he remains absolutely essential to the writing process. The critic is the one with his head screwed on right: he corrects the typos, focuses the floaty stuff into sharp images, cuts away tautology, slices away puppy fat, asks awkward questions. He’s there to protect me from humiliation – my quality-control manager, the one who isn’t afraid to tell me when the finished product simply isn’t ready, and might even need to be put out of its misery. You could argue he’s more necessary than ever in this age of sloppy spelling and non-existent punctuation – and he does indeed deserve to be thanked for his vigilance.

Japanese Soldier Hiroo OnodaIn some ways the overactive inner critic is a bit like the famous Japanese soldier, Hiroo Onoda, who was stationed in the Philippines in WWII (no really, run with me on this one). Onoda was a loyal and fearless fighter for his country – but when the war ended, nobody told him. So he loyally carried on his guerrilla offensive. Staggeringly, it was nearly 30 years before his former commander finally tracked him down to his island hideout and persuaded him he really could stop attacking everything and stand down.

Rogue operator?

What moves me about this story is that it would have been easy to treat Onoda as a rogue operator who needed to be taken out, crushed, imprisoned, punished. But even though he caused a lot of damage, even killed innocent people, there was a recognition that he had been doing so out of ardent – if misguided – loyalty. So he was given a presidential pardon, honoured by his country and redeployed to become a peacetime role model.

Likewise, my inner critic is absolutely committed to the excellence of my work. But the truth is that he can be a little obsessive, and there are times when loyalty requires him to stand down. So these days, when he leaps in after my first sentence and tells me I’m writing drivel, I have learned to thank him for his vigilance, and ask him if he would mind coming back in the afternoon – or even next month. Once the messy but creative outpourings are complete and ready for some editing.

On a good day, that’s exactly what happens. It makes all the difference in the world to the creative process – less writer’s block, more creativity, more left-field experimentation, more interesting raw material to hone and shape into something readable. The child must be allowed to play!

Pump Priming

Different writers have different ways of cordoning off that all-important critic-free writing time. Ron Ferguson, the excellent Orcadian biographer (check out his superb biography of George Mackay Brown), advocates “pump-priming” each morning: free-form, stream-of-consciousness stuff written fast just get things moving. Julia Cameron, who has changed many writers’ working lives with her book The Artist’s Way, calls these outpourings the “morning pages” – to be hidden from the censor in an envelope (or electronic equivalent) once written. The comic US memoirist David Sedaris told me he uses his journal for this purpose, putting each book away on a shelf and then coming back to them two years later to mine them for usable gems.

I use an MS Word file called “Mudpies” for the same purpose. It’s different from my journal, in that it’s an integral part of whatever I’m working on at the moment, but I know it’s somewhere I can just splurge ideas and write all the shocking, surprising, half-baked stuff I could never publicly air but which might be rich with potential. If the critic is playing up, I’ve been known to slip under his radar by writing a whole chapter in the messy terrain of Mudpies, and then pasting it into its own file for editing.

So if, like me, you often find writing more difficult than other people, then join the club – it probably means you’ve got a particularly meticulous inner critic/editor who just needs some love and some boundaries. If, on the other hand, your writing cascades forth like a chocolate fountain, enjoy it! But you might want to invite the critic round to clean up before you unveil it to the public…

Posted on: 20 Dec 2012 in General, Psychology, The writing life
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