The standard advice to writers is to “banish the inner critic.” This saying is good advice, but it really pertains to anything we do in life and not just writing. One might think that it takes a big ego to be an amazing writer, artist, performer, or athlete, but it is actually quite the opposite. The ego wants, more than anything else, to keep you safe and secure, to protect you from embarrassment, to keep everything under control. The ego is, in other words, mostly risk averse: it doesn’t want you to do anything without a virtual guarantee of success. Listening to the inner critic as a way of life ensures that you won’t do anything new, fun, or interesting. The inner critic does not want your own, unique voice to shine through: it doesn’t want the world to see your fantastic weirdness and individuality. Silencing the inner critic is really the same as being willing to expose yourself to some degree of risk.
Suppose you write a short story and send it off to an editor. There is always the risk that he or she will shoot it down and will not publish it. Or, in asking someone on a date, that person may well say no. Or sending out a resume, you may not get the job. In fact, rejection is probably the most likely scenario in a wide range of life situations. The inner critic wants to protect you from shame and embarrassment, and it will try to preempt adverse outcomes by keeping you from developing your ideas. Its goal is to be so critical that you just give up, the idea being that the safest route is to do nothing at all. But being safe is not the same thing as being fulfilled. Life necessarily entails a degree of risk-taking. Risk-taking does not necessarily mean going base jumping or taking heroin, but everything worth doing entails a degree of risk.
Everything worth doing entails a degree of risk. The inner critic will always be there, pointing out flaws in our plans, imagining future pitfalls, and extrapolating worst case scenarios. Here’s the thing: the inner critic is not necessarily wrong. Every human undertaking has flaws. Some worst case scenarios do, in fact, come true. So we don’t have to really get rid of the inner critic--that could be disastrous. We have to listen to what it has to say but not give it complete control. We have to take its advice under advisement but not let it lead the way to paralysis. Most of us have several voices in our heads all at once, and I’m not talking about multiple personality disorder.
We have the voices of our muses and inspirations, the voices of our parents and mentors, and the voices of the imagined viewer or listener. That’s quite a crowd of competing interests that we must balance when undertaking a new work. When setting about the work of creation, the simplest way of proceeding is usually the best. We put all of our effort into the deed itself.
Sometimes I feel that I am not a writer but simply a typist. And when I am running, I am often only paying attention to the tap, tap, tap of my feet on the pavement. There is a kind of automaticity to it. My best work proceeds from a trance-like state where I somehow remove myself from the situation. Csikszentmihalyi wrote about this phenomenon in his classic work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, and there has since emerged a vast literature on the psychology of creativity and productivity.
All of this literature boils down to a few basic pieces of advice. First, go ahead and take the leap. Paint the picture. Write the play. Learn the tango. Second, put the emphasis on action. Get yourself in the habit of practicing your craft. Make your chosen activity part of your daily life. Third, let the chips fall where they may. Don’t expect a Pulitzer prize for your first novel. Don’t expect to make a million overnight. Be satisfied with whatever results come your way--including failure and disappointment. We learn from every experience, not just the good ones. If you do these three things consistently, you will find yourself in a completely different place a year from now, three years from now, five years from now. Your vague inclination will become your new reality.
The inner critic is not your friend, nor is it your enemy. It is just one of the voices there in your head, one that alerts you to possible flaws, difficulties, and setbacks. It is like the indicator lights on your automobile dashboard. I bet you have driven your car a million times with the “check engine” light illuminated. The inner critic is providing a useful service for you. It wants to tell you what could possibly go wrong. You should listen to what it says--just don’t let it run the show. Your creative self wants to be free, to play around with words, with paints, with song, with dance. Let yourself do your thing: you will always hear that critical voice.
Differentiate between first-time pitches, rough drafts, and the final product. Let that initial creative foray be its own thing, whether or not you think it is flawed. Put the critical response on the back burner until your product is ready to go to market. Then your inner critic can become extremely useful as you work on proofreading and quality control. Don’t make the inner critic into a big, scary demon. It is more like an employee who can occasionally be a little overbearing with its co-workers. The point is to give the muses a little more free rein and the inner critic a little less. Then the creative process can zoom along quite smoothly