Sure, writers should have the ability to be objective and even critical, however when our clever editorial skills take on a life of their own, it makes the creative process miserable. We’ve all experienced flare ups of the inner critic. Symptoms include:
- Work slows down as you write and erase, write and erase.
- You feel like you’re producing what you are “supposed to” produce.
- The process is no longer fun.
- Nothing you do lives up to your own invisible standards.
Furthermore, if an inflamed inner critic goes untreated it can lead to paralysis or abandonment of a perfectly good idea. Let me get specific, because this was my situation about a month ago and I found a sneaky escape route.
I was trying to write a blog (the one about Chimamanda Adichie’s story “Birdsong”) in which I shed light upon the enigma of how a master writer creates brilliant characters. Three weeks later I was still staring at the same draft.
Three weeks to write a blog? That just won’t do! Blogging should be fun and flowing, but no, this was rigid and stagnant.
My inner critic, who is always obnoxious, had become flagrantly abusive:
“Why did you think you had anything original to say about Chimamanda Adichie? Better to give up blogging now before someone other than your mom reads this. Please, lady, save the good people of the internet another boring rehash of your literary nonsense.” -My Inner Critic
Unable to type I started trolling around the internet and I came upon a quote:
“The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers, but it takes a very creative mind to spot wrong questions.” -Anthony Jay
Then it struck me, why am I trying to provide answers about something that’s an on-going process? Why don’t I approach it as a question?
My snappy inner critic was outwitted by the humility inherent in asking a question. Or to make a tongue twister out of it:
“The critic wasn’t creative enough to critique a question.” -Me
Inner critics also hate tongue twisters because they are juvenile, but I’m leaving mine in, and will probably tweet it. Yes, that’s a declaration of war.
Since that day in late-October I’ve used the question technique on both fiction and non-fiction. In non-fiction I worked the question into the text, bringing up arguments and counter arguments. It made the piece feel more authentic.
With fiction, I closed down my document and got out my journal. I moved away from my desk and curled up on the couch. Then, rather than attempting to move straight to the paragraph, I started with a question. It can be as broad as, what’s my problem? Or as specific as, what does this character want from this scene? Just the act of asking the question mobilizes my neurons to provide possible (not definitive) responses. And then I’m writing again.
What I like about the question approach is that there’s a certain naked honesty to it. I’m not telling you anything, I’m just asking. There’s no pretension in that. Questions bring back a spirit of inspiration and wonder. After all, a writer should always be free to wonder and have a little fun doing it!