Dealing with critical voices

One thing I love to do is to catch up with other writers and chat with them about their process, any hurdles and how they see their way forward. Recently I caught up with a friend who has taken on a mammoth job of writing his memoir. It’s a tough task as there can be loads of emotional baggage in there, as well as the invisible but powerful critical voice.

He’d just returned from a trip away to a place of major significance for his story and I wanted to know where he was up to. During our chat, I could see there were two huge things standing out: a strong internalised critical voice hanging over him, and a lack of deadlines. It was great to be able to pass on tips that I have picked up from other wonderful writers and I could see him visibly sit up taller and feel more confident with the task ahead.

Critical voices

We all have them. They lurk in the shadows waiting for our most vulnerable moment, then they sneak up behind us and whisper something like, Are you sure you want to say that? Is that the best thing to write? Are you qualified to write this? Then the real kicker, Why are you writing this? 

Ouch. It hurts every time, and it can stop you from creating something beautiful. Rationally you know that these comments may or may not actually be said, but it is like an old sound bite that is stuck in your head, and it can be very strong—and not useful when in the middle of creative work. Sometimes it means that you pare back your writing to be something with less feeling, less colour, less life. Other times it can completely paralyse your writing.

So how can you deal with this pesky and paralysing voice?

Write-like-nobody-is (1)The best advice I have been given, and now give to others, is to write as though no one is ever going to read your work. This sounds easy, but can be hard to put in practice.

One way of doing this is to ask the critical voice to leave the room, that they are welcome when you are at the editing stage. I know a writer who has given the negative and encouraging voices names, let’s say Tom (negative) and Nina (positive). When Tom is yapping away being critical when she is trying to write, she tells Tom to leave and then she only has Nina to encourage her.

Another is to think about that famous quote (that I have no idea where it originated) of ‘Dance like nobody is watching’ and change it to ‘Write like nobody is reading’. Free yourself up to write whatever it is that you need to. Turn your editing voice off, turn the critical voice off, and allow your praising voice to encourage you. This is particularly important with first draft words. Those critical editing voices are very useful when you are at the next stage. Invite them back in once that first draft is done.

How do you deal with that pesky critical voice? Do you make the most of it when you need to? I’d love to hear from you about what techniques you use.

Thanks for popping by and reading this post. Pop by next week, when I’ll explain how to deal with deadlines when you don’t have any, then some strategies so you can meet those deadlines.

Circuit breakers

In front of you is an elephant, a mountain. It is enormous and there is no way you can see around it, or see how you can climb it, but you know that the only way forwards is over the top to get to the other side. The notion of working out how to get to the other side is overwhelming and saps you of all your energies. So instead of tackling this mountain, you crawl back into bed, you cover your head and pretend that this task is not there, that it will deal with itself. When you look back out, it is still there, waiting for you to start. The cycle goes on, and on until you make a decision about how to tackle the mountain.

Sometimes in life there are these moments where I am completely overwhelmed by the number of things that I need to do, and the people who rely on me to get these things done. When I was doing some solo hiking a couple of years ago, walking up those hot and dusty paths that seemed to go on forever became a metaphor on how I needed to approach these things: one step at a time. This is all well and good, and those words are etched in my brain. I have no problem fishing them back out when my list of to-dos is longer than any piece of paper could contain. However, translating this into actually getting on with it can a be another issue.

A few of weeks ago I had more things to do than I had time. Everything seemed to be pulling at me and it was paralysing me. But I couldn’t afford to be paralysed as people were relying on me (a manuscript needed its copy edit completed, lessons needed to be written, family needed support, words needed to written, words needed to be read, relationships needed to nurtured), so on one of these days when my body had melted into the couch and I just wanted to pull the plug on the phone and on people needing me, I realised that I still had some control of my situation. I just needed some circuit breakers. Past conversations with my psychologist sprang to mind about stopping the spiral down to a very unhealthy place, which is where I was heading. I need to find things to help stop me from any more negative thinking, and to help me see a way out of the depths.

I came up with a list on things that I could do that would pop a little more energy into all these moments – mood changers. I think of them as circuit breakers. They include things like a walk, putting some music on, changing clothes, having something to eat or drink, changing where I’m sitting (or standing), picking some flowers, putting some essential oils in the diffuser or breaking my tasks down to smaller chunks. This has been probably the most useful thing for me. I sit down once a week and make note of what I have achieved over the last week, what’s ahead for the next week, what ‘blockers’ are in my way, and how I will get around them. Then each evening I think about the next day and break the tasks into sizeable chunks trying to keep it realistic. Add a little self compassion in there as well to allow me to not get everything done, and I am in a better place mentally.

There is something wonderful about ticking some things off the list, and reminding myself that I am making my way over the mountain – even if it is slow.

Asking for, giving and receiving feedback

I have started back teaching the creative writing this year in Caroline Springs and have added in a group in Kensington. While the Kensington group is a new for me as a facilitator, it’s not new for me altogether. It was here that I honed my love of writing when I had only two little children before pursuing it more seriously at RMIT.  It was so lovely to see my Caroline Springs writers again to hear about how their summer has gone, and what they’ve been reading and writing. It was equally lovely to reacquaint myself with some familiar faces in Kensington, and to meet new ones and hear about what everyone’s writing plans are.

I started both of the groups with a session on feedback as this is one of the most crucial things as a writer. Asking for, giving and receiving feedback are a crucial part of being a writer. The more you do it, the better your writing becomes. There was a time when I would hear feedback on my writing from others and it would sting so hard. One of the things about doing it more is that I get better at removing myself from the words and take the feedback on as just that – feedback. However, I (like most creative people) suffer from a terrible case of the imposter syndrome).

The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you.

—Neil Gaiman, author (Address to the University of the Arts Class of 2012)

There are three sides to feedback:

  • asking for feedback
  • giving feedback
  • receiving feedback.

And that’s a wrap

My 2017-2018 summer reading pile

This year is about to end and in some ways I feel like it has only just begun. So much has been packed into the year and time has slipped away. It’s really easy to only focus on the things that haven’t been completed and the things that went wrong, but I need to also remember all the things that went right.

Publishing highlights

This year I had some poetry and an essay published in Shaping the Fractured Self: poetry of chronic illness and pain. I bravely volunteered to read one of my poems at the launch at the DAX Centre in Melbourne. Up until the moment I read it out loud, I wondered how on earth I managed to have words of mine sit alongside such accomplished Australian poets. The feedback I received from the audience, and since from members of the public, was overwhelming. It has been absolutely heartwarming to hear people say that I was telling their story and that I had put their chronic pain into words. My own chronic pain (migraines and neck and shoulder pain) continue, but I refuse to let them take control of my life. Many of the other poems and essays within this anthology remind me that it is important to live life to the full, but to also know when to shut the door, and take some time for self-care. There is a wonderful review of this anthology by Kevin Brophy in The Conversation.