Writing with your Inner Critic

My inner critic first visited me when I was in junior high school, and she has never left. I christened her ‘Eris’ after I took a mythology course. I thought it was appropriate.

If Eris were a character in a novel, I would describe her as a dangerously beautiful pirate, no doubt. Long black hair. Pale complexion. Swift with a sword. Stealthy, unfair, judgmental, and cruel. But she loves birds. Maybe she would have a pet raven or hawk. She spends her time sailing through my writer self at her whim. She has full reign there. No story is safe. She squashes them all with the toe of her crocodile skin boot.


But why the hatred of my stories? What is so terrible about my writer self that she feels it necessary to stomp upon and light afire?

I asked her this once, and so began a long-standing tradition of tense chats. In the beginning, the chats were generally one-sided. By Eris. I didn’t have enough gumption to talk back, refute her claims, or even ignore her. She seemed to know me inside and out. Knew my history, all my weaknesses, my failures. Knew my dreams and why I struggled to make them come true.

She liked to taunt me with long-ago days when I was that awkward, shy kid, mouth full of braces, burying my nose in a book. You know the kid, I’m sure. You’ve seen her at least once in your growing-up years. The kid everyone talked about as if she was destined to always look and act like an odd duck. The kind of kid who barely makes it out of adolescence in one salvageable piece.

That’s me. I’m that kid.

And maybe that’s why becoming a mom was actually a saving grace for me. Somehow I knew that no way in Hellula was I going to let my kids go through what I went through. I had a general idea what I had been missing out on as a kid, what made being a kid more difficult than it needed to be. (Let’s be honest: adolescence, as a general rule, sucks. But some kids have a knack for it and others don’t. I was in the latter group, at the bottom of the barrel.)

I knew I had to teach my kids a certain package of ideals. How to be strong and self-confident and to be dream-pursuers. Risk-takers. Step-out-of-comfort-zoners. Magic makers. And to do that effectively, I had to be a role model.

Time to start talking back to Eris.

Initially, this was about as easy as deciding what to wear for New England weather. We came to an uneasy agreement, but it took work. Sometimes she’d forget her place and whiplash her sword through my story ideas, or she’d snicker and roll her eyes. Sometimes I’d forget the promise I made to myself and give in to her taunts.

I even began writing her letters. I felt that putting my thoughts and ideas in writing would make our agreements stick. Here is an example of one I found:

Dear Eris,

I appreciate your reasons for hovering over me, judging my every move. But your constant lack of faith has turned me into a writing drop-out when things get tough. I know you step in to protect me from getting hurt, but I have to see my dream through. It’s definitely been an uphill battle for the last few years, but look at all the progress I have made and the lessons I have learned.

My point is that crushing my self-esteem is not stopping me. You might be knocking me down, but if I keep picking myself up then why bother?

Also, think of what will happen to your job. You keep me from doing anything, then I will stop growing. If I stop growing, then my world (and, effectively, your world) will get damn small. There won’t be anything left for you to do. You’ll be out of work, and in this economy, that’s no good.

Step aside, Eris, and let me write. I may be rejected. I may be insulted. I may be ridiculed. But the only way I will ever know if I can do this is to do this.

When I get testy like that, she will step aside. She doesn’t ever venture far, because her main objective is to protect me from being hurt and I get that. But she needs to let me have some room to grow, gain experience, otherwise she’ll get bored when there’s nothing left to do anymore, ’cause she’s got me all wrapped up in a bubble.

I really do think that our Inner Critics, Eris’s, whatever we want to call them, are our way of protecting ourselves from getting hurt. If we already think we’re going to fail, then it won’t be that much of a disappointment if we do fail.

There is a time when Inner Critics are critical (see what I did there?) and that is when we have stepped off the sidelines and we’re in the game with referees and rules.

When I’m putting a story together, I like to define the boundaries of each stage as best I can. While there is some fluidity between each stage and some crossover, it’s important to give each stage a specific focus so that I know what I’m supposed to be doing.

Discovery stage (idea-catching, pantsing, organic writing) is a stage where Eris is not allowed. I send her away on a high-sea vacation so she can rest up.

I really don’t officially summon Eris until I’m ready to revise the story I’ve put together (usually I give myself a couple of drafts to do that). Then she is right there, in her snakeskin boots and twirling her glossy black hair as she points her shining sword to every little thing she dislikes. I am open-minded and willing to hear her out. I need her at this point because I want to make sure I’m not settling on self-indulgent scenes or ignoring Little Darlings. Eris is cutthroat, but she has my back.

The Inner Critics compel us to play it safe. Magic can’t happen if we don’t stray from what we know. And if we play it safe, do we reach our desired goals?

Rather than fighting your Inner Critic, make a compromise. Understanding why your Inner Critic says the things it does will make it easier to put its messages into perspective.

Do you have an Inner Critic? How do you handle it? Him? Her?

Have a writerly day!

14 thoughts on “Writing with your Inner Critic”

    • I know that feeling, Jacqui. It’s tough to push through–but I think you do an excellent job tuning her out! Keep it up.

  1. This is a delightful look at your relationship with Eris. You have gotten the upper hand with her and I applaud you.

    I have an inner critic, never named, but consistently telling me I need to be a perfectionist– or don’t do it at all. I’ve learned to not listen so intently to what the inner critic says, but he, or she, is still with me, trying to trap me in my comfort zone.

    Tenacious little bugger, that inner critic.

    • The need to be a perfectionist is one of the hardest to overcome. I wonder why that is. And I can see how there is that all or nothing mentality coming into play, which only makes things worse. Ugh. What a drag our inner critics can be!

      But I think you navigate those pitfalls well. Your blog is so delightful. It’s one of my favorites; you always make me laugh out loud. That’s a gift.

  2. I think it’s a good point that the inner critic is us trying to protect ourselves – I’ve never spoken to my inner critic, but this would seem like a good way of dealing with it – perhaps I’ll try it next time!

    • If you do speak with your inner critic, let me know how it goes! Mine generally talks back and it gets ugly! But I wrestle through because I love to write. I think that’s how we have to strategies like that–joy over fear. 🙂

  3. What a great post! I realize how much I let my inner critic guide me and the result is a blank page. I will now make sure I tell my inner critic to **** off lol.

    Thank you,

  4. Wow, I can certainly relate to this one! I love that you have a mythology name for your inner critic. I think it is time to come up with a name for mine and write that ‘b****’ a letter as well!

  5. I do have an inner critic that actually comes out in many aspects of my life. I also have a part of me that doesn’t like not knowing what would happened if I try something new. I have had a lot of failure because of this, but I always learn from my failure anyways 🙂

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