Writing isn’t just a challenge in the cognitive sense… it’s an emotional challenge as well. It defies the inner critic, the voice who won’t shut up long enough to let you get a thought out.
The voice of your inner critic could belong to anyone: your mother, father, brother, the first-grade teacher who told you that you weren’t quick enough and didn’t know how to spell. Worst of all, it could be your own voice telling you that you suck at this.
When you sit down to write freely, your inner critic is going to do everything to get you to stop writing. It will shut you down fast and hard the moment you make a mistake. If you’re going to get anywhere with your writing, your critic needs to take a back seat.
There are a couple of ways to handle the inner critic, and you’ll have to try out a few to see which works for you. Try the following:
- Notice who it is. Do you know the voice? Is it related to an embarrassing event in your life, perhaps one that made you feel as if you were “less than” or incapable of achieving something? I’ll give you an example. When I was in the fifth grade, I totally flubbed an easy word at a spelling bee simply because I was nervous. I was mortally embarrassed. Afterward, another boy in my class teased me because of it, and it’s his voice I hear when I doubt that I’m good enough to be a writer. It was a one-time mistake, and yet I can still feel the echos of the mortal shame I felt when I think about it—and that was decades ago. But there’s power in knowing the source of the feeling. When you can identify the voice and the story that goes along with it, you’ve identified (one of) the root source(s) of the problem.
- Rewrite the story. You are an adult now (presumably). If you saw someone teasing another person for a mistake they made, you would stick up for them, come to their defense. In your mind’s eye, do that for yourself. Imagine telling that person what you would say. Be incredibly kind to that inner child who was hurt by the events within that story.
- Put it aside. You know the story. You know the feelings that go with it. Now it’s time to set it aside for the moment. When it’s time to write, there is no time for neuroticism, or feelings, or emotion—unless that’s what you’re sharing in your piece. You use your emotion to inspire you and motivate you, but you use discipline to get the work done. So, when you’ve given yourself ample time to acknowledge the feelings, it’s time to set them aside and do the work anyway, no matter how you feel.
- “Just 20 minutes.” When I’m feeling nervous, stuck, or otherwise uncomfortable about writing, I tell myself that I’ll write for “just 20 minutes.” After that, I have full permission to stop if I’m still wildly uncomfortable or nervous. But the thing is, after 20 minutes I’m never nervous. I’m in the flow, so I keep on going. By giving myself permission to duck out of writing only after I’ve written for 20 minutes, I essentially trick myself into writing.
- Let it all in. My friend and fellow writer Ramona Ausubel once told me that in the beginning, it is your job as a writer to be open and welcoming to whatever comes through your door. Whatever the idea, the phrase, the example, the metaphor, the weird story, just write it down. It is not your job to judge it when it shows up; it’s only your job to write it down.
- Turn your screen backlight down. This will make it harder for you to see the words you’re writing. Some of us can’t stand seeing the red squiggle beneath a word that whispers “You spelled this wrong. This one, right here, yeah. That’s a big mistake.” As a result, we interrupt the flow to go back and fix it. That kills your train of thought. Dim the lights and you won’t be able to see the errors. In fact, a fellow writer friend of mine turns the backlight all the way to black and then types what’s flowing through her mind without stopping to look at the document until she has completed the section she’s writing.
- Turn on your favorite pump-you-up music. For me, it’s Beyonce and Rihanna, something with a heavy beat and a lot of attitude. “Bitch Better Have My Money” is my jam when I need to feel a little tougher than I actually am. If you can’t write with words blasting in your ear, put on some music with no lyrics and an atmospheric beat. Check out the Spotify playlist “Deep Focus,” which will keep you in flow for hours.
The key to getting your thoughts down on the page is to let them come through you, unfiltered and unchecked by any of the judgmental voices you might be entertaining in your head. Just tell them to take a seat out in the living room for a moment while you get some work done. And without them whispering in your ear, you might be surprised at what manages to flow from your fingers.