Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Silencing your inner critic

These days I'm interested in all things related to brain function, so a bit of news caught my eye about the brain and creativity. Researchers have discovered that for artists to become creative, they must muzzle their inner critic. 

In an experiment, scientists measured the brain activity of jazz musicians as they performed a memorized piece of music, and then measured it again when the musicians did an improvised piece. Different brain regions lit up, according to the type of performance being given. During the improvisation, the medial prefrontal cortex--the part of the brain that allows self-expression--was more active. During the memorized piece, the dorsolateral prefrontal and lateral orbital regions--the brain areas that monitor and correct performance--were more active.

In other words, in order to be creative, we've got to silence our brain's inner critic.

For a writer, it's not always easy to silence an internal critic. Take me, for example. I'm perfectly capable of stalling for days over a single paragraph, even a particular sentence. I'll rewrite and rethink, tweak and prune, until I'm practically clawing at the walls of our house. 

Recently I've developed a coping strategy for my internal critic, which I've named Harpy Harriet. When Harpy starts whispering in my ear, telling me things like, "Man, your writing sucks. You suck. Whatever made you think you were a decent writer?",  I merely type a little placeholder, and move on. Inevitably, when I return to that spot after having forged ahead in the manuscript, it's much easier to write the revision.

But Harpy is a sly, cunning opponent, always scheming to get the better of me. She keeps changing tactics. Recently she's tried to convince me that my medical issues have done a Flowers For Algernon number on the creative parts of my brain, rendering it incapable of producing decent prose. The only way I've been able to reassure myself is by going to my critique group. My group members don't know anything about Harpy--they just tell it like it is about my prose. And so far, everything seems normal.   I'm not like Charlie, regressing to a creative IQ of 68. I'm okay (at least as far as the writing is concerned). I can tell Harpy to take a hike.


What about you? Do you ever have to wrangle with a harsh internal critic? How have you put a muzzle on it?

UPDATE: In honor of some of the suggestions in our comments today, I am adding a picture of the Lamisil Monster as a candidate for the Inner Critic...lol.

26 comments:

  1. Kathryn, that's one scary picture. I wonder if these inner critics have meetings of their own, plotting ways to get in our heads. Having a good laugh at our expense.

    Anyway, silencing those ICs is essential. Very early in my writing I started doing ten minute writing exercises as espoused by Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones. Every day, ten minutes without stopping, writing on anything. It was a workout, like going to the gym, and it got rid of the IC quite efficiently.

    It's after the writing that your IC can come out for awhile. You listen and assess, get feedback, etc. Then tell the IC to take a powder and get back to writing.

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  2. I'm going to check out that book, Jim--it sounds useful. It's interesting to learn that the IC is actually organic, located in a specific part of the brain. Maybe when we effectively mute that part of the brain's activity, and turn on the medial prefrontal cortex (like I know what that is), we unlock the "flow" that we writers love.

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  3. i started watercolors about 5 years ago....and have remained friends with a girl i met in lessons. we are both at the same level....a love of the craft...with flashes of mediocrity. the thing is...she has a 2# harpy and i have a 200# harpy. i marvel at her pride in her work...happy to show anyone her results....while i'm stuffing mine in a folder. i envy her that ability to just take it and run. maybe if i hang with her long enuf.....

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  4. Kathy, when it comes to writing, I think it doesn't hurt to have a strong critic--after all, it's very hard to write well--but we can't be crippled by it. A delicate balance is needed, I think. I don't know about painting, since I can't draw a straight line!

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  5. I used every strategy short of a hand puppet to silence my inner critic. My critic won the war.

    At the risk of blasphemy, I think it's constructive and healthy that inner critics sometimes silence would-be writers. Not always, but sometimes.

    Not all of us are meant to be writers and, ultimately, the world needs more readers than writers. As Flannery O'Connor once quipped, "Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them."

    But for those meant to write, I agree that on over-active inner critic can be a deviously malignant force.

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  6. Phillip, you make a good point--many writers don't bring enough of a critical eye to their own work. I do think we need a strong internal critic during the rewrite phase. We probably only have to squelch that part of our brain during the initial writing phase, to promote creative flow.

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  7. I don’t think it necessarily follows that because different areas of the brain are used in improvisation than performance we must turn off the critic to be creative. I think we can do both. Some of my best ideas come while I’m seated at the piano trying to play what someone else has written.

    Philip, I can see no more harm in everyone who wants to write writing than I see in everyone who wants to paint or to take photographs doing that. I think more people need to be realistic about their chances of making a living at writing, but we should not stifle people’s desire to express themselves through writing.

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  8. I use you guys to help me shush the IC in me.

    When I sit down and type out some of the admittedly outlandish things that pour forth from me here at TKZ it sometimes acts as a marker that says "OK, you just made that. It was rather silly, verging on insane and possibly needing medication. Your novels are no where near as crazy as that, therefore push on chum!"

    Of course, then I have the task of getting serious again. Sometimes it's hard to turn off the silly, especially when the IC is laughing so hard.

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  9. Timothy, this is when I really wish I could play the piano, paint, or do anything in addition to writing. It would help to know how it feels to do other types of creative endeavors, to see how it correlates to writing. Basil, don't feel you have to do any IC-squelching at TKZ--we love your comments!

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  11. I'm all for polishing prose until one's writing shines. Too many writers assume that everything they write is gold when it's obviously hash, and re-hashed hash at that.

    That said, I've noted that my inner critic doesn't attack my attempts to improve the quality of my writing as much as she attacks me personally, pushing well-worn buttons that will rip my heart out.

    One button she pushes often is comparison paralysis, using another writer's success to shut me down. To counter, (after picking myself up off the mat)I work myself into a competitive mode, the kind between friendly rivals where each friend gives it his best shot trying to out-do the other, knowing that afterward they're going to walk of the field exhausted but content, their friendship and skills stronger for the competition. This puts Ms. Critic on the sidelines where she belongs.

    (On a side note -- You nailed it with the picture. That's my IC, too. Twins? Or is someone cloning critics?)

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  12. Jack, that can either be our critic or the person we call to beat up the critic, lol. She looks ready to do the job.

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  13. Timothy, I agree with your clarification, to a point.

    In my comment, I am referring to those writing for an audience, and especially those writers aspiring to be published in a traditional manner.

    Whether they want to make a living from their writing is, for me, not as relevant -- though I'll acknowledge that the two goals (publication and money) often go hand in hand.

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  14. This is one timely post. I'm doing NovelTrack this month (ACFW's equivalent of Nanowrimo). The goal was to write consistently Mon-Sat (50K goal) and there have only been 2 days this month that I have missed. The main goal of doing this is, obviously, to produce daily, and also to squash that inner critic--which has been responsible for much of my low productivity for the last years.

    Well Saturday I happened to read a blog post about episodic writing and it *almost* blew me out of the water, because I then recognized a few scenes I had written this month seemed episodic. Well that did it. The internal editor (who I think looks like the Mucinex Monster on those old commercials. Or wait, was it the commercials about toenail fungus. I forget now.) try to rear his ugly head.

    But he was beaten and sent packing. WOOHOOOO!!!!!!

    Setting high daily word counts and pushing hard toward a defined goal has worked wonders for me this month, with some Divine intervention. What I learned is that if I am totally committed to that goal, the monster is squashed.

    Of course it's only January. My next goal is to write consistently every month (though not every month will be such high word count goals).

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  15. Kathryn, it is so comforting to know that even a multi-published author like yourself struggles with the IC! This reminds me of a movie I saw once (can't remember the name, but I know it had Greg Kinnear in it), about a woman who wanted to have the part of brain that controlled all the sentimental memories of her ex-boyfriend permanently removed! If only we could do that to the IC (at least while the first draft is being written). Wonderful post, and the comments are equally educational.

    P.S. BK's comment comparing the IC to the Mucinex (or Lamisil? Both are equally disgusting) monster made me laugh, and also shiver!

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  16. I repeat "fix it later, fix it later, fixitlaterdammit" and manage to move on. It's a Scarlett O'Hara move, but it works for me.

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  17. I wish I had better strategies for my inner critic - maybe I need to name her like you have just to cut her down to size . I find if I re-read something I wrote that doesn't totally suck it restores my confidence -and my writing group are great champions for my work so they cheer me on when my inner critic takes over. Otherwise I used to just talk and hug my dog - he was always a patient listener and he helped me vent my frustration at writing drivel! Since he passed away I haven't had that so I am looking forward to getting some puppy therapy in a few weeks.

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  18. Great post. It's been written many times, but given the inner critic often says "you can't do it, you can't do it" if you sit down and just start doing it -- writing, painting, playing -- at some point the critic has to shut up, because you are doing it. Now it can then start saying you're not doing it well, but remind yourself you've already proven it wrong once!

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  19. Oh boy, do I feel this one. I've been struggling terribly with my latest book, mainly because my own personal HH has kicked into overdrive. Thanks for this, Kathryn, it was a great reminder to tell her to back off.

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  20. I can silence my inner critic, I just wish I had a better Inner Editor.

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  21. Love all these comments! I guess I'm not the only one struggling with a Harpy, aka IC. BK, Beth, yes that image of the Mucinex monster really got to me! Tammy, I do something like that "fixitlater" move of yours when I leave a placeholder (with a note about what I want to accomplish). Clare, Michelle, it often helps me when I reread something I wrote the day before. I'm usually pleasantly surprised by the section, when the day before I'd convinced myself that it was all dreck.

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  22. These inner critics are such buzz kills. But they keep me focused. It's a fine line to walk on.

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  23. Because it was driving me crazy, I had to verify. Beth was right. It was Lamisil. If you Google "Lamisil Monster" it will pull up pictures of the Internal Critic. 8-)

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  24. In honor of your suggestions, I've added a picture of the Lamisil Monster as an update to the post .

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  25. Great talk. I have that battle too. I wonder if the killzoners are aware of Livia Blackburne's blog? It's called "A Brain Scientist's Take On Writing". http://blog.liviablackburne.com/

    Some of it is very, very interesting. She's currently in the middle of a book launch, so her recent posts are, well, less 'brainy'. But I look forward to future posts and I have yet to delve into the archive.

    As a side note, how do other killzoners leave themselves notes in their WIP? Highlight? Bullets? I've tried several methods and I'm not very happy with any of them. I'm a bit OCD so I don't like my notes affecting my formatting either.

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  26. Kathryn--yep, that photo epitomizes the IC all right.

    Daniel--I use the "insert comments" feature to write notes to myself in the manuscript. To me that's much less intrusive then physically writing it within the paragraphs of the manuscript itself.

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