Dont Criticize Yourself to Death

One of the hardest things a writer has to do is to learn how to be self-critical (which leads to improvement) but not picky, worrisome or fretful. For all those negative, self-doubting attitudes are self-destructive.

Sure, you should-you must-look at your copy with a critical eye, always trying to see flaws and problems that need improving. But you must be aware of the danger of going too far, of getting stale and scared and beginning to beat up on yourself rather than trying to help yourself improve.

The most common form of lethal self-criticism, it seems to me, is often heard in the young writer's wail, "This story I wrote is really dumb!" Or, "I hate my lead character; she's really dumb!" Or, "This whole plot line is dumb!"

What writers who utter such lines are really saying, I think, might be paraphrased as follows: "This is the best I can do, but I'm deathly afraid it isn't slick and clever enough, and therefore you are going to think I'm a stupid person for having written it. "

Such fears are as much a part of writing fiction as headaches, wads of crumpled paper on the floor, and rejection slips. When you write fiction, whether you realize it or not (and at some level you probably do), you are risking revelation of your dreams and deepest emotions. It's frightening to reveal yourself this way, even indirectly. Further, the act of writing is tied very close to a person's ego structure; I have seen students shaky with worry when I was about to read one of their routine classroom essays, or even a brief paragraph of factual material. "Criticize my work, criticize my personal essence" the feeling seems to be. The most humdrum piece of writing somehow represents the writer's worth as a person sometimes. Small wonder, then, that the writer of a story or even (horrors!) a novel often gets worried sick-literally-about whether the reader may think it's dumb. Because if it's dumb, the writer is dumb. And if the writer is dumb, he is also, ipso facto, worthless, an object of potential ridicule... doomed.

Thus it's perfectly natural for you to worry that some character or bit of dialogue or plot line you just wrote may be "dumb."

It's natural -but it's also dangerous.

Especially when you're writing rough draft in a story, your job is not to be a critic. It's to be a creator. Any thought during this time that "This is dumb" is a bad thought, a thought likely to screw up the imaginative process. If such a thought comes to you as you're writing early-draft copy, you must recognize it as bad, toss it out of your mind, and simply press on.

As I'm sure you know, the human brain is composed of two hemispheres. The right hemisphere, or half, is the seat of emotion, imagination, creativity and intuition. The left hemisphere is the logical side, the analyzer, language processor, critic. The two halves of the brain communicate with one another, but imperfectly; there is even one theory that says much of psychological theory is really the result of the left hemisphere's attempts to make sense of stuff felt and done by the right side, which is impulsive and basically kind of crazy, and essentially unexplainable!

Given this bicameral brain of yours, consider what goes on when you write. Ideas, pictures, characters and plots drift out of the right hemisphere. They have no shape and no linearity. So you turn on your left side and analyze, logicalize, form, plan. Then you sit down to write your first draft, which is to say, to dream a patterned dream; and the right hemisphere is called on to do that.

The left hemisphere, however, is not entirely decommissioned while the first-draft dreaming is going on. The left has to process the language, and it has to stand by in the wings, watching the performance, auditing it to make sure that the dream doesn't suddenly lose all form and direction. Then, later, during revisions, the left-side critic may come much more to the fore, seeing logical problems, examining story pattern, character motives, the purity of the grammar and spelling, and so on.

So writing fiction becomes a most strange and wonderful product of an alliance between the hemispheres of your brain, in which first one, then the other, hemisphere is dominant.

Note: during the dream stage of the writing, as you are actually producing copy, it is the creative right hemisphere that is in charge, with the leftside critic only passively watching most of the time. But any thought such as "This is dumb!" or "People are going to think this scene is dumb!" axe obviously messages from the left side of the brain-critical messages that you don't need at this time, while the right side is rolling.

To put this another way, I think most "this is dumb" fear messages are destructive for two reasons: 1. They get the wrong side of the brain in charge and thwart the creative process, and 2. They signal a revolt inside your head that can only lead to fear and further slowing of your story's progress.

There is a time for the left-side critic. But during the writing of a draft is not that time. You use your left side to make your plans, draw your outlines, lay out your characters. But once you start down the creative highway of writing a draft, you keep that logical roadmap on the seat beside you; you don't keep reading it while you're driving.

Once you have made your plans and started writing, it's part of your writer's discipline to recognize the negative, destructive nature of all "this is dumb" fears. We all have our writing tied closely to our ego, and we're all scared. But we can't let the fear slow us down, and we can't let that old villainous left-hemisphere critic mess things up. Once under way, you have to trust yourself- that partly logical creative roadmap of an outline or synopsis you planned earlier -and follow it with enthusiasm and imagination and joy.

At this point I can almost hear you the reader of these words wailing, "But sometimes what I write really is dumb!"

Well, sure. Even Shakespeare wrote some dumb stuff. So what? If you write something really dumb, the world isn't going to end. And please note: if you're writing, your first job is to press on and follow the imagination, located in your right hemisphere. If what you're putting down is really dumb, you can fix it later, during revision.

How will you know later if it's really dumb? Sometimes you can never be entirely sure and have to make an arbitrary decision, almost a coin toss - "It really is dumb, so I'll change it", or "I don't think it really is dumb, so I'll leave it alone. " Most of the time, however, if you write through the original yammering of the left-side critic, when you come back to the questioned segment later you will have a clearer head and see at once whether it really is dumb or not. It's the impulsive fear during creation that's seldom if ever clear and accurate.

Plan... write... then fix. Keep the phases separate as much as possible. And don't beat up on yourself during any phase.

Recognize this: part of growing up as a fiction writer is the ultimate recognition that all of us are scared: of looking dumb, of running out of ideas, of never selling our copy, of not getting noticed. We fiction writers make a business of being scared, and not just of looking dumb. Some of these fears may never go away, and we may just have to learn to live with them. The fear of looking dumb, though, can be tossed away once you've recognized it as the jealous yammering of a left hemisphere critic who's tired of being forced to sit silent in the corner while the right side plays.

You'll still get the thought that it's dumb, sometimes. And you'll still be scared, worried about embarrassment. But maybe now you see that the only really dumb thing is to think it's dumb.

Finally, look at the other side of the question. Your plight could be infinitely worse. You could be one of that small, truly doomed minority who thinks every word they write is precious, every idea immortal, every character a demigod, every plot a classic. They never think anything they write is dumb. So they never self-criticize even at the times they should, never listen to advice, never study published writers, and spend all their emotional energy defending the rocky turf of their enormous ego. You know the type I mean; you undoubtedly know one of them. Mention a problem you see in one of their stories and they say you just don't understand. Suggest changing so much as a punctuation mark on their page and they go crazy: "7 don't change my copy! My copy is perfect! To change a word of this" (slapping the page with the back of her hand) "would be a violation of my artistic inspiration and integrity!!!"

These are the folks who really should be worrying, because if they won't listen and be open, they can't grow. And if they can't grow, they've had it.

So maybe you now see why your worries about "being dumb" aren't nearly as bad as other things that could be messing you up. All you've got to do, after all, is stop it.

So stop it.

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